Under a steely January sky in Pipestem State Park, high in the Appalachians of southeastern West Virginia, my family stood on the bank of a pond rich with wild turkey scratchings and deer tracks, trawling for newts.
Our son and daughter took turns dragging the leaf litter just under the water's surface with a long-handled net, under the guidance of park naturalist Jim Phillips. Up from the bottom came tadpoles and the larvae of caddis and dragonflies. But no newts.
"You think this time of year there's not a lot of life. But they're all here," said Phillips, rolling over a tiny cocoon-like casing to reveal a wingless caddis fly wriggling out.
That's winter in West Virginia's state parks: The wildlife, the recreational opportunities are all here, but not the crowds. It's a great time to check into a lodge or cabin for a couple of days.
And it's ideal for catching up with folks like Phillips. In addition to running the nature center and myriad activities, he is a walking library of history and habitat at Pipestem -- and he enjoys sharing it with families one-on-one, especially in the slower winter season.
Southern West Virginia, about 5 1/2 hours from Baltimore by car, is known for white-water rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking and jet boating in the warm months. But snowboarding, hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching entice many to the area during the winter.
"It's kind of a neat time because it isn't as crowded. It's almost like you have the facilities to yourself," said Dave Summers, Pipestem's assistant superintendent. "If you're looking for a little solitude, wintertime is probably the best time."
Whether you want to quietly soak in a hot tub or join in a murder-mystery dinner theater, West Virginia's state parks can capture most fancies.
"Winter used to be a really dead time for us," said Kim McHenry, programming services administrator for the park system. But in the past 10 years, she said a host of new activities, including yoga weekends, ballroom dancing and antiquing, has brought in more visitors.
"There is something for the whole family to do," she said.
McHenry said reservations may now be made on the Internet -- and up to two years in advance. Each month, a lodging giveaway is offered online. And the parks still have openings for this year.
"It's always a good idea to check the Web site and see what's going on," she said.
Southern West Virginia's resort parks, which offer a range of amenities and programs: Hawks Nest, in Ansted, has a popular dinner theater and a lodge overlooking the New River gorge. Pipestem sits at the edge of the Bluestone River gorge and offers theme weekends from line dancing to birdwatching. Twin Falls, in Mullens, is tucked away amid scenic trails and waterfalls. And Bluestone, in Hinton, is a popular smaller park in winter, set on a lake with picturesque cabin cottages.
Nancy Noffsinger of Buffalo, W.Va., said she and her husband, Howard, both retired, particularly enjoy Hawks Nest in the winter. They don't have a fireplace or much snow at their home northwest of Charleston, so settling in at the lodge before a cheery blaze is one of their favorite winter getaways.
"We love to go when there's snow -- you feel like you're snowed in," she said. "It's cozy, and the scenery is so beautiful. We've met some nice people sitting around the fire in the evenings."
Pipestem, the largest of the area's resort state parks, has a friendly feel. In winter, the golf course is open for duffers on temperate days, but turned over to sledders and cross-country skiers on snowy ones.
Mountain Creek Lodge, at the base of the gorge -- known for its gourmet dining and aerial tram -- is closed. So people stay primarily in the McKeever Lodge, on the gorge's rim, or in cabin cottages nearby.
Opened in 1970, the park offers visitors many of the niceties of a resort vacation -- golf, indoor and outdoor pools, a fitness center, restaurants and theme weekends -- without the fuss or the price tag.
A two-bedroom cabin rents for $82 on weeknights and $93 on weekends or holidays. In summer, the same cabin goes for $118 on weeknights and $129 on weekends and holidays. Three- and four-bedroom cabins are also available for larger groups, as is a handicapped-accessible unit.
The rates are hard to beat, and often draw families from all over the region, Summers said. "They look for facilities where they can meet together as a group," he added. "We get a lot of family reunions."
Vicki and Jack Eades of Mount Nebo, W.Va., have rented a cabin around Christmas since 1997, when they decided they needed time to reconnect with their four grown children. Because her husband is a Baptist pastor, Eades said, the family often found the holidays hectic. So they cut a simple tree, gave each child the job of organizing one meal and headed for Pipestem.
She recalls that her children were skeptical at first: What would they all do for three days together?
"We played games, we went swimming, we went horseback riding, we went hiking," Eades said. "Mostly we just spent time together."
That first year, all the kids dragged their mattresses into the living room and slept in front of the fire, talking late into the night.
Now, spouses and grandkids have joined the mix, and Eades said they may start renting two cabins and extending the trip by a day or two. "It's become a real fun get-together," she said. "No one wants to miss it."
That first year, she remembers, they stayed in Cabin 13, one of 26 grouped in several loops a short drive from McKeever Lodge.
A warm cabin
My husband, Rob, and I and the kids stayed in No. 19. A neatly stacked load of firewood greeted us as we drove into the driveway. The cabin's boxy, flat-roofed design was austere, but inside the warm paneling and gleaming wood floors were inviting.
The main room consisted of a kitchen that opened onto a spacious dining / living area with a large stone fireplace. Off the adjacent hall were two bedrooms and a bathroom with shower. Linens and kitchenware were provided. The back deck off the living room overlooked a steep, wooded ravine, where we delighted in spotting deer each morning.
Reaching the lodge takes only a couple of minutes by car. Many of the areas inside the lodge have floor-to-ceiling windows to capture expansive views of the forested gorge and the winding river below. Guests often sit by the fire to read, work jigsaw puzzles or play games. A gift shop, reading room, game room and indoor pool offer more diversions.
The Bluestone Dining Room is a pleasant, casual restaurant that features such specialties as smoked trout, chicken potpie and beef tenderloin. A fixed-price buffet is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner entree prices range from $12.95 for the buffet ($18.95 for a Friday night seafood buffet) to $20.95 for an 8-ounce tenderloin filet. The Black Bear Snack Bar also offers fast foods like sandwiches and fries (from $2) and family-size pizzas ($10).
On some weekend evenings and during holidays, regional musicians perform at Pipestem. The coffeehouse-like setting works well for families and groups of friends, with serve-yourself coffee and desserts. We sat around a candlelit table to enjoy the songs and stories of Colleen Anderson and George Castelle. By day, Anderson is a writer from Charleston and Castelle is Kanawha County's chief public defender.
"We've performed at three or four state parks. We love the audiences," Anderson said. Their quiet songs and stories, which are romantic and folksy, aren't suited to the bar scene, she said, but they play well to older guests and families at the park lodges.
Anderson and Castelle will perform at Hawks Nest State Park's dinner theater Feb. 12 in a show called The People I Love, The Place I Live. A dinner theater package at Hawks Nest, which includes dinner, theater admission, lodging and breakfast for two, is $123. The theater season runs through April.
The other perk of state park performances, Anderson said, is the setting. The morning after the Pipestem show, she took a long hike down the gorge to the Bluestone River. "The valley was filled with fog," she said. "It was an incredibly beautiful place to spend the day."
Hitting the slopes
During our getaway, days were spent at Winterplace Ski Resort, a 30-minute drive from the park. Located in Ghent, Winterplace offers an attractive package for people learning to ski or snowboard: a group lesson, rental equipment and an all-day beginner lift ticket for about $42 on weekdays and $66 on weekends and holidays.
The resort has 27 trails for skiing and boarding, nine lifts, a snow-tubing park and a terrain park with rails and boxes for snowboarders. Three restaurants offer everything from sandwiches and salads to Mexican and Italian fare. Navigating the resort is easy, and the staff is friendly and helpful, especially with beginners.
And the instructors all begin their lessons with the promise that Winterplace will teach you the sport you've chosen to try. If one lesson doesn't do the trick, they give you passes to take another class, free of charge.
My son, Austin, loves to snowboard and enjoyed plying hills at Towson University before we moved to North Carolina last June. His sister, Julia, started with his beginner board last winter in our back yard. When we began planning our trip, Rob and I decided we would try it, too.
What did two over-40 parents with zero experience have to lose? By Christmas, we had thought of one or two things. The picture of us on the boards made for a few jokes at holiday parties.
Rob was up and going pretty quickly with the family group lesson we took. Austin was skimming along confidently, too, and stuck his first jump without a hitch.
After a successful 20-foot glide to the chairlift, I remarked confidently to Austin as we rode up the lift: "A lot of moms my age wouldn't even try this, you know."
Seconds later, I tumbled unceremoniously over my board into a heap as I tried to glide off the lift. Rob crashed into Julia coming off the same lift, leaving her to eye me suspiciously as we waited to ride the lift the next morning.
She asked if she could ride alone, adding matter-of-factly, "It would probably be easier to get off without anybody crashing into me."
Another mom (in fact, several my age were snowboarding) told me the trick to learning is to invest in a private lesson. It's advice I will take next trip -- and I will definitely try it again.
Being a cross-country skier, I found the downhill speed and lack of poles intimidating. But for those brief moments when I was up and in control of the board, skimming along without two long skis and two poles wrapped around my wrists was exhilarating.
When you've had your fill of snowboarding or skiing, a trip to the snow-tubing park is refreshing fun. The packed snow offers a thrilling ride, down steep hills over moguls where riders get air for a second or two. Four hours of tubing costs $19 per person, but with a lift ticket you can add two hours for $10 apiece; that was plenty of time after several hours already on the slopes.
Splash in the pool
After a day of snowboarding and tubing, returning to our cabin was a treat. We traded our long johns for bathing suits and headed to the pool, where lifeguards are on duty until the pool closes at 9:45 p.m.
After splashing around for a few minutes, we headed out to the deck for a dip in the hot tub, which bubbled a warm greeting as we stepped in out of the chilly breeze. The four of us melted into the corners, taking in the night sky and twinkling lights dotting the wooded gorge.
Later, we settled in at the cabin's large table, in front of a crackling fire, dressed in pajamas. We had the best-tasting supper ever of soup, bread and fruit. We laughed together over falls and triumphs. We watched a few minutes of a holiday football bowl game. Mostly, we spent time together. The kids shared a room with twin beds, talking and giggling long after the lights were out.
An ideal day
7:30 a.m.: Wake up at Pipestem Resort State Park and watch deer eating breakfast around your cabin.
8:30 a.m.: Head to the Bluestone Dining Room for the breakfast buffet of French toast, eggs, potatoes, biscuits and gravy.
10 a.m.: Visit the park's nature center and learn from naturalist Jim Phillips about reptiles, birds and other animals in the area. Hike around the area or visit the homesteading village, which offers a glimpse of farm life in the area before the park was established.
Noon: Head to Winterplace Ski Resort and get fitted for snowboarding or skiing in time for the 1 p.m. group lesson. Buy a two-hour add-on snow-tubing ticket for later. Have lunch at Mountain Mama's restaurant next to the slope. Watch the action from the patio while you eat.
7 p.m.: Head back to the park, eating snacks you've stashed in the car. You want to get to the pool before it closes.
7:45 p.m.: Swim and soak in the hot tub to coax those tired muscles back to life.
8:30 p.m.: Clean up and climb into your jammies for a simple dinner in front of the fire, and use your little bit of remaining energy for a favorite game, story or TV show. Then head to bed. Tomorrow promises to be another busy day.
-- Lane Harvey Brown
When you go
Getting there: Driving from Baltimore, take I-95 south to I-495 west to I-66 in Northern Virginia and then take I-81 south. Follow the Blue Ridge Mountains to I-64, and go west to cross the Appalachian Mountains. Take the Sandstone exit (No. 139) on I-64 and head south on Route 20. The park entrance is 22 miles south.
Pipestem Resort State Park, P.O. Box 150, Pipestem, WV 25979
www.wvparks.com (online reservations can be made at all West Virginia state parks on this Web site)
Lodge and cabin cottages open in winter, with prices ranging from $59 for a standard lodge room to $82 for a two-bedroom cabin with kitchen, fireplace and bathroom. Three-and four-bedroom cabins are also available.
The Bluestone Dining Room (open daily, hours vary by day and meal) offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a fixed-price buffet for each meal. The Black Bear Snack Bar (open daily) offers fast-food selections.
Winterplace Ski Resort, 100 Old Flat Top Mountain Road, Ghent, WV 25843
Twenty-seven trails for skiing and boarding, nine lifts, a snow-tubing park and a terrain park with rails and boxes for snowboarders. Three restaurants. Learn to ski or snowboard packages, which include lesson, rental and lift ticket, start at $41.95 on weekdays. All-day weekday lift tickets are $25.50 for juniors and $38.50 for adults.
Southern West Virginia Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-847-4898; www.visitwv.com