Where snowfall, skiing and fun are sure bets

West Virginia: In scenic Pocahontas County, mountains and winter make an exciting outdoor combination.

Short Hop

January 07, 2001|By Karen M. Laski | Karen M. Laski,Special to the Sun

It's that time of year again -- when skiers and other winter outdoor enthusiasts head to east-central West Virginia, where snow is almost a guarantee.

In Pocahontas County, a combination of mountainous terrain and elevations over 4,000 feet provides ample snow for a variety of activities in beautiful natural surroundings. Cheat Mountain, home of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, enjoys a 180-inch average annual snowfall. Elsewhere in the county, you can hike, cross-country ski or snowshoe on West Virginia's longest rail-trail or snowmobile through a national forest.

Lounge lizards and cold-blooded spouses need not fear low temperatures and high snowfalls. Cozy bed and breakfast lodgings are just the place to put your feet up and relax before a roaring fire.

Snowshoe, near Slatyfork, W.Va., has a summit of 4,848 feet. In place of the logging camps that once dotted the mountain, there are now ski lifts, restaurants, shops, lodgings and downhill ski terrain often compared to that of New England.

Marlinton, about 25 miles south of Slatyfork, is the county seat, and accommodates many Snowshoe skiers who don't stay on the mountain. Marlinton is also the largest town along the Greenbrier River Trail, a 75-mile route that parallels the longest free-flowing river in the eastern United States. This north-south railroad corridor, which once served the Mountain State's lumber industry, traverses the 402-foot Droop Mountain Tunnel, 511-foot Sharps Tunnel as well as 35 bridges, winding its way through some of the prettiest scenery West Virginia has to offer. With less than a 1 percent grade, it's just right for bikers, cross-country skiers and those on snowshoes.

At Milepost 44 is Watoga State Park, the state's largest park and a favorite with campers. Ten of Watoga's 33 cabins are winterized, among them a new eight-person cabin that accommodates the physically challenged.

About seven miles north of Marlinton is the Highland Scenic Highway, a 43-mile drive that is part of Monongahela National Forest and an excellent place for outdoor winter pursuits.

"Long after it's gone everywhere else, there's plenty of snow here," says Jo Santiago, director of the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center, which is on the highway.

Even during mild winters, two to three feet of snow can cover the parkway, which climbs to 4,544 feet. Monongahela National Forest is home to the highest mountains in east central West Virginia. Overlooks along a 22-mile section of road known as the parkway (Route 150) provide spectacular views of red spruce ridges and hardwood forests as far as the eye can see.

Until this winter, Santiago fielded ski inquiries from her office at the Cranberry Nature Center, at the intersection of Route 150 and Routes 39 / 55.

Keeping the parking lot clear of snow proved expensive and sometimes futile. High winds that cause drifts throughout the area marooned even SUVs. Drivers were told: "Unless it can fly, don't park here."

Beginning this winter, the center is closed from December through March. During the other months, exhibits and programs introduce visitors to the area's forest ecosystems, wildlife and local history.

In winter, the seven-mile loop trail around the perimeter of Cranberry Glades is popular with cross-country skiers as well as snowshoers.

"It's a gentle trail and popular because the powder is so deep," Santiago says.

Highway 150 skirts the eastern boundary of the national forest, known as the Cranberry Wilderness. The 35,864-acre wilderness was set aside to preserve the primitive character of the land. A dozen narrow trails follow ridge tops, climb mountains and retrace old railroad grades.

Hikers venturing into this area should remember that trails remain unmarked except at trail junctions, there are no bridges at river or stream crossings, and outdoor skills are essential, especially in winter. (Recreation guides and topographic maps are available from the Cranberry Nature Center and the Gauley or Marlinton ranger stations.)

Hill Creek Falls are spectacular any time of the year. Tucked away in a steep, narrow gorge five miles east of the nature center, a three-quarter-mile trail leads to a viewing platform overlooking the first of three waterfalls. A wooden staircase descends 220 feet to the two lower falls.

"Last winter, spray from the falls had frozen into an ice volcano of crystal shards," says Santiago.

Restful places

After a cold day outside, our thoughts turn to relaxation, food and bed.

Although Snowshoe offers a variety of accommodations, some visitors prefer smaller, quieter facilities.

Karin Anderson and Rod Molidor opened the Morning Glory Inn two years ago less than two miles from the base of Snowshoe. The inn has six large guest rooms.

"I tell people they can do cartwheels in our rooms," says Anderson. Fifteen-foot vaulted ceilings give the rooms an added feeling of spaciousness. Each room has a king or queen-size bed as well as a whirlpool tub.

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