The sun skips and plays off dazzling waters of the Williams River. It is a beautiful day for a fall drive. The late afternoon sun backlights the trees, enhancing the yellow, orange, and red of the leaves. I stop at the Three Forks river crossing and watch an avid angler cast, retrieve, and recast his line. The fish must not be bitingprobably relaxing in the sun's warmth.
We have seen some beautiful country today. Our drive started in Cowen and it will end in Cowen. We will have driven just over 95 miles, seen several deer, unnumbered squirrel, and a couple of wild turkey. Mostly, we just enjoyed the splendor of West Virginia's majestic mountains in fall. Yesterday, the weather was completely different. We awoke to a fog-shrouded landscape. Few things are more enjoyable for me than walking in the mist-covered woods. Since the weather was perfect for such a walk, I went hiking. The mist blocks extraneous objects and thus directs attention to things close at hand. Subtle details, often overlooked, are noticedthe veins in a leaf, the contrast of yellow on ochre.
Our driving tour touched parts of four counties: Webster, Nicholas, Greenbrier, and Pocahontas. Our elevation ranged from around 2,000 to over 4,000 feet. Most of the drive passes through Monongahela National Forest. Along the way we saw several of West Virginia's most scenic rivers: Gauley, Cherry, and Williams. We saw Hills Creek Falls, Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, and traveled along the Highland Scenic Highway.
The tour departs Cowen, headed south on Route 20. A three-way stop in Craigsville is the first turn: Go left, continuing on what is now Route 20/55. A few miles outside of Craigsville on the right is a sign indicating the Crupperneck Bend overlook of Gauley River. The overlook offers a beautiful view. Just down the road, the tour crosses the Gauley River and the road goes alongside the Cherry River. If one enjoys fishing, there are several places to stop and cast a few. In Fenwick, the route number changes to Route 55 (Route 20 turns right across a bridge). Just continue going straight toward Richwood. Route 55 passes through some of the most remote and scenic sections of West Virginia. One travels miles without any sign of civilization other than the highway.
Near the Greenbrier/Pocahontas County line, on the right, is a sign for Hills Creek Falls. The Lower Falls of Hills Creek is the second highest waterfall in the state. It is well worth the effort to hike down and see it. About six miles on up the road is Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. This is West Virginia's largest area of bogs. Here one finds many species of plants normally found in far more northern regions. The last Ice Age, creeping south, transplanted these species from their northern home. The parking area is to the left of Route 55. A short boardwalk makes a loop through a section of the glades, allowing one to observe the area without sinking in the bog. It is probably a good idea to first stop at the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center for a trail guide. (This involves a little backtracking, the visitor center is about a mile beyond the glades.) Continuing on the driving tour, turn onto Route 150, the Highland Scenic Highway, directly across from the visitor center. This scenic highway was recently ranked number six in a national magazine's ranking of the top ten scenic drives in the United States. The highway crosses two large mountains: Cranberry and Black. There are several scenic overlooks offering spectacular views.
The next turn will be onto Forest Service Road 86 at Williams River. This is a well-maintained gravel road. The road travels along with the Williams River on the right and Cranberry Wilderness on the left until the crossing at Three Forks. Cranberry Wilderness is a congressionally designated wilderness area within Monongahela National Forest. The gravel road meets again with hardtop just a few miles past the Three Forks crossing. This road intersects Route 20 about two miles north of Cowen, completing the circle.
There are many campsites within the national forest, but what about those with something a little less rustic in mind? Camp Caesar is the answer for these folks. The camp is located about four miles north of Cowen along Route 20. Camp Caesar is a non-profit area owned by the Webster County 4-H Club. The camp offers a warm, dry place to stay and three hot meals a day. Sleeping is dormitory style, so bring your bed roll partner. The home-cooked meals are served family style in the large dining room. I've never seen anyone leave hungry.
Each October, Camp Caesar hosts a special "Fall Color Tour." This year the event takes place October 10-12. Check-in is anytime after 2 p.m. Friday; departure is after breakfast on Sunday. Included will be five meals, lodging, several guided leaf-viewing tours throughout Webster County, and an evening program on Friday and Saturday evenings. The drives will guided by Webster Springs Garden Club members. Leaders and guests will carpool through the colorful mountain highways. Some hiking may be added, depending upon the desires of the guests. The package price for the event is $70 per person. Reservations must be made by October 6. Cabins are available for rent throughout much of the year, so if you can't make the tour, you can still bunk at Camp Caesar for $8 a night and catch dinner for $6.25.
Another place to consider staying is The Four Seasons Lodge just outside Richwood. The Four Seasons features clean, comfortable rooms (under $50 for a double) with cable television. The roar of the Cherry River provides a soothing sound as it passes just behind the lodge.
The mountains of West Virginia are drenched in color this time of year. The driving tour passes through some of the highest and most scenic areas of the state. A hike in Cranberry Wilderness has its own rewards. Some may come to Camp Caesar and decide not to venture out. The camp has 300 acres with many hiking trails, a mountain bike trail; it also borders Monongahela National Forest.
If You Go
Cowen is about a two-hour drive north from Charleston. The airport in Charleston features auto rentals. Take I-79 North from Charleston to exit 57 (Summersville/U.S. 19). Follow U.S. 19 south to Birch River. Turn left at Birch River on Route 82. Follow Route 82 16 miles to Cowen. Route 82 intersects Route 20 just past Big Ditch Lake. Follow Route 20 north (turn left at the intersection) through Cowen to Camp Caesar about 4 miles beyond. If staying at Camp Caesar, bring a pillow, sleeping bag, towels, and washcloths. Wear sturdy walking shoes and dress in layers. The weather can go from quite cool to very warm.
For more information, please see our Monongahela National Forest Page.
Cranberry Mt. Visitor Center
USDA Forest Service
P.O. Box 110
Richwood, WV 26261
P.O. Box 428
Cowen, WV 26206
Potomac Highlands Travel Council
1200 Harrison Ave.
Elkins, WV 26241
Four Seasons Lodge
Drawer F/ Route 39-55
Richwood, WV 26261
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication