RVING WEST VIRGINIA:
A PERFECT PLACE FOR
FIRST-TIMERS AND VETERANS
As long-time tent campers and fans of West Virginia road trips, the idea of trying an RV for the first time had some definite appeals for my wife and me. The ease of driving roads we knew well made maneuvering a big rig less daunting, while the conveniences of camping with a mobile bedroom, kitchen, and other modern amenities seemed like an ideal way to enjoy all West Virginia has to offer.
RVing is exploding in the U.S. and its not just with the retired set. Last year, new RV shipments totaled an incredible 292,700, which was a 20-year record. These robust numbers confirm that RV travel has entered a new era of growth, says David Humphreys, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). The industry is now benefiting from an influx of baby boomers into the RV ownership ranks. Like the previous generation of buyers, boomers are finding that RVs offer unique convenience, comfort, value, and opportunities for family bonding.
Being a baby boomer myself, those figures were enough to convince me to give RVing a try. In researching how to try RVing, my first discovery was that renting is a convenient and ideal way to sample this big-time travel trend.
Several national companies offer rental options, as do many D.C.-area dealers. The nations largest rental company, Cruise America, has more than 100 centers throughout the U.S., including one in Columbia Maryland (Cruise America / ITE, Inc., 800/327-7799) Dozens of local dealers in the rental business carry fleets of five to 50 vehicles, while a growing number of campground operators now offer on-site rentals.
We opted for an Xplorer type B van camper. Their 21-foot version features a queen-sized bed in the rear that converts to a sofa at the push of a button, as well as additional fold-down sleeping up front for one more person. Theres a small bathroom and built-in shower, as well as standard features like: a stereo; a dinette; a fully functional kitchen two-burner stove, refrigerator, and microwave; a monitoring system that tells you everything you need to know about the RVs numerous functions; and an incredible amount of storage. RVs are available in many lengths and styles, but this was an ideal size for us to try.
Of course, other well-known companies like Winnebago, Coachmen, Fleetwood, and many others feature a wide choice of offerings, ranging from conversion vans and folding camper trailers to giant buses that are complete homes on wheels. We learned about all of the options by a visit to a local dealer, which is a great place to start.
This initial dealer visit and a few test drives led to our cruising west out of Washington on I-66. We had decided to drive the Skyline Drive before heading over into the southeastern part of West Virginia. This low-traffic road offered an ideal way to try the RV. Of course, those already comfortable with RVing can opt to use I-66, I-81, and I-64.
Within minutes on the interstate and Skyline Drive, I became comfortable with driving this condominium on wheels and my wife became comfortable as the co-pilot. It handled just like a car, though it took a bit of time to get used to the size when changing lanes. A veteran Virginia-based RVer had recommended that we stop for gas and provisions before hitting the Skyline Drive and smaller roads in West Virginia, which saved us both time and money during the rest of our trip.
The powerful Dodge engine had no trouble getting us up the the first few steep hills, which bode well for the climbs to come. Once on the Skyline Drive proper, it became obvious that this was a great place to try RVing in a non-threatening atmosphere. The lower speed limits (35 or 45 mph) and limited traffic made it easy to grow more comfortable with driving an RV and pulling off for the numerous overlooks and other attractions along the way.
Once we completed the Skyline Drive on Afton Mountain, it was time to head west over to West Virginia. After a quick drive on I-64 and I-81, we were in the Mountaineer State for some RVing, West Virginia-style.
We had decided to start our Mountaineer State RV adventure in Lewisburg, taking pretty US 219 up through the eastern part of the state and then back into the D.C. area. It turned out to be an ideal choice. Route 219 runs roughly parallel with the Greenbrier River (and many Greenbrier River Trail access points, for those traveling with bikes), as well as through rolling farmland. Pocahontas County is at the heart of the Potomac Highlands.
About 25 miles north of Lewisburg, you reach the entrance for Beartown State Park. This interesting park features a boardwalk that leads through a wild array of sandstone rock formations and quiet forests. It's a peaceful diversion from driving.
Just a mile up the road, look for the turnoff to Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. This now-peaceful park was the site of a bloody Civil War battle that claimed more than 400 lives. Fought on November 6, 1863, Confederate troops were driven out of West Virginia for good after this battle. Highlights include a museum, hiking trails, trenches, and (often) an on-duty park ranger.
Route 219 leads immediately into Hillsboro and another interesting Greenbrier Valley town. Hillsboro is best known as the birthplace of Pearl S. Buck, one of America's most distinguished writers. Pearl Buck fans come from afar to visit the restored home where she was born, which is a far cry from Pearl's home in China for 40 years.
Located right on Route 219, the house was built by the Stulting family (Pearl's grandparents), who had emigrated to America from Holland in 1847. On June 26, 1892, Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born. Her missionary parents, having lost earlier children in China, had returned to the U.S. for a few months for Pearl's birth.
Writing under the married name of Pearl S. Buck, she won the hearts of Americans with her famous novel, The Good Earth, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. For the high quality of her literary work, Pearl won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. She is the only American woman to receive both awards.
The restored house is a white-columned beauty, with furnishings and artifacts from the period, as well as many articles from Buck's life. A gift shop sells autographed books, First Day Covers of Pearl S. Buck Stamps, and many other souvenirs.
The Pearl S. Buck Museum complex also includes the Sydenstricker House, which was the birthplace of Pearl's father. This pretty farmhouse was dismantled and transported 40 miles to its present location.
The rest of Hillsboro provides more diversions. One of the most popular stops is the Hillsboro General Store, right on Route 219. Established in 1893, this classic general store features everything from antiques to country ham. It's a true step back in time. For more shopping on Route 219, head to Morning Star Folk Arts. Dwight and Elaine Diller feature a wide array of West Virginia Heritage Dolls, 19th century traditional music performed by Dwight on banjo, fiddle, and guitar, and the work of many locals artists and crafters.
We camped the first night in Watoga State Park, just north of Hillsboro. With a wide variety of typical state park activities and amenities, Watoga State Park is a great place to spend some time in an RV. As is true with most state park campgrounds, they offer some electric and water hookups, additional primitive sites (no hookups), a dumping station, firewood sales, and much more.
Though we had a full hookup with water and electricity, we later learned that its easy to use the generator for one or two nights when water and electricity arent available. This generator operates things like the freshwater pump, electricity for lighting and cooking, and much more.
Once established in a campground for the night, we established a ritual of a short hike, followed by a fire (the campsites typically have fire rings) and some quality time outdoors. Watoga State Park was the perfect setting for all three.
Then, we went inside to our home (and kitchen) on wheels for a gourmet meal. One of the beauties of RVing is the ability to place provisions in the refrigerator, freezer, and ample cabinet space. The stove and microwave, along with an outdoor grill at most sites, made virtually any meal a possibility. We also learned how simple it is to hook your RV up for water and electricity, which most commercial campgrounds provide.
Back on Route 219 after a great night of camping, we looked for the Route 39/55 turnoff to the left at Mill Point. This diversion is well worth the extra hour or so of driving.
Route 39/55 leads into the pretty Cranberry Mountain area and to one of West Virginia's special roads, the Highland Scenic Highway. This beautiful National Forest Scenic Byway, right through the heart of the Monongahela National Forest, extends 43 miles from Richwood (Ramp Capital of the World) back to Route 219, seven miles south of Marlinton. This makes for a nice loop back to Route 219.
The Highway follows Route 39/55 for 21 miles from Richwood to the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center and then turns onto State Route 150 for the 22 mile Parkway section. Like the Skyline Drive, it was another perfectly peaceful place for first-time RVers like us.
The Highway traverses the mountainous terrain of the Allegheny Highlands and Plateau, rising from 2,325 feet in Richwood to more than 4,500 feet on the Parkway. Four scenic overlooks located on the Parkway portion provide for spectacular views of the surrounding ridges and valleys. We found the higher seating in the RV provided even better views from the road. Spring blossoms, summer wildflowers, and autumn leaves offer color throughout the seasons.
The Cranberry Glades Botanical Area features the largest area of bogs in the state. Typical of acidic wetlands found in Canada, a half-mile boardwalk allows exploration of this fragile area. The Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area features three waterfalls that cascade over rock layers of sandstone and shale. The 3/4-mile trail provides access to the falls.
More than 150 miles of trails can be found along the Highway. Three primitive campgrounds are located just a short drive off the route. It's an ideal (and typical) West Virginia country road diversion.
Route 219 leads into Marlinton and a few "big town" attractions. Right before heading into town, be sure to stop at the Pocahontas County Historical Museum on the right. Located in an old 1904 frame house, the museum features the history of the county from the days of Native Americans to the present. Other highlights include the Pearl S. Buck Library, a log cabin, and a local cemetery. Marlinton is a perfect base for exploring the Greenbrier River Trail and the rest of Pocahontas County.
The next stop in this Potomac Highlands wonderland is Slatyfork. Thanks to the rugged mountains and several successful resorts, the Slatyfork area is a vibrant outdoors community.
To get a sense of this community, stop by Sharp's Country Store right on Route 219. For more than 100 years, the Sharp family has operated a mercantile business in Slatyfork. The present store opened in 1927 and is pretty much like it was back then, with dark oak shelves heavily laden with foodstuffs, beverages, supplies, clothing, antiques, and collectibles. There are numerous displays from periods of the store's history. Linda (granddaughter of founder L.D. Sharp) and her husband, Benny, will be happy to share the store and stories.
FOLLOWING COULD BE DELETED, IF NEEDED
New RVers will appreciate the opportunity to let someone else do the driving at the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. A part of West Virginia's excellent state park system, this unique park offers an excursion that transports passengers back to a time when steam-driven locomotives were a part of everyday life. Cass is reached by taking the new 11-mile connector road, Route 66, that runs from Slatyfork and Route 219.
The town of Cass remains relatively unchanged, with restored buildings and the charm of an old railroad town. From the country store and museum to the railroad station, you'll find plenty to do before your departure.
The Cass Scenic Railroad is the same line built in 1902 and used to haul lumber to the mill in Cass. The locomotives are the same ones used, while the passenger cars are old logging flatcars that have been converted into coaches.
The 90-ton locomotive, complete with thick smoke, pulls away from the station, passing the old water tower, where the locomotive's tanks are filled. The train heads up the curve at Leatherback Creek and passes the Cass Shop, where the trains are serviced and repaired and where there is lots of old equipment. The train heads at full steam up two huge switchbacks and into the mountains at an amazing 11 percent grade.
The train stops at Whittaker Station, where you can enjoy spectacular views and a picnic lunch. You can also continue on to Bald Knob, the second highest point in the state. The round-trip excursion to Whittaker Station takes 1 1/2 hours, while the exciting Bald Knob trip takes 4 1/2 hours.
ABOVE COULD BE DELETED, IF NEEDED
Back in Slatyfork, look for the Elk River Touring Center on the left-hand side of Route 219. This outdoors mecca is a great source for exploring the Potomac Highlands by many means of transportation. Begun as a cross country skiing center, Elk River has grown into a ski and mountain biking mecca that is a complete outdoors vacation center.
Just up the road, look for the right-hand turn to Snowshoe Mountain Resort. This four-season resort has developed into one of West Virginia's biggest tourism draws. With some of the region's best skiing in the winter and plenty of "off-season" golf, mountain biking, and hiking opportunities, Snowshoe Mountain Resort is a perfect Route 219 goal.
Another 30 minutes of winding country road driving takes you into the pretty college town of Elkins, the largest city in the Potomac Highlands. Elkins has grown into a well-known community of artists, musicians, writers, and craftspeople. In October, Elkins plays host to the ten-day Mountain State Forest Festival, the largest festival in the state, with the best of mountain arts, crafts, sports, music, parades, and woodchopping contests.
The cultural scene in Elkins revolves around Davis & Elkins College. Founded in 1904, this small liberal arts campus has a big reputation to go along with its 900 students. The grounds and friendly students make for a great way to stretch your legs after some winding country road driving.
Head to the highest point at the college for a look at Halliehurst Museum, the former home of the founder of the town, Stephen Benton Elkins. This 1890s mansion now houses an eclectic museum of culture and history. Guided tours reveal unusual items like the organ on which the West Virginia state anthem was composed and the H.M. Darby Collection of unusual artifacts.
Elkins also serves as a gateway for adventures in the Monongahela National Forest. This huge woodland area encompasses more than 901,000 acres of scenic mountains and forests. Some of the state's best fishing, hunting, and hiking can be found in this national forest.
Begun in 1915 with the purchase of 7,200 acres, the Monongahela formally became a national forest in 1920. The lands purchased by the federal government for the Forest had mostly been forested during the late-1800s and early-1900s and were often little more than bare hillsides. The early days of the Forest saw the reestablishment of a tree cover through planting programs. The CCC was active in the Forest in the 1930s, building stone and timber pavilions and many other structures that remain today.
The mountains are also shaped by moving water, with the area home to the headwaters of five major river systems and hundreds of miles of smaller streams. These bodies of water mean good fishing, canoeing, and whitewater rafting. Other recreational opportunities available to the visitor include camping (primitive and developed), birdwatching, rock climbing, hiking, caving, hunting, cross country skiing, and much more.
Using a camping directory wed bought in a local RV dealership, we found several camping options in the Elkins area. We opted for ????? Campground just eight miles east of town on US 33. Situated on the Shaver Fork of the Cheat River, it provided an ideal setting for riverfront camping. We were hooked up to electricity, water, and sewer systems within minutes. Just a few minutes later, we had the canopy up, the charcoal lit, and a wood fire burning. Within 36 hours of leaving Washington, we felt like veteran RVers.
That evening went much like the first, with an enjoyable hike, a riverfront sunset, grilled chicken, and marshmallows by firelight. It didnt hurt that instead of crawling into a tent for the night, we were able to stretch out inside our RV.
After a leisurely morning, it was time to head back Washington. We were so comfortable with the RV by now that we decided to take a backroad (State Road 55) back to I-81 and I-66. Passing through Huttonsville and other small West Virginia towns, it was the perfect end to our RV adventure.
A free getting started video full of RV shopping, rental, and travel information, plus a list of local dealers and campgrounds, is available by calling (888) GO RVing. More detailed information, including a free booklet on Choosing and Using Your RV and a directory of RV shows, publications, rental sources, and clubs, can be obtained by writing the RVIA at P.O. Box 2999, Dept. P, Reston, VA 20195. Internet users can order these and other publications on-line, as well as extensive information, news, and tips on RV travel, at www.rvia.org and www.GoRVing.com.
For further information about RVing and other travel in West Virginia, including state parks, call (800) CALL WVA. They offer one of the best statewide travel information systems in the nation.
FALL FOLIAGE RVING
An RV offers an ideal way to see fall foliage in West Virginia and elsewhere. The generally higher vantage point and ease of maneuvering at pulloffs make it popular with both first-timers and veterans. We cant wait to rent another RV this fall (and we might even have bought one by then).
But because of this popularity with RVers and car drivers, West Virginia can get a bit crowded during peak leaf peeping periods. RVers would do well to time their trips for weekdays, rather than weekends, when the states roads and campgrounds are much less crowded. Its also generally less crowded during the end of prime viewing times, when the crowds have decreased but the colors are just as dramatic.