Length: About 200 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: While driving, watch out for cyclists and deer.
Not to be missed: West Virginia Day Celebration (June), Canaan Valley State Park; Leaf Peepers Festival (September), Davis; Mountain State Forest Festival (October), Elkins.
Nearby attraction: Seneca Rocks Recreation Area, near Franklin.
Visitor centers: Cranberry Mountain, Seneca Rocks.
Further information: Monongahela National Forest, 200 Sycamore St., Elkins, WV 26241; tel. 304-636-1800, www.fs.us/r9/mnf/.
Highland Scenic Highway
Cutting across Monongahela National Forest, this 43-mile route—much of which follows Rte. 150, the highest major road in the state—provides dramatic views of the Allegheny Highlands. The side trip, accessible from April through November (weather permitting), begins just north of Marlinton and travels through hardwood forests to Richwood. Along the way, you’ll find waterfalls, 150 miles of trails, and the 36,000-acre Cranberry Wilderness Area.
“Here’s to West Virginia,” a local toast proclaims, “the most northern of the southern states, the most southern of the northern states, the most western of the eastern states, and the most eastern of the western states.” Yet for all the diversity and centrality of the state itself, the region known as the Potomac Highlands (named for the river whose headwaters rise here) is remarkably remote. Isolated by rugged mountainous terrain, this eastern side of West Virginia, which is not only high in elevation but remarkably wild amidst large population centers and farmland, rewards visitors with mile after mile of pastoral beauty. Its towns are few and far between, and its roadways—as twisted as tangled twine—are tailor-made for wandering.
1. Monongahela National Forest
Soon after crossing the Maryland–West Virginia border, Rte. 219 ventures southwest into the Monongahela National Forest. So vast is this forest—it spreads over more than 900,000 acres—that for all but a few miles, this drive stays within or near its borders. Reclaimed from once overharvested timberland, the forest boasts three swimming beaches, 19 campgrounds, more than 700 miles of hiking trails, and over 600 miles of trout-inhabited and angler-inviting coldwater streams.
West Virginia has been dubbed the Mountain State, and perhaps nowhere does that nickname seem more apt than in Monongahela National Forest, where over 100 peaks soar to 4,000 feet or more. Together they make up the Allegheny Front of the Appalachian Mountains, which forms a natural barrier to passing weather systems. The mountains divide the forest into two distinct climates: on the wetter, western side of the front, northern hardwoods such as cherry and maple mingle with oak and tulip trees, while to the east look for oak, cedar, and even cactus. No fewer than five major river systems originate within the forest, giving rise to hundreds of miles of waterways. East of the divide you’ll find the Potomac and James rivers, while the Ohio River and its tributaries wind to the west.
When Ramps Grow Rampant
In early March some West Virginians head for the hills, driven not by spring fever but by a craving for ramps, or wild leeks. These local delicacies, which thrive in the cool climate of high elevations, look like lilies of the valley but taste like nothing else on earth. More pungent than garlic or onions, ramps have such an overpowering aroma that the only way to tolerate ramp eaters is to join them. Visitors can do just that at any of a number of ramp festivals held in the Highlands in April, including those at Elkins and Richwood.
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2. Blackwater Falls State Park
Where rivers and mountains meet, waterfalls are certain to result, and the Potomac Highlands are blessed with cascades aplenty. One of the most picturesque spots in the state is Blackwater Falls, the crown jewel of 1,688-acre Blackwater Falls State Park, located just west of Davis off Rte. 32.
Looking at the glassy Blackwater River as it lazes through a deep, half-mile-wide crevice, you would never know that it’s about to make a six-story plunge to the riotous gorge below. The river’s name has more to do with science than with poetry: darkened by tannic acid from the fallen needles of red spruces and hemlocks, the water glows with a distinct amber tint as it pours over the falls, echoing the autumnal display of the surrounding hills. A staircase leads visitors to the base of the falls. The park also features a network of trails and overlooks offering glorious vistas of the upper and lower gorges and the hills beyond. A second cataract, Pendleton Falls, connects the river with Pendleton Lake, a popular spot for fishing, boating, and swimming.
3. Canaan Valley Resort State Park
When George Casey Harness first beheld this beautiful valley, he declared, “Behold! I have found the land of Canaan”—and the name stuck. Tucked inside a deep bowl ringed by several of the Alleghenies’ highest peaks, the park boasts some 6,000 acres of the most diverse and unspoiled terrain in the highlands, including lush meadows, misty evergreen forests, and America’s second-largest inland wetland, an area called the Canaan Valley Wetlands.
Like its namesake, Canaan Valley teems with critters of every kind—coyotes, wild turkeys, beavers, black bears, foxes, and deer so tame and plentiful that they practically pose for admiring photographers. At an elevation of over 3,000 feet, the valley enjoys cool summer temperatures, and an average annual snowfall exceeding 150 inches makes it a mecca for skiing enthusiasts. In any season the summit of Weiss Knob (accessible by chairlift) offers a sensational panorama of the highlands.
4. Dolly Sods Scenic Area
Ranging in elevation from 2,600 to over 4,000 feet, the tundralike terrain of Dolly Sods has a barren beauty that is more like northern Canada than the mid-Atlantic. After much of the plateau’s hemlock and red spruce forests were cleared in the 1880s, fires and erosion stripped away the topsoil, right down to the bedrock in some places. Despite the devastation, Dolly Sods abounds with vegetation—upland wildflower meadows, blueberry and huckleberry thickets, cranberry bogs, and patches of dwarf red spruce. These areas support numerous foxes and beavers, and in summer a symphony of songbirds.
Dolly Sods is also one of the great hawk-watching spots in the Appalachians, because winds bouncing up and over the Allegheny Front create a natural airborne highway for migrating raptors and other birds. For the best viewing during the spring and fall migration seasons, follow Rte. 75 all the way to its terminus at Bear Rocks.