Our forefathers were frequently forced to rely on ferryboats to cross large rivers. However, today’s modern bridges have made ferryboats nearly extinct. One of the last remaining public ferryboats on the Ohio River is based in Sistersville, West Virginia, and it makes for a unique motorcycle destination. There is something magical about seeing a street that disappears into the dark waters of the river, with only a small floating piece of "street" that connects to the opposite bank. Our motorcycles should get the opportunity at least once to go on a boat ride, and I can tell you an excellent way to get there. My suggested 80 mile loop also includes Ohio Route 26—designated by Car and Driver magazine in January 1990 as one of the Top 10 highways in America—as well as a brief side trip onto an Ohio River island.
My favorite ride begins and ends in Marietta, Ohio. This historic river city was the first incorporated town in the Northwest Territory, and has lots of interesting places to explore in its own right. If you arrive via Interstate 77, take Ohio Exit 1 and head south on Route 7. At the first major stoplight just south of the Interstate, turn right onto Acme Street, and follow it about half a mile until it terminates at Route 26.
Turn right onto Route 26 North and the fun will soon begin. Route 26 has lots of hills and curves, and a few of the turns are banked higher than some NASCAR tracks! Route 26 transverses part of the Wayne National Forest, and has been designated as the Covered Bridge Scenic Byway. The road includes several pull-offs with historical markers that are easy to read from a motorcycle (e.g., Mail Pouch barn paintings near mile marker 11, the Myers General Store near mile marker 20, etc.). At about mile marker 18, you can even ride across the Hune Covered Bridge, built in 1877.
About three miles after passing the Rinard Covered Bridge, be on the lookout for Ohio Route 260. Turn right and follow 260 about ten miles until it ends at Ohio Route 7 in New Matamoras. Turn left and take Route 7 north about four miles to catch the Sistersville Ferry (behind the BP station). The ferry operates from April through December, and costs $2 per motorcycle. It is a great time to take off your helmet for a few minutes and enjoy the unique view from the water.
Exiting the ferry, go up two blocks and turn left onto Main Street for just one block. Turn right onto Charles Street, which will take you past the historic Wells Inn Hotel and Restaurant (circa 1894), a good place for local information if you want to explore Sistersville. If you want to stretch the ride into two days, the rooms at the hotel are very nice and surprisingly affordable.
At the corner of the hotel, take a right onto WV Route 2 south. The next 18 miles will give you several panoramic vistas of the Ohio River before you enter St. Marys. For an interesting diversion, I suggest visiting Middle Island, a part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Middle Island is unique because it is the only one with a bridge. Take a right at the second stoplight in St. Marys and go one block on Washington Street, before making a left onto Second Street. You will notice that St. Marys is one of the few remaining towns where the railroad tracks go down the center of the town. After just one block on Second Street, turn right onto George Street, and you will see the bridge ahead of you. The island has a well-maintained (but unpaved) road that goes nearly two miles up the west bank of the island, with several informative markers along the way.
Returning back across the Middle Island bridge, stay straight on George Street for two blocks (watch out for trains--and notice the county court house on the hill ahead) and turn right on Route 2 south. Stay in the right lane to cross the Ohio River bridge and take Ohio Route 7 south. On the left, one mile south of the bridge, is the Newport Jug Dairy Bar, where you can get some food, or just rest at the benches and picnic tables under a majestic old maple tree on the riverbank.
Six miles further down Route 7 is the Willow Island Locks and Dam. There is a picnic and observation area where you can watch the big towboats move through the locks on their river journey. The large Willow Island power plant across the river was the lead story on the national newscasts back in April 1978. One of the large cooling towers collapsed during construction, killing 51 men.
The remaining ten miles brings you back into Marietta, through its northern suburb of Reno. You will pass several different motorcycle dealerships (Victory, Suzuki/Kawasaki/Yamaha, and Honda) in Reno, just in case you need to do some shopping (the Harley dealership recently moved just across the river off the first I-77 exit in West Virginia). As you return to the starting point, you can turn right onto Acme Street once again, and then take another right into the shopping center parking lot, in order to visit the Marietta Tourist Information Trolley. Inside this former trolley car that has been converted into a tourism office, you can find more suggestions of things to do while in this area.