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NRAO trails offer out of this world experience

NRAO electronics engineer MIke Stennes competes in a 5K/10K walk/run, which passes in front of the Green Bank Telescope. Photo courtesy of Mike Stennes
NRAO electronics engineer MIke Stennes competes in a 5K/10K walk/run, which passes in front of the Green Bank Telescope. Photo courtesy of Mike Stennes

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Hidden among the telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank is a circuit of hiking and biking trails that give visitors a different perspective on enjoying the out of doors.

Trails consist of paved roads, dirt roads and man-made trails winding through and into the woods around the site of scientific discovery.

“There’s definitely something for everyone,” science center supervisor Sherry McCarty said. “Even with young riders and toddlers, we offer rides down the telescope road. We go from that to more advanced.”

Facilities engineer Butch Wirt and electronics engineer Mike Stennes are both avid users of the trails and were instrumental in designing some of the man-made trails.

“I think in 2004 we lost about all the trails when we had an ice storm,” Wirt said. “Then, I think in 2008, we started kind of chipping away at them. The [Space Race] Rumpus has been huge for that because we’ve gotten a lot of participation. We have about six miles of roads and eight miles of trails.”

What makes the trails so unique is the scenery around them.

“What’s neat is when you’re riding, you come out of the woods – you have a nice woods experience – and then there’s the high tech,” Wirt said. “We have Galford Field where you have antennas and you see the wildflowers. It’s all mixed together. You just don’t get that anywhere else.”

McCarty suggests that visitors plan to spend an entire day at the NRAO if they are interested in experiencing the science as well as the beauty of the county.

“There are actually opportunities to spend an entire afternoon and explore,” McCarty said. “We offer our tour – that’s a great education opportunity for kids and families alike – but also we offer our solar system model hike here, on-site. A lot of the road has many different kiosks to explore the findings of our telescopes and a little bit about each one along the way. In the process, you get to move through a scale model of our solar system.”

While the trails follow the basic rules of all hiking and biking trails, there are a few extra rules that apply to the NRAO, which is in the National Radio Quiet Zone.

“There are a few things we ask when you do come on-site,” McCarty said. “We like for people to stop by the Science Center. We can provide you with a trail map and it lets us know that you’re enjoying the site, as well. We also ask that folks try to make sure they’re back up this way and off the trails by about dark because nobody would be around.

“Of course, as you move past the gates, to help protect the research that we do, we ask that there is no electronic use past the gates,” she continued. “All the bike computers and all that sort of stuff has to stay in the car. You just get to go out and enjoy, and not be attached to any device.”

Cell phones, digital cameras and walkie talkies are prohibited past the gates.

The NRAO also offers several events centered around the trails, including the Space Race Rumpus held each summer.

“For folks unfamiliar with our trails, we offer an event this summer – the Space Race Rumpus – where we introduce anybody to the site trails and it’s for all levels,” McCarty said. “It’s an opportunity to just get familiar with what’s offered here. We have a lot of people who participate in that event who come back to enjoy the trails again.”

A 5K/10K walk/run called the Turkey Trot is held every year on the weekend after Thanksgiving – giving people a chance to enjoy the trails and to work off the turkey and stuffing.

“They use both the site roads and some trails,” business manager Mike Holstine said. “Then this past year, we used our off-road trail to do our Halloween haunted walking trail. We’re trying to manage the property for everyone’s use in certain ways.”

The Green Bank Herb Fair includes nature walks and the Pocahontas Trail Club has recently partnered with the NRAO to maintain the trails. The trails are also used as part of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau annual geocache challenge.

For avid trail enthusiast, the NRAO trails connect to a larger circuit of trails, including the Allegheny and Appalachian trails.

“From this building, two-and-a-half-miles, you’ll meet up with the Allegheny Trail,” Stennes said. “It starts in Bruceton Mills just east of Morgantown, runs 330 miles southward to Peter’s Mountain where it joins the Appalachian Trail. So from this observatory, you can get on a trail, ride a bike or hike to Georgia, Maine, anywhere on the east coast where hundreds of trail networks connect to the Appalachian and Allegheny Trails. It’s clearly marked down this paved road.”

The trails also join the Greenbrier River Trail where it joins the Allegheny Trail.

“We’re in preliminary discussion with the National Forest Service to become a trailhead for the Allegheny Trail,” Holstine said. “They’d like to set a trailhead at the parking lot at the gate and let people come in from there.”

Whether you are an amateur or an expert, the trails at the NRAO are prepped and ready to offer adventure.

Come for the telescopes, stay for the trails.

Suzanne Stewart may be cotnacted at

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