I was longing for some snow. Serious winter snow. So when our friends proposed a pre-New Year escape to the Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia, we signed up.
We stayed at the lodge in the park, a comfortable place overlooking the canyon that the Blackwater River has carved over millennia (it is worth the extra $10 to stay in a room with a canyonside view). For the two days we spent there, snow was everywhere: It covered the ground and the trees, and it was in the air, falling softly, nearly without stopping, out of the low white sky. The area is, simply, beautiful, and there is plenty to do all winter.
Armed with Kevin Adams’s excellent Waterfalls of Virginia and West Virginia: A Hiking and Photography Guide, we made sure to wake up early to see one of the park’s centerpieces–its stunning waterfall. This section of the park is popular in any season, but we were lucky that morning to have the view all to ourselves. It is easy to access the falls, but, after all the snow, the walkway was partially closed, adding to the dreamlike solitude of this place.
The waterfall was both loud and peaceful. Once it cascades down the 57-foot drop, the river screams and tumbles for eight miles, “the longest rapid in West Virginia.” We saw the river upstream from the falls, and it was hard to believe that this slow, sleepy stream is the same body of water–but then there is that odd color. The river and the canyon it sculpted got their name from the dark, reddish-brown hue of the water, a sign of tannins.
Eastern hemlocks and red spruces that surround the river shed their needles on the forest floor. Rain and melting snow leak tannins from these needles into the streams that become the Blackwater River. These streams also weave through bogs, where they soak up more tannins from sphagnum moss. The murky water sees secluded country before it reaches the crescendo of this drop:
We spent most of the day that followed sledding on the gentle Sled Run hill or sitting by the outdoor fire pit, sipping hot cider and hot chocolate, watching friends and strangers enjoy the snow.
By late afternoon, we were famished. I did not like the restaurant at the lodge. Luckily, our friends have been to the area before and could recommend several good restaurants in Davis, a small town abutting the park. I was charmed with the town’s Victorian buildings and friendly store fronts. Davis was named after Henry Gassaway Davis, who brought the railroad to this area and almost turned the wilderness he found into a toxic wasteland. The lands that in the course of the 20th century became the Monongahela National Forest, Blackwater Falls State Park, Canaan Valley Resort State Park, and the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge are still not fully recovered. In snowless months, don’t miss the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area: It is picturesque with its Nordic landscape, but this stark beauty masks a heavily scarred environment. Its earth, once covered with aged hemlocks, red spruces, and oaks, still cannot sustain large trees.
At Davis, we went to a great little restaurant, Hellbender Burritos. We were there at an odd time for a meal, so had our pick of the colorful nooks, but it does get crowded (have no fear–there is a cozy waiting area on the second floor, with games to keep you occupied; oh, and do check out the men’s bathroom–it is devoted to the X-Files). Food here is fresh and delicious, there are many tempting vegetarian options, and service is friendly. What more can you ask for?
Incidentally, Davis is also home to a great coffee spot, Boomtown Java. This cafe must be especially pleasant in warmer months: It has a porch overseeing a quiet section of the river, the town’s Riverfront Park.
Our stay at the Blackwater Falls was brief this time around. We did not explore the trails on snow shoes or cross-country skies or check out the 7 other waterfalls in the canyon, as I’d hoped–and I am sorry for that. Next time, we’ll be better prepared for “real winter.” I also can’t wait to see this area again in another season: In mid-May, service trees bloom at Dolly Sods; for two weeks in late May and early June, flame azaleas brighten the forest; in July, the many wild rhododendrons and mountain laurels explode with flowers; and then the trees light up with autumn foliage. For now, we consoled ourselves with our parting views of the Blackwater Falls–sans the veil of falling snow–and a glimpse of a red-breasted nuthatch. The tiny bird was busily scaling a tree, such a cheerful sight on a frozen winter afternoon. We will come back here soon.