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A family from Walnut Grove, N.C., rides the Hatfield-McCoy Trails recently in Mercer County.

BRAMWELL — Despite the ongoing pandemic and growing COVID-19 case numbers, trailers hauling ATVs remain a common sight in southern West Virginia as people wanting a vacation opt for outdoor adventures.

When Gov. Jim Justice ordered the Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trail to close last March to help curb the raising pandemic, out-of-state tourists and their dollars stopped coming to southern West Virginia. The governor allowed the trails to reopen on May 21, and the response has been strong, according to Executive Director Jeffrey Lusk of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Authority. 

“We have had a really strong opening from May 21,” Lusk said. “We’ve had a strong reopening because it’s an outdoor activity.”

People looking for a holiday have been avoiding areas experiencing “hotspots” or surges in COVID-19 cases, and they’re not flying or taking cruises; instead, they are taking ATV vacations, Lusk stated.

Tourists coming to Mercer County and McDowell County for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail spend most of their time ATV riding, and they’re less likely to find themselves in a crowd.

“It’s easy to social distance,” Lusk said. “There’s no forced interaction with anyone except the folks you came with. It really does fit the bill for a social-distancing vacation. You really don’t have to interact with anyone while you’re here.”

As of late July, attendance on the trail has been good.

“We had a very strong June. We calculate our permits from November to November, so we won’t know the total number until then,” Lusk said. “It looks like we’ve recovered 60 to 70 percent of what we lost because of the shutdown. We were down for two months, but when we opened the permits (sales) were very strong.”

Bruce Sizemore of the Black Oak ATV Resort in Rock said his reservations have been good ever since the ATV trails reopened. His business has grown every year since he opened, and he wondered how his numbers would have looked this year if the trails had not closed.

“Things are definitely pretty strong from my perspective so far,” Sizemore said. “I’m wondering that people were sitting around and home bound, and if it just didn’t make their appetite even stronger to come out and enjoy this area; and when they were able to get loose, they came. As a matter of fact, I’ve been pleasantly busy. I’m very grateful to have the return of the riders. I’ve just checked in two customers and I’m waiting for a third to arrive.”

Local businesses are seeing new faces as well as repeat customers.

Servers taking care of diners could be heard in the background Friday when Manager Mandy Fink of The Corner Shop in Bramwell spoke about the new ATV activity.

“We’re still selling passes to riders who have never rode before,” Fink said. “We’re still getting people who have never been here before. We’ve been steadily busy, thankfully.”

The Mercer County Convention & Visitors Bureau turned off its ATV advertising when the Hatfield-McCoy Trail closed, but now the bureau is running an active digital campaign and inviting people to social distance while riding the trails, Executive Director Jamie Null said.

“We have very heavily marketed the ATV trails in Mercer County,” Null said.

The goal is to make sure people understand that the county is an ATV destination. Visitors are on the trails, and out in the woods, much of the day. Then they return to their campsites in the evening.

“The riders are safe and we will be safe as well,” Null said. “It’s a good balance of health and safety and economics.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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