Laura Dean Bennett
Watoga State Park, the largest and one of the most popular state parks in West Virginia is situated in 10,100 acres of shady, pristine forest in the mountains of Pocahontas County.
Watoga has something for everyone – hikers, campers and cabin guests who want to get away from it all, swimmers, fishermen, bird watchers and nature lovers.
Nature lovers are never disappointed.
Watoga is home to all kinds of wildlife – deer, bear, beaver, raccoons, wild turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks and more.
This spring, visitors to Watoga have been treated to frequent sightings of a mama bear and her three cubs.
The park is tailor-made for a wilderness adventure.
Watoga is full of lush woodlands, a crystal clear lake that’s perfect for canoeing or fishing and the Greenbrier River is right there, too.
But some might say, the real jewels in the park are the lovely, rustic cabins.
As you drive the narrow, winding road through the park, you’ll see them tucked up in the woods, or perched lakeside, peeking through thick foliage.
That’s when you’ll sigh and say, ”I wish I’d packed a toothbrush!”
You can rent one of these delightful dwellings for a night, a week or the entire season!
Scott Burdette and his wife and children are from Charleston, and they stayed in Cabin 7 for a week.
“The kids really like the loft in the cabin,” Burdette said. “I guess it’s exciting and adventurous for them.”
Burdette has been visiting Pocahontas County since he was a baby, but this is just the second time he’s rented a cabin. He’s come to the park many times with motorcycle buddies and they’ve stayed at the campground and camped in tents.
During their visit, the Burdette family made a lot of day trips visiting Beartown, Droop Mountain and Hills Creek Falls, and biking on the Greenbrier River Trail. Throw in cook-outs and the swimming pool, and you have the makings of a great vacation.
Jim and Katy Crim, who own an art and photo gallery on Chestnut Street in Clarksburg, recently spent a weekend in Watoga Cabin 31.
The Crims are real aficionados of West Virginia’s state parks.
“Whenever we need to get away,” Katy said, “we like to go to a park.”
“We’ve been to Cacapon, Lost River, Pipestem, Dolly Sods, Black Water Falls, but one of our favorites is Watoga.”
Both Jim and Katy are artists. Jim does stunningly beautiful nature photography, and Katy doesn’t go anywhere without her sketch pad and journal.
“We like to come to the park in all seasons,” she said. “There’s always something beautiful to look at, and I want to get it down on paper.
“We were here one time in March when people were ice fishing on the lake. That was really something.”
As a photographer, Jim likes the park’s location.
“Not just inside the park,” he said, “but in the entire surrounding area – Snowshoe, Cass, Green Bank, Cranberry Glades. You can stop anywhere, and there’s always something worthwhile to shoot a picture of.”
“Everywhere you look, everything’s beautiful,” she said.
Jim and Katy stay pretty busy running their business, and Katy is also a high school teacher.
“It’s so important to be able to unplug – you know, get away from our busy life once in a while and come to the woods,” Katy said.
If you’re a fisherman looking to angle for golden, rainbow or brown trout, large-mouth bass, blue gill, channel cat fish or yellow perch, Watoga lake will support that habit.
I met an angler, Okey Harrah, when he was on his way to get his one-day fishing license at the park office.
Okey and Pat Harrah and their family live in Fairfax, South Carolina, but they were spending their vacation in Cabin 14.
They’ve been bringing their children – and now grown children – and grandchildren – to Watoga for decades.
“We really like staying in the cabins here,” Okey said.
“We’ve been to lots of parks – Blue Stone, Babcock, Hawk’s Nest, Tygart Lake and Greenbrier State Forest – but this is our favorite. It’s one of the best parks in West Virginia.
Over the years the Harrahs have called Cabins #12, #14, #16 and #18 their home away from home, but Okey’s favorites are #14 and #18.
Okey likes those cabins’ location.
“Maybe because I’m nosy,” he said, “and I like people watching. I like to be close to the lake and close to where people walk by.
“I enjoy meeting people and I like to socialize. I like to fish and see lots of wildlife. We see a bear every time we come here. This time, we had bears visiting near our cabin twice.
“There are lots of reasons we love it here.
“We love the fact that you can just turn your grandkids loose here, and they’ll be safe,” Okey continued.
“It’s a family-oriented park.
“The staff is just as nice as they can be, and we really like that there’s no cell phone service and no TV, just peace and quiet and family time.”
Park superintendent Jody Spencer explains that there are 34 cabins in the park, all have electricity, indoor plumbing and fireplaces and all come with free access to the swimming pool.
There are 24 “Legacy” cabins, which were handcrafted by the CCC workers in the 1930s.
These are the original log cabin style residences – with log and stone construction.
The Legacy cabins range from the charmingly rustic one room, two person, “Honeymoon” cabins to the equally rustic, but far roomier, one, two and three bedroom cabins.
The 10 “Classic” cabins were built in the 1950s and, while they also feature wood frame construction and wood paneling throughout, they are a bit more modern than the originals and also have heat and air conditioning.
Two of the eight-person Classic cabins are handicapped-accessible, and more accessibility modifications are in the works for several other cabins, as well.
“The thing about these Legacy log cabins is that each one of them is unique,” Spencer explained.
“Each one has slightly different workmanship because they were hand-built by different people.
“Their fireplaces are different, and their mantels are different.”
Two cabins have screened porches – Cabins 4 and 13.
Cabin 7 is the only one with a loft.
Cabins 1 and 2 are favorites of people who like to bring their bicycles as they are nearest the Greenbrier River Trail.
Spencer said guests can expect some major upgrades in the Legacy cabins in the next few years.
Back on the trail, looking for cabin guests to talk to, I catch a young couple as they step out on their porch, with pool towels under their arms.
They are Joe and Kelly Rager from Buchannon. They have been married for seven years, and this is their fourth visit.
They have set up housekeeping in the Honeymoon-style Cabin 27.
Before they were married, Joe used to come to Watoga to camp, but now, Watoga’s cabins are the favorite place for the Ragers to stay.
“They just feel so homey,” Kelly said. “We love it here. The cabin is adorable.”
While we were talking, a curious doe walked to within a few feet of us.
“There,” Kelly said, pointing to the deer. “That’s what I mean. This place is special. We love seeing the wildlife. We saw two bears Thursday evening.”
The couple said they’d tubed the Greenbrier River the day before, but were going to take it easy and just hang out at the pool for the day.
Whether guests come home from a day trip around the county, or want to get out of their cabin and meet other guests, evening programs provide a time for socializing.
Every evening at 7 p.m., guests are treated to a campfire cookery demonstration by Park Naturalist Chris Bartley. This particular week he was showing guests how to cook a blackberry cobbler in a cast iron skillet over an open fire.
At 9 p.m., Bartley offers an activity sure to please kids of all ages – stories and s’mores around a roaring fire.
“One of my goals is to get younger families in here while still providing top-notch hospitality to older guests – that dedicated group of people who have been coming here for 50 years,” Spencer said.
“Parks didn’t used to have a lot of competition. Now people have a lot of choices about where to vacation.
“We are trying to anticipate our guests needs and accommodate as many as we can.
“We offer pet-friendly cabins, outside fire pits, and now there’s WiFi. There was a time when the theory was that people didn’t want to be on the Internet if they were here in Watoga.
“Now, we know better. So we have several WiFi spots where people can check in back home or stay in touch with work. And it’s not just the young people that need to have Internet access. Older folks tell me that if they don’t check in with their adult children, they start to worry.”
So, really, Watoga has everything you could hope for in rustic cabin living, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for good measure.
“Just tell the reservation staff what you are looking for, what your needs are, and they can help you,” Spencer advises.
“They know all the cabins and can put you in the one that best suits your needs.”
If you arrive after dark, looking for your cabin in a pitch-black, Hansel and Gretel forest might cause a thrilling little shiver, but have no fear.
The friendly folks at Watoga will welcome you by leaving the cabin porch light on for you.
Watoga’s Classic cabins, which can accommodate four to eight guests, are open year-around.
Their 24 Legacy log cabins are open from April through October and can accommodate two to six guests.
For more information at Watoga State Park or to make cabin reservations, visit their website at wvstateparks.com/park/watoga-state-park or call 1-833-WV-PARKS or 304-799-4087.