West Virgina Road Trip: Potomac Highlands

Route Details Length: About 200 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round. Words to the wise: While driving,

Route Details

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/.

Star Route

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.

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.

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.

10. Watoga State Park
Both the oldest and largest of West Virginia’s state parks, 10,100-acre Watoga takes its name from the Cherokee word watauga, meaning “river of islands”—a reference to the wide, sandy Greenbrier River, which forms the park’s western border. For a delightful view of the river and the park’s rugged jumble of ridges, hollows, and thick second-growth forest, try Arrowhead Trail, a steep but rewarding one-mile trek climbing from the Riverside Campground area to the old log lookout tower. Or drive the park road up to the T. M. Cheek Memorial, one of the highest spots in the park, for a sunset picnic.

Tiny Hillsboro, a mile farther south on Rte. 219, might seem like an ordinary West Virginia mountain town, but literary pilgrims know it as something far more significant—the birthplace of Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to win both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Buck spent most of her childhood in China with her missionary parents but fondly remembered her grandparents’ spacious West Virginia farmhouse as her “gateway to America.” You will find it open from May through October; the house represents an intriguing mix of Oriental and Occidental, with furnishings that range from handcrafted walnut pieces crafted by Buck’s own grandfather to a small collection of Oriental memorabilia.

11. Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park
In no state did the Civil War create such sharp divisions of loyalty as it did in West Virginia. While 30,000 men from the hills took up arms for the Union cause, some 7,500 others traveled south to don Confederate gray. So when the Battle of Droop Mountain took place on November 6, 1863, the fighting—quite literally—pitted brother against brother.

The clash would also signal an end to the conflict on West Virginia soil; Union forces outflanked Confederate troops on the peak and sent them heading south for good. Some 7,000 men fought that day, and a few of the 400 who lost their lives are buried here. Three and a half miles of trails lead from the Battlefield Museum and cemetery through the 287-acre grounds to majestic ridgetop views of the Greenbrier Valley to the north.

12. Beartown State Park
A few miles southwest of Hillsboro, a spur road leads to Beartown State Park, a 107-acre preserve on the eastern slope of Droop Mountain. Erosion has gnawed away at the ancient sandstone that forms the mountain’s crest, leaving behind massive boulders, deep crevices, towering cliffs, and sandstone corridors—a giant three-dimensional maze so thick with vegetation that you’ll feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a natural greenhouse. In the cool, damp recesses, pockets of ice sometimes linger until late summer.

13. Lewisburg
Following in the footsteps of retreating Confederate forces, the drive descends the back of Droop Mountain, making a long glide down to Lewisburg, 1,000 feet lower in elevation and some 24 miles to the south. A 236-acre parcel of the town has been designated a National Historic District; it’s easily explored on foot with the aid of a map from the visitor center at Carnegie Hall, which also serves as the town’s cultural hub. Other stops on the tour include the Old Stone Church (the oldest continuously operated church west of the Alleghenies), the Museum of the Greenbrier Historical Society, the Greenbrier County Courthouse, and the Confederate Cemetery. A wander among historic tombstones will lead you to the common grave of 95 unidentified soldiers, casualties of the Battle of Lewisburg.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest