Laura Dean Bennett
Not for the faint of heart, but definitely perfect for those who really want to get away from it all, Seneca’s primitive cabins boast practically no modern conveniences, but offer a real taste of life in the woods the way it was lived years ago.
Seneca is West Virginia’s first state forest. It was created in 1924 to ensure timber and wildlife for the future. During the 1930s, Seneca was home to the largest and most varied populations of wildlife found anywhere in West Virginia.
Today, Seneca offers unique hospitality by way of its eight off-the-grid “pioneer” cabins, with hand-pumped water, gas refrigerators, gaslights, fireplaces and wood-burning cook stoves.
Five of the cabins are located along the shore of the four-acre Seneca Lake, and come equipped with canoes. The other three overlook the beautiful Greenbrier River, and all were built in the 1930s.
You’ll get a warm welcome in the park office as Seneca State Forest Superintendent Jeff Layfield and Office Assistant Janet Goehner have years of experience in welcoming guests to Seneca.
And if you’re there on an 80 degree day, don’t be surprised if, after that warm welcome, you get a chillier reception among the pines, as you drive into the forest, where the temperature drops to a cool 70.
When you leave the office and set out in search of your cabin, you’ll get an otherworldly sensation, as the paved road gives way to a winding, rugged dirt road.
Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and birds, as they are surely all around you.
You might as well have stepped into a time machine as a narrow lane takes you miles into the forest and centuries back in time.
This is not the place for a fancy sports car. It is better suited to horse or covered wagon.
When you think of the cabin in Laura Ingalls Wilder story Little House in the Woods, you might, for all intents and purposes, be imagining a cabin just like the ones you’ll discover hiding in Seneca State Forest.
They are rustic, to say the least.
Two cabins have been rebuilt, but were rebuilt exactly to their original specifications.
Layfield said the cabins are completely furnished and supplied with firewood, pots, pans, dinnerware, bed linens, blankets, towels and other amenities to provide for a relaxing stay.
But they are primitive, which is what makes them special.
They have practically none of the things that we take for granted these days – no electricity, no running water or indoor plumbing, no phones, no TV, no Internet.
What there is, is the charm of days gone by – the beauty that comes from the hand of a skilled craftsman.
Step up on the porch, lift the old-fashioned door latch and enter into another time. There’s the homey scent of the wood burning stove and the fire place, the glowing beauty of wood is everywhere, in the hand hewn furniture and oak floors, kitchen cabinets right out of great-grandma’s kitchen, and cozy wooden beds covered in quilts.
And just because there’s no electricity, don’t assume you’ll be left in the dark – there are gas powered ceiling lamps to light your way in all the rooms.
There’s also a gas powered fridge tucked into the kitchen.
But for water, you’ll head outside to the hand pump, where you will draw water just like in the old days, and carry it indoors for washing and cooking.
Bring groceries with you and create a taste sensation for your family as you prepare meals and bake on a classic Mealmaster wood cook stove.
There’s no charge for firewood for cabin guests who will want to make a fire on a chilly evening or cook their breakfast or supper on the cook stove.
Or, when you have a mind to, cook outside on the grill.
And don’t bother looking for a bathroom. If you’ve ever heard the terms “privy” and “outhouse,” this is your chance to learn what they mean.
When you get tired of “cat baths,” you can always go to the office where there are two hot showers.
Your children will never take indoor plumbing for granted again.
But for those hearty souls who crave real rugged cabin living, Seneca is a paradise. And it offers hospitality to the whole family.
You can even bring Fido.
As long as you don’t leave them unattended, dogs are allowed in the cabins and, on a leash, they may enjoy boating, biking or hiking the trails right along with their owners
Visitors can also enjoy the unique experience of an overnight stay in the 55 foot tall, newly refurbished Thorny Mountain Fire Tower.
The spectacular view from atop the tower is the most complete 360 degree panorama possible of the Pocahontas County highlands and the Greenbrier River Valley.
In 1935, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew built the Thorny Mountain Tower to replace a fire tower that had been built on nearby Michael Mountain during the 1920s.
For really adventurous guests who like camping, and want a truly unique sleepover experience, this tower is for you.
Beds, water and firewood are provided, along with a picnic table, grill, fire ring, and a privy at the base of the tower.
Steel and wooden stairs lead up to the cab and the catwalk surrounding it, so you get a workout just getting up there.
An overnight stay in the fire tower is a real slice of the past. You can experience the life of a forest ranger of the 1930s.
“It’s pretty sparse,” Layfield said. “We have a couple of sleeping cots with mattresses and a table and chairs. As far as cooking facilities, we’ll provide a campfire location and grill on the ground level.”
Whatever you need beyond that, you’ll have to bring yourself. But talk about a room with a view!
Imagine waking up to a glorious sunrise and being able to see forever across the mountains.
Back on the ground and down the mountain a little way, the guests at Cabin 3 are enjoying pioneer-style living.
John and Pat Lower from Woodsfield, Ohio, have brought their extended family for summer vacations to the Seneca cabins four or five times.
And in September, John and Pat like to come back on their own.
“Just the two of us when the cabin’s nice and quiet with no grandkids to wrangle” Pat said, laughing.
“Yes, we’ve been here so many times, and we just love it. It’s back to basics,” John said. “I don’t want these kids to be too citified,” John explains.
Grandson Jonathan, who lives in Akron, has learned how to start a fire with a flint.
“I’m in Cub Scouts,” he said, “and I’m learning survival skills for my Castaway Badge.”
Daughter Rebecca was preparing to cook kebobs on the grill for supper while 10 year old Jonathan and 11 year old Reidan worked on an art project at the picnic table.
Then the cousins challenge each other to a race before supper.
“Meals are usually something simple,” John said. “Hotdogs and hamburgers, but my favorite is bologna,” he laughs.
And then there’s real campfire cuisine.
Pat said she is teaching the kids how to cook without pots and pans.
“I’m going to make breakfast over the fire. You take a paper sack and put in two pieces of bacon, crack an egg over the bacon, roll up the top of the sack, put a stick through the top and cook it over the fire,” she explains.
For dessert, Pat has another neat recipe.
“You slice off the top and hollow out oranges, prepare a cake mix and pour it into the oranges, place the tops back on, wrap them in foil and just set them in the coals,” she shared.
Daughter Nina likes the rustic cabin life at Seneca.
“It’s unplugging for real,” she said.
“There’s no electricity, no cell phone. Just peace and quiet.
“I can do whatever I want and work can’t get hold of me!”
There are canoes, kayaks and rowboats to rent for those who like to get out on the water.
Jonathan said he is a kayak expert and really likes to fish.
“They have really good boats, plus it’s nice and peaceful,” he said.
Seneca Lake is stocked spring and fall with trout and large mouth bass.
There are also plenty of catfish, bluegill and perch to keep anglers busy.
Sleeping accommodations vary by cabin.
The smallest cabins sleep three people and the largest sleeps 14 (with beds for 10 but cots for four more).
Cabin 4, which sleeps six, is tucked behind a gate and perched right on the side of the lake.
It has gorgeous views of the water from nearly every window and it has a great porch.
Bonnie and Doug Rook are from Ontario, Canada. They wanted to experience life in a Seneca cabin.
I happened upon them as they were walking down by the lake, which is a short walk from their front door.
It was nearly suppertime, and they had just arrived for a week’s stay.
“We’ve travelled a bit through the U.S.,” Doug said. “We’ve done parts of the Appalachian Trail, and we’ve driven through West Virginia and really loved it.”
Bonnie said life is so hectic in Ontario, they really like to get away to a quiet place.
“But this is the first time we’ve done this – stayed in the completely old-fashioned cabin,” Doug said.
I saw the Rooks sitting on their porch the next morning and asked how they had enjoyed their first night of rustic cabin living.
“It was wonderful!” Bonnie said, smiling.
“Just so relaxing!” Doug added.
For those who like to hike and experience nature up close and personal, there are 40 miles of beautiful trails with lovely names like Scarlet Oak, Great Laurel, Hickory Path and Thorny Creek.
Seneca’s trails are great for hiking and splendid for mountain biking, but if you want to ride horses, you’ll have to bring your own.
Guests who own horses and want the complete pioneer experience can make boarding arrangements with nearby E.J. Stables (ejcottages.net or call 304-456-4319).
Each season is special in Seneca State Forest. Many folks who visit in the summer say they want to return in the fall, when a wood stove or fireplace is just the thing to knock off the evening’s chill.
But you’ll have to plan your stay before the deep snows of winter.
Although day use is allowed in the winter, the cabins aren’t rented from the end of November until the second Friday in April, as snow often renders the roads impassable.
To learn more about Seneca State Forest or make reservations visit their website at www.senecastateforest.com or call 304-799-6213.