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Leaf watcher day trip in Pocahontas County


Autumn leaves in Pocahontas County

For three weeks in autumn, Mother Nature sends a fleet of B-52 bombers to drop multi-color paint bombs all over the forests of Pocahontas County. OK, maybe that’s not what really happens. It’s possible that thousands of French impressionist painters sneak in at night to paint the landscape – in a way that would make Monet jealous. I wasn’t a science major, so it all sounds plausible to me. For whatever reason, the forests explode into brilliant, glorious color.

Pocahontas County is one of the best places in the world to see fall colors. We’re fortunate to have more parks and forests than any other county in West Virginia. Over sixty-

Beartown State Park
Beartown State Park

percent of our 900 square miles is protected state parks or federal forest land. The county’s vast variety of deciduous trees creates a natural color palette unparalleled anywhere on Earth.

In order to assist potential visitors, I have prepared a suggested itinerary for a one-day leaf-watching visit to southern Pocahontas County. The journey includes visits to Beartown State Park, Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, the Cranberry Glades and the Highland Scenic Highway. See a recommended schedule at the end of the article, and imagine me as your invisible tour guide, allowing you time to dawdle and enjoy the sights, but doing my best to keep you on schedule.

The lookout tower at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Photo courtesy Mike Smith.

The day trip begins at Beartown State Park. From Interstate 64, take the Lewisburg exit and travel north on Route 219 for 27 miles to reach the park. Allow an hour for the drive from Lewisburg and enjoy the beautiful trip into the highlands.

At Bearton, you’ll be surrounded by the forest, fall colors and towering sandstone rock formations. A leisurely stroll along the boardwalk will take you through rock passages, much like visiting a cave. Giant ferns cling to the moss-covered rock and light dapples in through the leaves, creating a unique and unforgettable atmosphere. You’ll want to spend at least an hour strolling on the boardwalk and taking it all in.

Mike Smith is the Superintendent at Beartown and Droop Mountain Battlefield state parks.

“Beartown in the fall is just absolutely gorgeous,” said Smith. “A lot of color in the trees – just golden – it makes a wonderful hike. Once you get down on the boardwalk, there’s just all kinds of unique rock formations and pits and trees and ferns hanging off the rocks. It’s just a wonderful natural area. Most folks enjoy the serenity.”

The boardwalk passing through Cranberry Glades.
The boardwalk passing through Cranberry Glades.

It’s a short trip to your next destination – Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park (DMBSP). From Beartown, drive north on Route 219 for four miles to the park entrance. At DMBSP, you can climb into an observation tower on the pinnacle of Droop Mountain and take in a “one over the world” view of the surrounding mountains. On a clear day in the autumn, you can see miles and miles of colorful ridgelines. Even on a misty day, the scenery from the tower can be exceptional, with fog swirling about in the valley.

“About everyone who comes likes to go up into the tower and take in the view,” said Smith. “The last week in September, the leaves are starting pretty good. The peak is usually between the first and second weeks in October. We have a lot of maples, both red maple and sugar maple. They’re the big bright ones that do the most of the fall color. We’ve also got numerous oaks and black gum with really scarlet leaves. We have a wonderful forest here at Droop. The woods here are like an island. You’ll see larger, more mature trees than you’ll see most other places and just tremendous fall color.”

Cook Tammy Nixon in The Pretty Penny Restaurant in Hillsboro.
Cook Tammy Nixon in The Pretty Penny Restaurant in Hillsboro.

Don’t forget to visit the DMBSP museum, where you can learn about the 1863 Civil War battle fought on the mountain. Stroll some pathways and read interpretive signs to learn how the battle unfolded – all the while taking in the park’s natural beauty.

If you planned ahead and packed a picnic lunch, DMBSP has two very nice picnic areas with playgrounds for the kids. Otherwise, continue north on Route 219 for four miles into Hillsboro to find some great places to eat. In Hillsboro, you can enjoy a delicious sit-down meal at the renowned Pretty Penny Restaurant – a really nice place with down-home atmosphere. You also have the choice of two good delis to grab a quick bite – McCoy’s Market or My Daughter’s Attic.

After lunch, your invisible tour guide will direct you 2.5 miles north on Route 219 from Hillsboro to Route 39. Turn left and continue for about six miles to the Cranberry Glades. This is a major attraction in the National Forest, so just look for the signs.

Like Beartown, a boardwalk winds through the Cranberry Glades. A walk through the Glades is like a visit to another world – a strange, yet beautiful world of boreal bogs and weird-looking plants. Don’t worry! The two varieties of carnivorous plants found here won’t bite – they’re too small to eat humans. The boardwalk traverses dense, jungle-like areas, but also passes through open areas, providing vistas of the mountains overlooking the Glades. Like the trees, the flora of the bogs change colors in the fall, making a visit even more awesome.

Beartown State Park
Beartown State Park

Backtrack just a quarter-mile from the Glades entrance on Route 39 to begin the final, most wonderful part of your journey – a ride on the Highland Scenic Highway. Turn north on the Scenic Highway (Route 150) and visit several overlooks to enjoy the most magnificent views of the Appalachian Mountains. A view across the Yew Mountains and the Cranberry Wilderness to the west is especially breathtaking in the fall. Take a half-hour to visit the unusual rock formation at Honeycomb Rocks, along the Scenic Highway.

The 23-mile ride north on the Scenic Highway will return you to Route 219. Travel south and stop for a bite to eat in Marlinton before you begin the journey home. Excellent dining can be found at the Greenbrier Grille, Locust Hill Pub and Dorie’s. Enjoy a cup of gourmet coffee at the Dirt Bean Cafe on Third Avenue before you leave town.

Don’t forget your camera. The fall colors are never the same in the ever-changing Appalachian Mountains. You will want to capture these moments to enjoy forever.

Cranberry Glades
Cranberry Glades

0900-1030: Beartown State Park
1030-1200 : Droop Mountain Battlefield S.P.
1200-1300 : Picnic at DMBSP or lunch in Hillsboro
1300-1430 : Cranberry Glades
1430-1600 : Highland Scenic Highway
1600-1700 : Dinner & coffee in Marlinton
1700- : Travel home

Flora in the Cranberry Glades

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