West Virginia: Fall Mountain Splendor

The sun skips and plays off the dazzling waters of Williams River, W. Va.

It is a beautiful day for a fall drive. The late afternoon sun backlights the trees enhancing the yellow, orange, and red of the leaves.

I stop at the Three Forks river crossing and watch as an avid angler casts, retrieves, and recasts his line. The fish must not be biting — probably relaxing in the sun’s warmth.

We have seen some beautiful country today. Our drive started in Cowen and it will end in Cowen. We will have driven just over 95 miles, seen several deer, unnumbered squirrel, and a couple of wild turkey.

Mostly, we just enjoyed the splendor of West Virginia’s majestic mountains in fall. Yesterday the weather was completely different. We awoke to a fog-shrouded landscape. Few things are more enjoyable for me than walking in the mist-covered woods. Since the weather was perfect for such a walk, I went hiking. The mist blocks extraneous objects and thus directs attention to things close at hand. Subtle details, often overlooked, are noticed such as the veins in a leaf, the contrast of yellow on ochre.

Visiting Scenic Rivers
Our driving tour touched parts of four counties: Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, and Pocahontas. Our elevation ranged from around 2,000 feet to over 4,000 feet. Most of the drive passes through Monongahela National Forest. Along the way we saw several of West Virginia’s most scenic rivers: Gauley, Cherry, and Williams. We saw Hills Creek Falls, Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, and traveled along the Highland Scenic Highway.

Cranberry River, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.

The tour departs Cowen, headed south on Route 20. A three-way stop in Craigsville is the first turn: go left, continuing on what is now Route 20/55. A few miles outside of Craigsville on the right is a sign indicating the Crupperneck Bend overlook of Gauley River. The overlook offers a beautiful view. Just down the road and the tour crosses the Gauley River and the road goes alongside the Cherry River. If one enjoys fishing, there are several places to stop and cast a few.

In Fenwick, the route number changes to Route 55 (Route 20 turns right across a bridge). Just continue going straight toward Richwood. Route 55 passes through some of the most remote and scenic sections of West Virginia. One travels miles without any sign of civilization other than the highway.

Amazing Waterfalls/Bogs
Near the Greenbrier/Pocahontas County line, on the right, is a sign for Hills Creek Falls. The Lower Falls of Hills Creek is the second highest waterfall in the state. It is well worth the effort to hike down and see it. About six miles on up the road is Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. This is West Virginia’s largest area of bogs. Here one finds many species of plants normally found only in far more northern regions. The last Ice Age, creeping south, transplanted these species from their northern home.

The parking area is to the left of Route 55. A short boardwalk makes a loop through a section of the glades allowing one to observe the area without sinking in the bog.

It is probably a good idea to stop at the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center to pick up a trail guide. (This involves a little backtracking; the visitor center is about a mile beyond the glades.)

Continuing on the driving tour, turn onto Route 150, the Parkway section of the Highland Scenic Highway, directly across from the visitor center. The Highland Scenic Highway is a 43-mile stretch of road that is designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway. The road begins north of Richwood on Route 55, continuing 21 miles to Route 150, then another 22 miles across some of West Virginia’s highest mountains, to the intersection with Route 219 seven miles north of Marlinton, The highway crosses two large mountains: Cranberry and Black. There are several scenic overlooks offering spectacular views.

Monongahela National Forest, Webster County, West Virginia. (Photos by Thomas R. Fletcher)

The next turn will be onto Forest Service Road 86 at Williams River. This is a well-maintained gravel road. The road travels along with Williams River on the right and Cranberry Wilderness on the left until the crossing at Three Forks. Cranberry Wilderness is a congressionally designated wilderness area within Monongahela National Forest. The gravel road meets again with hardtop just a few miles past the Three Forks crossing. This road intersects Route 20 about two miles north of Cowen completing the circle.

Hail (Camp) Caesar
There are many campsites within the national forest, but what about something for the folks with something a little less rustic in mind — “Camp Caesar” is the answer for those folks. The camp is located about four miles north of Cowen along Route 20. Camp Caesar is a non-profit area owned by the Webster County 4-H Club. The camp offers a warm, dry place to stay and three hot meals a day. Sleeping is dormitory style, so bring your bedroll partner. The home-cooked meals are served family style in the large dining room. I’ve never seen anyone leave hungry.

Each year Camp Caesar hosts a special “Fall Color Tour” in mid-October. Check-in is anytime after 2 p.m. Friday, departure is after breakfast Sunday. Included will be five meals, lodging, several guided leaf-viewing tours throughout Webster County, and an evening program on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The drives will be guided by Webster Springs Garden Club members and volunteers. Leaders and guests will carpool through the colorful mountain highways. Some hiking may be added, depending upon the desires of the guests. The package price for the event is $70 per person. Cabins are available for rent throughout much of the year, so if you can’t make the tour you can still bunk at Camp Caesar for $10 a night and catch dinner for $6.25.

Another place to consider staying is “The Four Seasons Lodge” just outside Richwood. The Four Seasons features clean comfortable rooms (a double for under $50) with cable television. The roar of the Cherry River provides a soothing sound as it passes just behind the lodge.

The mountains of West Virginia are drenched in color this time of year. The driving tour passes through some of the highest and most scenic areas of the state. A hike in Cranberry Wilderness has its own rewards. Some may come to Camp Caesar and decide not to venture out. The camp has 300 acres with many hiking trails, a mountain bike trail and it borders Monongahela National Forest.

Making The Trip
Cowen is about a two-hour drive north from Charleston. The airport in Charleston features auto rentals. Take Interstate-79 North from Charleston to exit 57 (Summersville/U.S. 19). Follow U.S. 19 south to Birch River. Turn left at Birch River on Route 82. Follow Route 82 the 16 miles to Cowen. Route 82 intersects Route 20 just past Big Ditch Lake. Follow Route 20 north (turn left at the intersection) through Cowen to Camp Caesar about 4 miles beyond.

If staying at Camp Caesar, bring a pillow, sleeping bag, towels and washcloths. Wear sturdy walking shoes and dress in layers. The weather can go from quite cool to very warm.

For more information, contact:
Camp Caesar

Camp Caesar has camping facilities and cabins for rent. Cabin lodging is $10 per person per night weeknights (bring your own sleeping bag and toiletries), $12 per person weekends. Couples looking for a romantic getaway for $40/night may rent individual cabins; two cabins with full kitchens rent for $50/night. This rate is for couples only — no groups. There are seven campsites with electrical/water hook-up at $12/night, six alongside the Gauley River, and one on the main campus.

Stella Riffle
(Garden Club Member-“Fall Fling” reservations
E-mail: stellariffle@juno.com
Web: www.websterwv.com (For information on Webster County and events taking place.)

Ranger District
USDA Forest Service
P.O. Box 10
Richwood, WV 26261

Monongahela National Forest Headquarters
200 Sycamore Street
Elkins, WV 26241
Web: http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/

Potomac Highlands Travel Council
1200 Harrison Ave.
Elkins, WV 26241
Web: www.mountainhighlands.com

Cranberry Mt. Visitor Center
USDA Forest Service
P.O. Box 110
Richwood, WV 26261
Web: http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf/sp/naturecenter.html

Four Seasons Lodge
Drawer F/ Route 39-55
Richwood, WV 26261

For a fine assortment of Tents, click here.

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