West Virgina Road Trip: Potomac Highlands

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

5. Elkins
Backtracking from Dolly Sods to Rte. 32, continue south to Harman, then head west on Rte. 33 to the Bear Heaven Recreation Area, named for its black bear population. From there the highway leads into Stuart Memorial Drive, a winding mountain road that passes some of the region’s most spectacular alpine scenery, including 4,020-foot-tall Bickle Knob, just to the north. For a closer look at this rocky giant, take the turnoff for the Stuart Recreation Area to the Bickle Knob Picnic Area, where a lookout tower four stories high affords unforgettable 360-degree views. From its observation deck, you can see the front range of the Cheat Mountains, the rim of nearby Otter Creek Wilderness, the summit of Spruce Knob—at 4,861 feet, the highest point in West Virginia—and the town of Elkins, which sits astride the Tygart Valley River.

In addition to being the headquarters for the Monongahela National Forest (the town serves as a base camp for many recreational activities), Elkins is home to Davis and Elkins College. Its campus features two of the most meticulously restored Victorian structures in the state, the Halliehurst Mansion and Graceland Inn. Formerly the home of Stephen Elkins, cofounder of the college and onetime Secretary of War, the baronial mansion (named in honor of his wife, Hallie) is replete with turrets, Tiffany stained-glass windows, and elaborate interior trim fashioned from native hardwoods. The campus also houses the Augusta Heritage Center, which hosts a variety of workshops and events celebrating traditional music, crafts, and customs of the highlands. Continue south on Rte. 219 to Huttonsville, then follow Rtes. 92 and 250 to the Gaudineer Scenic Area.

6. Gaudineer Scenic Area
Nearly half a million acres of West Virginia mountains were once blanketed by hemlocks. In only a few decades, timber barons devastated these rich woods, but on the slopes below Gaudineer Knob, 140 acres of virgin forest escaped the axe by a fluke of fate: they were simply overlooked by a surveyor.

Stretching 100 feet skyward, this stand of trees is estimated to be three centuries old and forms a cluttered canopy of limbs above the silent mosses of the forest floor. Skirting the region’s western border, the Shavers Fork River is one of the most abundantly stocked trout streams in the region.

7. Snowshoe Mountain
Scraping the heavens at 4,863 feet, Snowshoe Mountain, just north of Rte. 66, is one of West Virginia’s most popular four-season resorts. It’s a haven in winter for skiers, of course, but when spring turns its white slopes green with grass, mountain biking becomes the sport of choice. Those who prefer a more leisurely form of sightseeing can hike along the resort’s 100 miles of trails and old logging roads, which crisscross an enchanted countryside of hardwood forest, burbling mountain streams, and meadows spangled with wildflowers.

8. Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
By 1911 West Virginia had over 3,000 miles of logging rail lines, more than any other state in the Union. Powered by mighty locomotives, the trains hauled tons of timber up and down the steepest mountain grades, and in places the lines seem to defy not just gravity, but common sense as well. The logging lines are long since gone—abandoned, forgotten, and buried beneath the detritus of the forest floor—but at the town of Cass (located several miles farther east on Rte. 66), 11 miles of track remain to give visitors a taste of the past.

Puffing black smoke and chugging along at a hard-won speed of five miles per hour, some of the last remaining Shay and Heisler engines tote not wood but sightseers up two steep switchbacks to the windswept summit of Bald Knob (the second-highest point in the state), where the views extend well into neighboring Virginia. Allow 41⁄2 hours for the round-trip train ride and enough time to tour the town itself, which has been converted into a living museum of West Virginia logging life.

9. Greenbrier River Trail
Returning to Rte. 219, the drive jogs west to the town of Slatyfork, where Sharp’s Country Store provides a perfect opportunity to stretch your legs as you rummage through its wares. Run by the same family for three generations, Sharp’s is the quintessential small-town general store. Crammed to the rafters with everything from laundry soap to antique gramophones, it is as much a repository of local culture as it is a place of commerce.

Continue south on Rte. 219 for about 15 miles to Marlinton. There you can stop at the old train station (now occupied by an information center), which is located on the Greenbrier River Trail. Running alongside the Greenbrier River from Caldwell to Cass, the 75-mile trail follows an old rail bed of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad through some of the highland’s most picturesque countryside. The scenery is at its best in spring, when violets, trilliums, lilies, and a host of other wildflowers are in full bloom and returning songbirds fill the air with their melodies. Best of all, because the grade is virtually flat, anyone can hike, bike, or ski a favorite stretch.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail