Scenic Routes

West Virginia: Nature puts on a show for travelers rolling along the highways and byways of the Mountain State.

September 26, 1999|By Stephanie Fletcher | Stephanie Fletcher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

During a leisurely drive along West Virginia's Highland Scenic Highway, I pull over at Red Lick Overlook to enjoy the view. The air is cool, fresh and pine-fragrant. A summery panorama featuring every shade of the color green spreads out to the horizon -- a wide, forested valley and distant, time-softened mountains. Overhead, white clouds hang like dollops of meringue in a turquoise sky.

Natural beauty of this magnitude is a feast for the senses. It nourishes the soul.

Even as I look at it, I realize how soon this vista will change. In a few weeks, it will be equally magnificent as autumn's leaves paint it red, copper, bronze and gold. Winter's snows will blanket it with sparkling layers of sugar white. And come spring, shoots, buds and flowers will inundate it in a sea of lacy pastel foam.

West Virginia is a land for all seasons.

On the way back to the parking lot, a stand of wildflowers stops me in my tracks. I recognize the blooms immediately as Turk's-cap lilies from a hand-colored wood block print purchased at the Appalachian Craft Center in North Carolina. The small, framed work of art is one of my favorite possessions. I pull out my camera and snap a picture -- capturing a black butterfly hanging upside-down as it sips from the throat of a small, bright orange lily. An arcing branch of unripe blackberries forms a backdrop.

A vast mountain landscape and a small patch of rare, showy wildflowers illustrate the range of exquisite pageantry that West Virginia stages constantly -- on a grand scale and a small scale. The best way to find and enjoy these splendid shows is to embark upon an old-fashioned "motoring tour" of the state.

I make a habit of including at least two or three scenic driving trips in my travel plans every year. Slowly rambling through an unfamiliar rural countryside -- stopping every once in a while to admire nature's handiwork -- reinvigorates the spirit. Occasionally that experience can be downright intoxicating.

West Virginia is blessed with many miles of highways and byways that snake through postcardlike panoramas. These resources run the gamut -- rutted narrow gravel roads, winding shoulderless two-lane blacktops, wide and smooth interstate highways.

After covering 800 miles in the Mountain State in my sedan, I made a list of the most picturesque and inspiring scenic drives. Motorists who look for pleasures along Highland Scenic Highway, U.S. Route 219, the country road through Dolly Sods Wilderness, State Routes 28 and 55, and Interstate 64 will find plenty.

Highland Scenic Highway

This scenic byway cuts a curving, 43-mile path through West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest from north of Marlinton to Richwood. The choicest segment is a 22-mile parkway that begins at U.S. 219 and ends at Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center (the section is also designated as State 150).

This piece of road is unblemished by telephone poles, utility lines, billboards, commercial buildings and other evidence of human habitation. Motorists can enjoy unobstructed views from every angle. Scenic overlooks provide opportunities to get out of the car and gaze upon the most impressive vistas the area has to offer. And access to several hiking trails beckon those who want to explore and get some exercise.

Wildlife is plentiful along this stretch. I sighted a doe and a pair of twin fawns during my drive. And I lost count of the woodchucks I saw scuttling along the side of the road.

Motorists on the Highland Scenic Highway should definitely stop at Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center. In addition to picnic tables and restroom facilities, it offers information about local attractions as well as knowledgeable resource personnel. It also houses a fascinating exhibit hall that resembles a miniature natural history museum.

I was intrigued by a live reptile display. Two terrariums hold nonpoisonous snakes, and a large, glass enclosure contains five huge timber rattlers all coiled in a pile. It is difficult to tell which big head and pair of beady eyes belongs to which rattle. A bobcat, fox, beaver, mother bear and cub and several other animals preserved by the taxidermist's art are on display in another exhibit. And a 3-D topographical map showing local terrain provides an excellent orientation.

U.S. 219

U.S. Route 219 from Elkins to 1 mile north of Edray and from Mill Point to Lewisburg is a serpentine, two-lane, asphalt road that winds up mountains, along valleys and through undulating highland farm country the whole length of the state of West Virginia. The most picturesque section -- from Beverly (in the northern part of the state) to Lewisburg (in the southeastern part of the state ) -- earned a "AAA Designated Scenic Byway" title from the Automobile Association of America, and for good reason.

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