Climbing the mountain and viewing the valley Weekend: The Webster County Nature Tour in early May offers a choice of hikes, from an easy walk to a strenuous trek, in scenic West Virginia; Short Hop


The breeze chills the face. Spring arrives just a little later here in the mountains. There is a briskness to the air, but the sun's warmth is soothing. As far as the eye can see, mountain ridge is stacked against mountain ridge. It is not in vain that Webster County in West Virginia is called "The Mountain Park." Taking in the view from atop Elk Mountain, one may be inclined to believe it is a park for mountains. There are no signs of civilization from this vantage point. Far below, on the valley floor is the famed Elk River.

Elk Mountain is one of the areas showcased in the annual Webster County Nature Tour, held the first weekend of May. The weekend activity is centered at Camp Caesar, which opened in 1922 and encompasses 300 wooded acres. It's here beside state Route 20 a few miles north of Cowen that guests will begin arriving on a Friday afternoon to bunk in rustic cabins. Sleeping arrangements for the weekend are dormitory style, and guests are required to bring pillows and sleeping bags.

Four hikes will be featured this year: from the easy walk along the Elk River to the strenuous trek up Elk Mountain.

The Backfork of Elk Tour begins at a huge old sycamore tree, a local landmark that once held the distinction of being the world's largest American sycamore. From there, the trail follows the Elk River for about two miles. The terrain is relatively flat, or as flat as it gets in this part of West Virginia. Along the way, hikers will view waterfalls and several species of wildflowers including trilliums, lady slippers, many varieties of violets, phlox, bluebells and trout lilies. This is an easy hike.

The Leatherwood Tour provides a view of a truly spectacular waterfall. This hike follows an old railroad grade along Leatherwood Creek for about two miles to thundering Leatherwood Falls. The constant roar of the creek making its steep descent has one anxiously peering around each turn, fully expecting to see the falls. Because of this, the hike doesn't seem long or laborious. The falls are a treat: aqua green water plunging more than 30 feet over a rock ledge to a beautiful pool below. It is here that many hikers choose to eat lunch. All that can be heard is the roar of the falls, a very soothing sound.

For a glimpse of the forest through the trees, there's the Middle Fork of Williams River Tour into the Cranberry Wilderness. This congressionally designated wilderness area encompasses about 38,864 acres within Monongahela National Forest and was established as a way to perpetuate its intrinsic beauty and solitude for future generations. This path traverses hardwood forests typical of the area, where hikers may encounter several species of native wildlife: deer, snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, wild turkey. At this time of year, the trail is lined with early spring wildflowers.

The Elk Mountain hike is the most strenuous of the four offered, requiring a rugged mind and rugged body. One hiker described it as being "straight up and straight down; you could even slide all the way down on your bum if you wanted." This tour is a difficult climb to the top of Elk Mountain, part of a ridge dividing the Elk and Holly River valleys. The rock outcrop at the top offers a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and valleys. This tour is definitely not for those out of shape or unaccustomed to vigorous outdoor activity. However, for those up to the adventure, the view from the top is ample reward.

Guests begin arriving at Camp Caesar on Friday afternoon - May 1, this year. Registration begins at 3 p.m. with dinner served family style at 5:30 p.m. An evening nature program, held in nearby Burton Hall, begins at 7 p.m. It is here that information on the various tours will be presented, and guests may make their preliminary selection.

At daybreak Saturday morning early risers can sip coffee in the kitchen until breakfast is served at 8 a.m. Packed lunches are prepared for guests to take along on their chosen tours, which depart at 9 a.m. Last year a scavenger-hunt list was handed out before the hikes began, and participants looked for items such ++ as morels, ramps and hemlock.

Upon returning, thirsty hikers will find refreshments awaiting them in Burton Hall. Dinner is served at 5 p.m. and last year included ribs, barbecue, french fried potatoes, coleslaw, huge yeast rolls and butter as well as a dessert selection. Nobody leaves hungry. Guests then have a chance to rest up a bit before the evening program begins at 7 p.m. Each year the entertainment varies slightly - last year's featured Olen Selman and the Bluegrass Express - but is a wonderful part of the overall event.

Breakfast Sunday morning is again served at 8 a.m. Afterward, visitors may linger for a casual stroll around the grounds, attend a local church service or be on their way home.

When you go

Getting there: Cowen is about a six-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 95 south to Richmond, Va., then Interstate 64 west to the Sam Black Church exit (U.S. Route 60) past Lewisburg, W.Va. Follow U.S. 60 west to Charmco, where you will turn north onto state Route 20. Follow Route 20 to Camp

Caesar; it's a winding mountain road, but you will get there - eventually.

Cost: $70 per person, which covers accommodations for two nights, the tours, refreshments, five meals served over the three days and entertainment.

Reservations: By April 25, contact Michelle Gallourakis (304-847-7205) or Stella Riffle (304-847-2735) of the Webster Springs Garden Club, one of the event's sponsors.

Essentials: Bring sturdy hiking shoes and comfortable clothing that enables you to dress in layers (weather frequently goes from cool mornings to very warm afternoons). Don't forget sleeping bags and pillows, towels and wash cloths.

Pub Date: 4/19/98

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