Scenic Routes; West Virginia: Nature puts on a show for travelers rolling along the highways and byways of the Mountain State.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During a leisurely drive along West Virginia's Highland Scenic Highway, I pull over at Red Lick Overlook to enjoy the view. The air is cool, fresh and pine-fragrant. A summery panorama featuring every shade of the color green spreads out to the horizon -- a wide, forested valley and distant, time-softened mountains. Overhead, white clouds hang like dollops of meringue in a turquoise sky.

Natural beauty of this magnitude is a feast for the senses. It nourishes the soul.

Even as I look at it, I realize how soon this vista will change. In a few weeks, it will be equally magnificent as autumn's leaves paint it red, copper, bronze and gold. Winter's snows will blanket it with sparkling layers of sugar white. And come spring, shoots, buds and flowers will inundate it in a sea of lacy pastel foam.

West Virginia is a land for all seasons.

On the way back to the parking lot, a stand of wildflowers stops me in my tracks. I recognize the blooms immediately as Turk's-cap lilies from a hand-colored wood block print purchased at the Appalachian Craft Center in North Carolina. The small, framed work of art is one of my favorite possessions. I pull out my camera and snap a picture -- capturing a black butterfly hanging upside-down as it sips from the throat of a small, bright orange lily. An arcing branch of unripe blackberries forms a backdrop.

A vast mountain landscape and a small patch of rare, showy wildflowers illustrate the range of exquisite pageantry that West Virginia stages constantly -- on a grand scale and a small scale. The best way to find and enjoy these splendid shows is to embark upon an old-fashioned "motoring tour" of the state.

I make a habit of including at least two or three scenic driving trips in my travel plans every year. Slowly rambling through an unfamiliar rural countryside -- stopping every once in a while to admire nature's handiwork -- reinvigorates the spirit. Occasionally that experience can be downright intoxicating.

West Virginia is blessed with many miles of highways and byways that snake through postcardlike panoramas. These resources run the gamut -- rutted narrow gravel roads, winding shoulderless two-lane blacktops, wide and smooth interstate highways.

After covering 800 miles in the Mountain State in my sedan, I made a list of the most picturesque and inspiring scenic drives. Motorists who look for pleasures along Highland Scenic Highway, U.S. Route 219, the country road through Dolly Sods Wilderness, State Routes 28 and 55, and Interstate 64 will find plenty.

Highland Scenic Highway

This scenic byway cuts a curving, 43-mile path through West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest from north of Marlinton to Richwood. The choicest segment is a 22-mile parkway that begins at U.S. 219 and ends at Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center (the section is also designated as State 150).

This piece of road is unblemished by telephone poles, utility lines, billboards, commercial buildings and other evidence of human habitation. Motorists can enjoy unobstructed views from every angle. Scenic overlooks provide opportunities to get out of the car and gaze upon the most impressive vistas the area has to offer. And access to several hiking trails beckon those who want to explore and get some exercise.

Wildlife is plentiful along this stretch. I sighted a doe and a pair of twin fawns during my drive. And I lost count of the woodchucks I saw scuttling along the side of the road.

Motorists on the Highland Scenic Highway should definitely stop at Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center. In addition to picnic tables and restroom facilities, it offers information about local attractions as well as knowledgeable resource personnel. It also houses a fascinating exhibit hall that resembles a miniature natural history museum.

I was intrigued by a live reptile display. Two terrariums hold nonpoisonous snakes, and a large, glass enclosure contains five huge timber rattlers all coiled in a pile. It is difficult to tell which big head and pair of beady eyes belongs to which rattle. A bobcat, fox, beaver, mother bear and cub and several other animals preserved by the taxidermist's art are on display in another exhibit. And a 3-D topographical map showing local terrain provides an excellent orientation.

U.S. 219

U.S. Route 219 from Elkins to 1 mile north of Edray and from Mill Point to Lewisburg is a serpentine, two-lane, asphalt road that winds up mountains, along valleys and through undulating highland farm country the whole length of the state of West Virginia. The most picturesque section -- from Beverly (in the northern part of the state) to Lewisburg (in the southeastern part of the state ) -- earned a "AAA Designated Scenic Byway" title from the Automobile Association of America, and for good reason.

Two prime segments of U.S. 219 are the 39 miles between Huttonsville and just above Edray and the 30 miles between the junction with the Highland Scenic Highway (State 150) and Lewisburg. The Highland Scenic Highway makes a looping detour between the end of one segment and the beginning of the other and cuts out about 15 miles of U.S. 219.

Motorists on U.S. 219 enjoy some of West Virginia's premier rural landscapes. Picturesque agricultural communities -- featuring red barns with silos and tin-roofed farmhouses -- add interest to the mountainous terrain. Alpine meadows, grazing cattle and apple orchards contribute charm. My favorite views on this road include fields where big jellyroll-like bales of hay lie scattered on a freshly mowed stubble. I also loved the sinuous, curving humps of cultivated land that intrude like smooth giant knees and elbows into an otherwise thickly forested landscape.

There are two distractions on this road. First, the scenery is occasionally marred by the scruffy fringes of a few small towns and by ubiquitous telephone poles and power lines. Second, there are few places to pull off and take pictures along the way.

However, several roadside attractions offer recreational potential and an opportunity to get out of the car and walk around a bit. I passed the entrances to Watoga State Park and Droop Mountain Battlefield (a Civil War site) and directional signs to the Greenbrier River Trail (a hiking path). I could kick myself for not stopping at Beartown State Park. During separate conversations with two West Virginians after my return, I learned this 107-acre natural area is a do-not-miss spot along U.S. 219. One acquaintance pronounced the unusual complex of rock formations "enchanting."

I did pause for an hour at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace. The simple farmhouse museum contains original furniture and memorabilia relating to the life and work of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author.

Dolly Sods

A jolt-producing stretch of stony, winding back road leads through sun-dappled forest and delivers me to an ecologically unique area known as Dolly Sods. At elevations of 2,600 to more than 4,000 feet, the area has extensive flat rocky plains, upland bogs, beaver ponds and sweeping vistas. The plant life and climate on this high plateau resemble northern Canada, and many species found here are near their southernmost range, according to the National Forest Service.

The term "Dolly Sods" comes from a corruption of the German name "Dahl." The Dahl family grazed sheep in the area on small patches of grassland called "sods," hence the quirky name.

The Dolly Sods Overlook offers splendid views of evergreen-covered peaks and close-up looks at rugged terrain and unusual plants. Much of the flora possesses a distorted appearance -- probably as a result of surviving harsh winters with precipitous drops in temperature and heavy ice glazing and snowfalls. Red spruce trees have branches only on the east side. The lopsided appearance is due to strong and constant west winds. This remarkable landscape is quite different from the rest of West Virginia and is definitely worth a look.

A word to the wise: The gravel road that runs through the Dolly Sods Wilderness should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. This convoluted, shoulderless road is corrugated like a washboard in some spots and studded with large rocks in others. A few grades are extremely steep and blind curves can be treacherous. Fifteen miles an hour is as fast as one can comfortably and safely proceed. A prominent sign warns that the road is impassable during the winter.

State Routes 28 and 55

An alternate to the Dolly Sods roller coaster is State Routes 28 and 55. The 13-mile stretch intersects State Route 55, which joins U.S. Route 33 leading to Elkins. Scenic U.S. 219 can be picked up here.

This small stretch of two-lane road possesses a split personality: Some stretches are encrusted with touristy blight while others feature the spectacle of Seneca Rocks and Smoke Hole Recreation Areas. Seneca Rocks is a climbing mecca with huge, jagged towers of stone thrusting into space.

This magnificent view does not last long and the effect is dampened by shops, motels, parking lots and other man-made structures in the foreground. If your driver, vehicle and tires can take it, I recommend Dolly Sods over Seneca Rocks.

Interstate 64

Although it seems a contradiction in terms, Interstate 64 is a "scenic interstate" -- especially the 30-mile segment between Lewisburg and Exit 139 (to Hinton). This section of four-lane highway curves through lovely farmland similar to that found along U.S. 219. It also cuts through mountains. The exposed stratified layers of rock are both attractive and interesting to contemplate. Red, yellow, purple and pink wildflowers blossom profusely in several medians.

A truly unique feature I encounter here is an area corralled between the westbound and eastbound lanes. It is marked with a official-looking brown sign that reads, "Highway Wetland." The placard is decorated with a frog and stylized lily pad. This naturally occurring boggy ecosystem features stillwater, cattails and other aquatic plants. Although it's nearly impossible to explore the swamp, it adds variety to the scenery.

Scenic I-64 makes an ideal choice for motorists who do not enjoy meandering leisurely along back roads, with the slowdowns required by lower speed limits and small towns. Instead, I-64 travelers can engage the cruise control and whiz through the countryside. After taking the slower routes, this experience seems like watching a travelogue video set on fast forward.

TH IDEAL ROUTE

The scenic drives mentioned here may be enjoyed separately or in one day. A one-day trip will be most comfortable if the roads are traveled in this order: Dolly Sods gravel road dead ends at State Route 32, where you should turn left. Follow it to U.S. Route 33, and take Route 33 west to the city of Elkins where it intersects with U.S. Route 219.

* Take Section 1 of U.S. Route 219 south (between Beverly and just north of Edray). Turn right (west) at the junction with State Route 150 (Highland Scenic Highway), follow it to the intersection with State Route 39 (near the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center). Take Route 39 back to Section 2 of U.S. Route 219 (between Mill Point and Lewisburg) and follow Route 219 south to Lewisburg where it connects with Interstate 64. Follow the interstate to the New River. Turn left on State Route 20 to go to Pipestem Resort State Park or continue on Interstate 64 to go to the city of Beckley.

* An alternate to Dolly Sods is State Routes 28 and 55 past the entrance of Dolly Sods to the junction with State Route 55. To connect with the first segment of Route 219, take Route 55 west to U.S. Route 33 west and into Elkins. Follow the directions above from Elkins.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: To cut down on fanny fatigue, I recommend spending a night or two in West Virginia before setting out on a day of scenic driving. The appropriate route to West Virginia from Baltimore depends upon location of accommodations and on whether Dolly Sods will be included in the itinerary.

* Travelers opting to stay in the Lost River Valley or at the North Fork Inn and who intend to include Dolly Sods should: Take Interstate 70 west to Frederick. At exit 52 take 340 south to Route 7 West to Interstate 81 south. At exit 296, take Route 55 west to Wardensville, then Route 259 south to Lost River. The North Fork Inn is further west off Route 55.

* Travelers opting to omit the Dolly Sods gravel road and choosing to stay at Blackwater Falls State Park, Canaan Valley State Park or some other hostelry along Route 219 should: Take Interstate 70 west to Hancock and Interstate 68 to exit 14. Take Route 219 south to Thomas and then Route 32 south. Both state parks are on this road.

* To reach the Dolly Sods gravel road from Lost River: Take Route 259 north to Weaverville. Take Route 55 south through Petersburg to Hopeville and the entrance of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area.

The North Fork Inn is only a few miles west of Dolly Sods off Route 55.

* To reach the first scenic section of Route 219 from Dolly Sods or the state parks: Take Route 32 south to the junction with Route 33. Take Route 33 to Elkins and the junction with Route 219. Drive south on 219. The scenic portion begins within 15 miles.

Highland Scenic Highway (Route 150) is located off Route 219. Follow the signs.

Route 219 connects with Interstate 64.

Lodging: Accommodations in the Lost River Valley region of the state (on U.S. 259 off U.S. 55) feature an interesting variety of options.

* The Inn at Lost River (304-897-6788) room rates start at $85 a night, cabins at $100.

* Leah Lakin's B & B (877-222-7661) offers three guest rooms from $70 nightly.

* Lost River State Park (1-800-CALL-WVA) provides cabins only; a two-person standard cabin autumn rate starts at $57 a night; some minimum-stay requirements may apply.

* The Guest House, an inn which serves a primarily gay and lesbian clientele (304-897-5707); rooms nightly from $108.

* North Fork Inn (304-257-1108) is located on a long gravel road off State Route 55, five miles from the entrance to Dolly Sods; room rates nightly from $85.

Campsites, cabins and lodge rooms at state parks off State Route 32 are also good choices. These parks are northwest of Dolly Sods and are good options for folks planning to omit the rough gravel road.

* Canaan Valley Resort State Park (800-622-4121) runs $18 a night for campsites; from $74 for lodge rooms; from $137 for a cabin.

* Blackwater Falls State Park (800-CALL-WVA) offers campsites from $11 a night; lodge rooms from $57; cabins from $85.

At the end of the trail, after a long day of scenic driving, I recommend staying overnight (or longer) at Pipestem State Park (800-CALL-WVA), where campsite rates start at $11 a night, lodge rooms at $62 and cottages at $108. This impressive facility offers many eateries (including a gourmet restaurant) and plenty of recreation potential. Active pursuits will be welcome after a day spent mainly in the car.

Information: To receive material about specific regions via fax or mail and to locate camping and lodging vacancies, call 800-CALL-WVA. This resource can provide lists of possibilities for specific budgets and can transfer callers directly to reservation desks at state parks and many resorts and hotels.

Must sees: The drop-dead gorgeous scenery along these drives is one long chain of "must sees," but several spots are worth extra attention.

* Highland Scenic Highway: Red Lick Overlook (and three other designated observation points) and Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center U.S. Route 419; Pearl S. Buck Birthplace (a house museum); Beartown State Park (interesting rock formations); and Droop Mountain Battlefield (a Civil War site).

* State Routes 28 and 55: Seneca Rocks (a climbing mecca) and Smoke Hole Caverns.

* Dolly Sods gravel road: Dolly Sods Overlook (a Canadian experience).

* Interstate 64: Highway Wetlands (a swamp).

AN IDEAL DAY

7:30 a.m.: Get up early and enjoy a big country breakfast at a West Virginia inn.

8:30 a.m.: Pack up and hit the trail, heading toward Hopeville and the entrance to Dolly Sods.

10 a.m.: Navigate the Dolly Sods gravel road, taking time to stop at the scenic overlook. Climb around, then have a snack and a drink while enjoying a unique Canadalike view.

11:30 a.m.: Drive from Dolly Sods to Elkins and the junction with U.S. Route 219. Set out south on Route 219, marveling along the way.

1:15 p.m.: Head west onto Highland Scenic Highway (State Route 150), looking for a picnic spot near one of four designated overlooks or at Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center.

2:30 p.m.: Check out Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center, especially the snake exhibit.

3 p.m.: Reconnect with U.S. Route 219 at Mill Point. Travel south, taking time to stop at either Pearl S. Buck Birthplace, Beartown State Park or Droop Mountain Battlefield.

4:30 p.m.: Connect with Interstate 64 at Lewisburg. Head west.

5:15 p.m.: Take Exit 139 to State Route 20 south and follow the signs to Pipestem Resort State Park. Stop briefly to admire the views of the Bluestone Dam and Bluestone Lake along the way.

5:45 p.m.: Check into McKeever Lodge at Pipestem Resort State Park; stow luggage and freshen up.

7:30 p.m.: Take an aerial tram down to Mountain Creek Dining Room (a gourmet restaurant at the bottom of Bluestone Gorge). Enjoy a chef-prepared meal.

9 p.m.: Return to the surface via the gondola.

10 p.m.: Relax and unwind.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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