Nearly every year since we’ve been parents Jim and I have taken a weekend to celebrate our anniversary sans kids. The trick was flexibility and not being tied to the actual date. Another requirement was that the destination be within a four-hour drive of either our house or my parents’ house (depending on where the childcare was going on.) But now that the kids are out of the nest, we can go a little farther afield and I have a long list of new destinations. I have always wanted to visit the Dolly Sods Wilderness area of West Virginia and this year we headed for the hills.
Our home-away-from-home was Canaan Valley State Park (pronounced kuh-NANE). West Virginia’s concept of state parks is very different from North Carolina. In WV they are true resorts, lodging, restaurants, swimming pools, movie stars…uh, sorry. We very highly recommend Canaan Valley as a home base for exploring the Potomac Highlands part of WV. It’s cheap, quiet, and peaceful – not close to much, but then again, nothing is close to anything in West-by-God-Virginia.
Jim is an avid road cyclist who often hikes with me, so I am attempting to reciprocate by becoming a cyclist – with baby steps, starting with rail trails. We stopped Friday morning at Highland Prospects, an outfitter in the tiny town of Davis, WV (next door to Hypno Coffee – looked like fun early in the morning). The fellow there gave us good information about the section of the Alleghany Highlands rail trail we were interested in as well as how to find our trailhead for our hike in Dolly Sods the next day. Our bike route was 10 miles downhill from Thomas to Hendricks and then we would see how much farther we felt like going before retracing our path...back UP.
At the trailhead, preparing for a bike ride is much more involved than preparing for a hike - front wheels put on, brakes connected, tires pumped up, bike helmets on, water bottles on, spandex adjusted. Where are my sunglasses? And we still had to wear light backpacks with food and rain gear.
The first item of interest on the trail: old coke ovens between Coketon and Douglas. Raw coal was burned in the ovens to produce coke in “beehive” coke ovens. Check out this website for a great explanation of the coal era and the area.
The outfitter guy described a waterfall that we should “get off the bikes and go check out.” I don’t know the name of it, but it was beautiful. The water is a Caribbean aqua and the surrounding rocks are a yellowish color that rubs off on your hands. I was fascinated with one cascade that flowed smoothly into a small crevice, but the photos made no sense without a person for perspective.
The rail trail was extremely rocky and I worried about chipping a tooth . My arms were sore at the end of the day from gripping the handlebars too tightly on the bumpy ride. Pedaling was not necessary, which meant going back up was going to be tough. The trees had not yet leafed out and we caught many glimpses of the Blackwater River far below. The land between the river and the rail trail is privately owned and we also caught glimpses of heavy equipment harvesting the trees.
We stopped at the little pavilion in Hendricks where the trail turned to asphalt – hey, not tired at all! We continued a mile more on the smooth pavement to Hambleton but then decided to turn around because of the time and the climb.
The return trip was really tough for me. I put it in the lowest gear and spun my little heart out. The trail looked flat but moving forward took a Herculean effort. I had to stop about every mile to get off the bike and whimper – it was not pretty. That’s all I have to say about that.
We investigated the dozens of coke ovens on the way back – they really are fascinating. Apparently nothing is being done to preserve them and it would be a real shame to lose the evidence of this piece of history. Go see ‘em while you can.
Back at the car, the reverse of bike preparation – take the bikes apart, retrieve water bottles, etc, and put it all back in the car. Then we checked out Mountainmade, a large shop featuring area artists and craftspeople – very high quality stuff. The building is the original home of the "company store" for Davis Coal & Coke Company (sing it, Ernie!)
Next we strolled through Davis, looking at the menus of the local restaurants so we could come back into town for dinner. We also chatted with the owner of Blackwater Bikes, the local mountain bike store, telling him about our bike trip. He explained that this section was a “proposed” rail trail, that the only thing that had been done was pulling up the tracks and then everybody started riding on it. That’s why it was so rough. I felt a little better about that. I don’t really want to be a mountain biker, just a rail-trail biker.
Cleaned up, ate dinner at Blackwater Brewing Company, and with some daylight left we investigated Blackwater Falls State Park, another resort area that looked even more inviting than Canaan Valley SP. We walked the extensive boardwalk and steps to view the falls – quite spectacular! Reminded me of High Falls in Dupont State Forest. I forgot my camera, but the website is better anyway.
Tomorrow – Dolly Sods Wilderness!
The difference between try and triumph is a little umph. ~Author Unknown