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WV: Heaven’s Playground

By Staff | Mar 24, 2009

As spring begins to work its way back into the Mountain State, it seems as if there are always things to do outside. From the peaks to the rivers and everything in between, West Virginia is definitely worthy of being called “wild and wonderful.” The state provides endless opportunities for outdoor activities, but there are a few gems that prove that Mother Nature is, in fact, a “mountain mama.” 

Rock Climbing

Pendleton County, in the Eastern Panhandle, is home to one of the most popular scenic attractions in the state, known as Seneca Rocks.

Not only is it a beautiful sight to see, the sheer face of Seneca Rocks is also a popular challenge for rock climbers.   

There are over 375 mapped climbing routes at Seneca Rocks. The routes vary in degree from easiest (5.0) to most difficult (5.12).

Although some of the routes are meant for less experienced climbers, climbing the face of Seneca Rocks is an extremely dangerous task, and only people who are trained or experienced should try and scale the rocks.

There is a plaque located at the base of one of the trails, which was dedicated to a climber who died on the rocks, that serves as a reminder of the danger that is involved.   

The rocks are open to the public year-round, and although there are no fees, permits or registration required, it’s a good idea to have a guide for the climb. Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides provides climbing instructions and professional guidance on climbs. 

Climbing seminars are available to learn the fundamentals of climbing, and usually have a ratio of three climbers per instructor.

Three 30-minute classes are available for $75 per person if signing up alone or $100 for two people, and private seminars are available for $100 per person. Group programs are also available at $70 per person, with a six-person minimum and a 20-person maximum.

The price of the seminars includes climbing shoes and any equipment that is needed. 

For a tamer approach, there is a trail behind the Seneca Rocks Visitor Center that leads to an observation tower with breathtaking views of the mountains and the North Fork River valley. Although not as strenuous as climbing the rocks, it is a fairly steep hike and takes about three hours to complete. 

For more information or to book a climbing instruction course: Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides at (304) 567-2115 or visit www.senecarocks.com.  


Coopers Rock State Forest, located 13 miles east of Morgantown, is home to nearly 50 miles of hiking trails, a 25-lot campground and numerous scenic overlooks providing some of the best views in the state. It is the largest state forest in West Virginia, boasting 12,713 acres of unspoiled natural beauty.   

With various hiking trails ranging from one mile to five miles long, anyone from the amateur hiker to the experienced mountaineer can find the trail that suits his or her skill level. One of the most popular trails, the Henry Clay Iron Furnace Trail, features a huge stone furnace at the end of the one-mile trail that was used for producing iron in the 1800s. Another popular trail is Glad Run Trail, a moderately steep trail that stretches across one and a half miles of terrain. Glade Run is a popular trail among fishing enthusiasts because it is dammed to form a 6-acre pond that is regularly stocked with trout.   

The trails take hikers through the forest and over ridges and provide great views of the mountainous terrain, cliffs and numerous creeks. Hikers can also catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife of West Virginia at Coopers Rock, including squirrels, chipmunks, hawks, owls, turkeys, turkey vultures, various songbirds, fox and deer. The trails are especially picturesque in June when the rhododendron and mountain laurel are in bloom. 

Amber Sickles, a 23-year-old Morgantown native, anticipates the warm weather each year so she can hike at Coopers Rock. 

“I love seeing all of the wildlife and all the plants starting to bloom,” she said. “It’s also a really great workout.” 

It is recommended that hikers wear blaze-orange clothing during hunting season, which is from October to February. It is also recommended that hikers wear the proper clothing and footwear depending on the weather conditions, but hiking boots and rain gear are advised for all seasons. 

The 25-lot campground at Coopers Rock is open from April 1 to Nov. 30. Up to half of the campsites are available for reservations; however, the remainder of the sites are rented on a first come, first served basis.

All 25 campsites have electrical hookups, hot showers are available in the shower house and clean water is available at an outside faucet. 

Rates for each campsite are $21 per night, which is based on one tent or trailer per site. 

Each additional person is $3, and a maximum of 10 people are permitted per campsite. 

Firewood is available at the campsites for $4 per bundle, and ice is available for $1 per bag.   

To contact Coopers Rock State Forest or make your camping reservations: (304) 594-1561 or visit www.coopersrockstateforest.com. 

Whitewater Rafting

When it comes to rapids, the Mountain State claims one of the most popular whitewater runs in the Eastern United States, the Gauley River. The Gauley River National Recreation Area is located near Summersville, home to the Summersville Dam, where trips for the upper Gauley River begin their adventures.  The river runs through Pocahontas, Randolph, Webster, Nicolas and Fayette counties.   

Probably the most popular time to be on the Gauley is during “Gauley Season,” which begins the Friday after Labor Day and continues for the next six weekends.

On the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers begins a series of 22 controlled releases of the Summersville Dam for the sole purpose of recreation on the river.

The first five weekends are four-day weekends that last from Friday to Monday, and the final weekend of “Gauley Season” is just Saturday and Sunday. 

The releases of the dam are contributed to an act of the U.S. Congress, which passed the first law in the U.S. to specifically mandate whitewater dam releases for recreational purposes. These releases bring millions of dollars every year to the local economy, as adventure seekers from across the country and the globe travel to the Gauley for this event.      

There are two sections of the Gauley that are most commonly run. The Upper Gauley, which is the more difficult of the two, stretches 9.8 miles and consists of class four and class five rapids.

The most notable rapids on the Upper Gauley are named Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweet’s Falls, but don’t let the names fool you, these are all intense class five rapids.

The Lower Gauley is an 11-mile stretch of river that is a little less rowdy than the Upper Gauley, but still produces bucking whitewater rapids from class three to class five. Some of the rapids on the Lower Gauley include Rocky Top, Heaven’s Gate, Rollercoaster and the appropriately named Pure Screaming Hell.

Ryan Jennings, a senior at WVU, recalled his encounter with Pure Screaming Hell last fall. 

“I remember reading the name on a brochure before we got on the raft, and it continued to haunt me while we were going down the river,” Jennings said. “When we finally approached this section of rapids, it was all too clear to me that whoever named this was very accurate in doing so.”  

One of the most popular rafting companies on the Gauley is the New and Gauley River Adventures. Prices vary depending on the time of year, which section of the river your group wants to tackle, equipment rentals and whether or not you want pictures or video footage of your adventure.

During Gauley Season, the cost of riding the Upper Gauley can range from $100 to $200 per person. The minimum age for this trip is 16 years old, and some experience is required. The Lower Gauley trip is a bit less expensive, ranging from $90 to $125 per person. The minimum age is 12 years old, and even though no experience is required, some is suggested. 

Whitewater rafting is a dangerous adventure, and it is recommended that anyone considering it should be able to swim, be comfortable in the water while wearing a personal flotation device and be able to speak or understand spoken English, or have a translator.   

To contact New and Gauley River Adventures for more information, or to make a reservation: 1-800-759-7238 or visit www.gauley.com. 

ATV Routes

The mountains of southern West Virginia are home to the top-rated ATV trail system on the East Coast, as rated by Dirt Wheels magazine.

The Hatfield-McCoy Trails, which are open year-round, are noted as being one of the largest off-highway vehicle trail systems in the world.   

The Hatfield-McCoys Trails are composed of six individual trail systems. They are the Rockhouse Trail System, Buffalo Mountain Trail System, Bearwallow Trail System, Indian Ridge Trail System, Little Coal River Trail System and the Pinnacle Creek Trail System.

The trails range from relaxing rides with scenic mountain views to tight and twisting trails that are more of a challenge.

Many of these trail systems contain community connector trails that allow riders to visit “ATV-friendly towns” to rest and refuel.   

In order to be able to operate an ATV on the trails, you must have a valid Hatfield-McCoy Trail Permit and meet the minimum age requirement for operating the specific ATV that is being driven.

Approved helmets and protective eyewear are required to be worn by all riders, and passengers are only permitted to ride on ATVs that are built for both a driver and a passenger.   

The trail systems are open from sunrise to sunset, and fires and camping are prohibited on the trails. 

To contact the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System or get your trail permit: 1-800-592-2217 or visit www.trailsheaven.com.

Mountain Biking

There are miles of incredible trails around the New River Gorge that are perfect for the mountain biker of any age or skill level. Located in Fayetteville, Riverman’s New River Gorge Adventure Center provides guided mountain biking tours in spring, summer and fall.   

These tours can be anything from a scenic, half-day stroll to a vigorous, full-day total body workout.   

The easiest tour is seven miles and lasts for half of the day. It begins on the Thurmond-Minden Rail Trail, which offers amazing views of the river and the abandoned railroad town of Thurmond.

The next trail, the South-Side Junction Trail, is part of the historic trek taken by Mary Ingles-Draper when she escaped captivity by Indians in the 1800s. 

The most advanced tour, known as “Tour de Gorge,” is a full day, 14-mile quest. It begins on the Kaymoor-Thurmond Trail, where mountain bikers can the abandoned Kaymoor Mine, the last underground coal mine in the gorge. Since this tour is all day, a picnic is provided and bikers can enjoy their lunch by the river. 

Michael Campagna, a 24-year-old student at WVU, has biked the Tour de Gorge the past two summers, and plans on doing it again this year. 

“It’s pretty tough, but you get a great sense of accomplishment when you complete those 14 miles,” Campagna said. “I probably wouldn’t be able to do it without the riverside picnic in the middle of the day though!” 

The minimum age for these mountain bike tours is 10 years old.

A half-day tour can last up to four hours and costs $89 per person. A full day tour can last up to seven hours and costs $120 per person with lunch provided. 

It is recommended that all mountain bikers wear shorts instead of jeans or long pants, along with sturdy shoes. Helmets are provided to all bikers and are required to be worn at all times throughout the tour. Bikes are also provided, however bringing your own mountain bike is not prohibited.

If you do want to bring your own bike and venture on your own self-guided tour, shuttle services can be arranged. 

To plan your mountain biking adventure: 1-800-545-7238 or visit www.rivermen.com. 

Contact William at wjones@graffitiwv.com