Around the US, National Parks, West Virginia

How to Spend a Weekend in Monongahela National Forest

Monongahela National Forest has always been one of my favorite places in West Virginia.  I’ve always loved taking weekend trips in the area with my family, and I”m excited to share a few of my favorite places here! There’s so much to do – from state parks to caves to cute little towns with amazing food. If you’re visiting West Virginia, or if you live in WV and just need a fun trip, this is the place to go!

This also lines up with my post on spending A Week in West Virginia and expands on the section there that discusses visiting Monongahela National Forest. In this post, I’ll provide the same three-day itinerary with more details about the places mentioned. Keep in mind that this would be a very packed itinerary, and depending on what you want to do, it would be a good idea to alter this to fit what you want to do. I provide some notes on this below.

Blackwater Falls State Park

About the National Forest

Monongahela National Forest was established in 1920, though, of course, the ecology of the area is much older than that. According to the National Forest Service, it is “one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the United States” and has a range of elevations from 1000 – 4,863 feet above sea level. This area also includes the highest mountain in West Virginia: Spruce Knob.

The elevation changes in the region have a huge effect on rainfall patterns, which is part of why Monongahela National Forest has so much biodiversity. It is actually considered “an area of global ecological importance” by the Nature Conservancy. The spine of the Appalachian Mountains here forms the Eastern Continental Divide, which means that precipitation falling on the eastern side flows to the Atlantic Ocean, while precipitation on the western side goes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The mountains also have what’s known as a “rain shadow” effect that results in western side receiving (on average) twice as much water as the eastern side. The elevation changes also create micro-climates in which different species of plants and animals are able to survive.

In terms of biological diversity, the Forest Service lists “at least 75 tree species; more than 225 bird species; 8 federally-listed, threatened or endangered bird, bat, salamander, and plant species; 60 nongame/forage fish species; 12 game fish species; and numerous other wildlife species.” There are also ongoing conservation efforts in the forest to preserve the wildlife and its ecosystems. One effort, called the Mower Tract Restoration Project, has been working for over 10 years to restore red spruce trees in the area and to improve the water quality for both human and animal populations.

This is truly just an amazing place that I believe everyone should visit. Also, if you’re wondering about the names in the area (like Monongahela) the Forest Service provide a few summaries, taken from the book West Virginia Place Names by Hammill Kenney.

Bear Rocks at Dolly Sods Wilderness

Monongahela National Forest Itinerary

  • Day 1, leave Charleston and go to
    • Beartown State Park AND/OR Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park
      • Both are great; it just depends what you want to do! While I love Green Bank, if you’re not that into astronomy or want to save money, you could visit both of these instead of just one.
    • Green Bank Observatory
    • Spruce Knob
      • To drive up the mountain, walk around, and drive down, it will probably take about two hours; I would recommend doing this in the afternoon/evening after checking into lodging for the night.
    • Stay in this area for the next two nights
      • Near Seneca Rocks
      • Near Cass Scenic Railroad (also closer to more restaurants)
  • Day 2
    • Scenic Train Ride at Cass
      • The 2 hour trip to Whittaker Station is my recommendation as the longer trips would prevent you from doing much else on this day
    • Seneca Rocks
      • If you’re planning to do serious hiking or exploring, leave out the train ride at Cass, but for just visiting the visitor center and doing the main 2.7 mile trail, you can easily visit the park in under 2 hours
    • Smoke Hole Caverns
  • Day 3
    • Dolly Sods
    • Blackwater Falls State Park
    • Buckhannon WV for lunch
    • Return to Charleston
Summertime at Beartown

Beartown State Park

So the first thing to say about Beartown is that no, you are not going to see bears here. The main feature of the park though is the series of unusual rock formations that look like they could be a town for bears. In visiting the park, you’ll walk on a half-mile boardwalk through around boulders, crevices, and cliffs. It’s beautiful and geologically fascinating and a fun stop on a road trip!

Fire Tower at Droop Mountain

Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park

Also part of the Civil War Discovery Trail, Droop Mountain was actually the first state park established in West Virginia. The Battle of Droop Mountain was the last major Civil War battle in WV, and reenactments are performed in October during even-numbered years. When visiting, you’ll be able to climb up the fire tower and look out over the surrounding area, which is really amazing! It’s another short but fun stop along the road.

From the Green Bank Visitor Center

Green Bank Observatory

Everyone loves space, and radio astronomy is one of the main ways we learn about the stars in the 21st century.  I’ve been to Green Bank several times, and it’s always amazing.  First off, the drive there is spectacular, and when you arrive there’s a museum in the Science Center dedicated to Radio Waves, so you can understand some of the work that goes on here.  There are tours every day, except Tuesdays, where you turn off your cell phones and drive out to the telescopes, including the huge Robert C. Byrd Telescope.  Even if you just stop by without a plan, Green Bank is amazing, but if you have the time to plan ahead, they also offer things like the SETI tour or, for school groups, a chance to use one of the smaller telescopes.  (I’ve done this, and it’s awesome!).  Places where you can really get up close and personal with science are always fantastic in my opinion, so I really love visiting Green Bank.  Brochure

View from Spruce Knob

Spruce Knob

As mentioned, this is the highest point in West Virginia, and it has some amazing views! While it is possible to do a (long) hike up the mountain, there is also the easier option of just driving up, which is what I would recommend on this particular trip. The drive is forested and beautiful, and when you reach the top of the mountain, there’s a short trail (about a mile) that you can do to see some of the scenery.

Looking at the engine from the front car on the train

Cass Scenic Railroad

I’ve always loved going to Cass because there’s nothing quite like taking a train up a mountain, especially in the fall. There are a few options for train rides, but my recommendation is the two-hour trip to Whittaker Station, where you can have a picnic before heading down the mountain. Cass is also cool because the old coal company town is still standing and, as mentioned, you can stay in one of the houses. There are also some nice restaurants and shops in the area, and it’s a good place to spend a few hours.

Towards Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks is another place with a lot going on.  Even just stopping for pictures is a nice way to stretch your legs, but if you really want to get active, there’s lots of trails and hiking (or even rock climbing).  There’s the short trail that just takes you up to a better viewpoint, and then there are the various trails and climbs up the rocks.  They  also have a little museum in the visitor’s center to learn about the history and geology of the area.  It’s a beautiful place to get out in nature.

Nighttime at Smokehole

Smokehole Caverns

There are a few caves around this area, but Smokehole is my preference. If you’ve been to anywhere else with caves, it’s pretty similar – you just walk along the trail with the guide and get to see all the amazing underground features. Smokehole also has mini-golf and a little “panning for gold” thing set up, which is expensive but fun for kids. Also the motel here is solid, and the prices are good. For food near Smokehole, your best bet is driving into Petersburg.

Some lovely May sleet

Dolly Sods Wilderness Area

Okay, anything with “Wilderness Area” in its name has to be cool, and Dolly Sods does not disappoint.  It’s a little confusing since a GPS doesn’t always show the roads, but asking at some nearby visitor’s center will get you decent instructions, and as long as you stay on the roads, you’ll get out at some point.  Just driving or wandering around is fantastic; although, it is usually a little colder up there than further down the mountains.  Still, it’s worth it for the views and the whole experience of not being able to see any buildings.  Although you do get cell phone service, which you do not get in most of the rest of the area, so it’s also a good place to send a couple texts before you find the next wifi hotspot.

I wrote a whole post about backpacking here, but for this itinerary, I’d really just recommend driving from WV-28 to Jordan Run Road and on to Dolly Sods Road. At this point, you’re on the forest roads, and you will take 19 until it splits. You will head to the right on 75 up to Bear Rocks, where you can get out, stretch, and wander around for a bit. Getting back in the car, you’ll go back to the 19/75 split and will continue straight on 19. This will turn into 45/4, which will eventually just end and drop you onto WV-32, which you can take all the way into Davis and Blackwater Falls State Park.

Beautiful Blackwater Falls

Blackwater Falls

Perennially beautiful, Blackwater Falls is great rain or shine –  but the amount of water  when it’s rainy is pretty amazing.  The water also has its trademark color, which is more amber than black, but whatever.  The color actually comes from tannic acid that is in the  needles of some of the trees, which fall into the water and change its color.  It’s a beautiful spot, and probably one of the best known in the state, so if you’re already in the area, you’ve got to go.

I also wrote a whole post about visiting Blackwater Falls in the winter because it’s amazing any time of year!

Somewhere outside of Buckhannon

Buckhannon, WV

I love the little town of Buckhannon, West Virginia. My family has our reunions nearby, so I’ve been here a lot (though I apparently don’t have any pictures of downtown). It’s a really cute little town with lots of nice little shops and restaurants. There’s also an annual Strawberry Festival in May! Before driving back to Charleston, this is a great place to stretch your legs and buy some lunch (perhaps at C.J. Maggie’s) and get dessert for the road (at the Donut Shop).

Overlooking the Canaan Valley

Final Notes

Monongahela National Forest and the surrounding area are absolutely amazing. My last little tip is to make sure you have extra water and snacks in your car as you may have to drive a bit to find a restaurant or store depending on where you are in the area. Also, don’t bank on having cell phone service the whole time because you won’t.

Ultimately, this is a great trip any time of year, but especially in the fall, around October or early November. I really believe that everyone should visit at least for a few days, and as a weekend trip out of Charleston, it’s perfect.

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