Waterfall Country, West Virginia
Call up a vision of the Mountain State, and the strains of a familiar tune begin to play. You know the one. It begins "Almost heaven, West Virginia" and tells of a place that's filled with wildernesses. It doesn't take long to see that "life is old there," older than the forests of spruce and hemlock, birch and beech. It's about as old as the rocks beneath your feet. Adventure is the state's calling card, and visitors have been answering the call, seeking what West Virginia has in abundance: country roads, uncrowded spaces, and new experiences in the fresh mountain air.
Waterfalls have long been favorite features here. Hidden in the hills, they dot the landscape, emerging along elevation changes and geological shifts in the riverbeds. They're also some of the best places in the South to see fall foliage. While there's no verse about cascades in "Take Me Home, Country Roads," John Denver's West Virginia anthem, there certainly should be. You'll hear them before you see them—the churning water vaults into the air and crashes into itself, sending a burbling, tranquil-seeming stream into the realm of the spectacular.
Follow the Falls
Northern West Virginia's Potomac Highlands region is home to an impressive concentration of cascades. Waterfall-hunting excursions often begin here, where scenic streams and rivers moving through the varied terrain of the Allegheny Mountains dive over ledges and turn themselves into frothing showers. Blackwater Falls State Park surrounds the Blackwater River, so called because its currents look dark as they move downstream. The showstopper of the 2,300-acre park is its namesake cascade, which, at nearly 60 feet tall, is the highest in the state. Blackwater Falls lies along the river, and its amber descent can be seen from a nearby boardwalk, giving visitors an unobstructed view of the deluge. After the drop, it runs through a forested gorge that stretches for eight miles.
The falls are the work of time immemorial. As streams flow over different types of stone, their friction erodes some surfaces more quickly than others. Hard rock remains in shelves and ledges while softer rock breaks down and flows away, years of movement hollowing out crevices and canyons. As they run, the waterways deposit debris, deepen meanders, and redraw their shores, a process that is constantly shifting the shape of the landscape. In this region, they've also formed waterfalls, which spill over rocky sills and plunge thrillingly into pools below.
This ongoing geologic drama makes Blackwater Falls State Park a destination, particularly during autumn. While the eponymous cascade is the most popular and easy to access, there are many more throughout the park, including Elakala Falls, a series of four rushing drops along Shays Run. A hike on the Elakala Trail leads to the falls, which can be viewed from above via a bridge over the gorge. Intrepid adventurers can make the challenging 200-foot descent for a view of the water from below as it tumbles into a basin strewn with mossy boulders.
The nearby North Fork Blackwater River also has several cascades along its course. One of the best known is Douglas Falls, accessed via a hike along the Blackwater Canyon Trail. It pitches its famed emerald cascade 35 feet off a shelf onto a jumble of copper-colored rocks, a hue that's evidence of the area's coal-mining history. The path to Douglas Falls is lined with abandoned coke ovens once used to process coal, and accompanying interpretive signage explains the effects of the industry on the area.
You can also find waterfalls upstream and downstream from Douglas. North along the Blackwater Canyon Trail is Albert Falls, and nearby are also Kennedy and Teresa Falls. Pendleton Falls is located on Pendleton Creek, and Big Run Falls can be found farther west beside Forest Road 18.
See the Sights
In addition to these features, the area in and around Blackwater Falls State Park is known for its foliage. There are countless overlooks in the area, many along forest-canopied hiking trails, which open to vistas of the rolling mountain landscape. During fall, expect to see shades of crimson, orange, and yellow mingling across the faces of the hills. The leaves typically fire up in September and peak in the middle of October.
For magnificent views, set out at the Lindy Point trailhead along Lindy Run, which can be found farther south on the Blackwater River. The walk leads to an observation deck with one of the broadest vantages in the park. And don't miss the views at nearby Pendleton and Pace Point Overlooks.
You'll find all manner of hiking paths leading to and from the waterfalls—some easy, others steep and slick. Maps from the area's visitors bureau offer a sense of the difficulty of each route. Leisurely Blackwater Canyon Trail, which was once a thoroughfare for transporting coal and lumber, follows the bends in the North Fork Blackwater River through the forest, past lookouts and several waterfalls, including (from north to south) Albert, Douglas, and Kennedy. The path meanders through the canyon, opening to river and mountain views year-round.
Although hiking is one of the most popular ways to see the changing leaves, especially the ones surrounding the falls, several road trip routes wind through the region and showcase the state's autumn color. Mountain biking is a favorite pastime as well, and Blackwater Bikes in the nearby town of Davis can ready you for a day of exploring the area's trail systems. It doesn't get much more picturesque than zipping along the routes while catching glimpses of the Blackwater River, a year-round playground for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. The fun doesn't stop there: Pitching a tent at the park's campground keeps travelers close to the action while being surrounded by nature. Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge and Canaan Valley Resort & Conference Center both offer easy access to the scenery.
Follow the Blackwater Canyon Trail north of the park to reach the town of Thomas, which lies along the Appalachian Highway (also known as State 32 and Front Street). The red-brick business district fronts a bend in the North Fork Blackwater River and is filled with locally owned shops and restaurants, such as Bloom, an innovative art store; TipTop, a cozy coffeehouse; Invisible, an art gallery; Thomasyard, a florist and garden gift shop; Ella & Company, an antiques and decor store; Santangelo, a books-and-home goods shop; Ghost Palace Books; and Riverfront Antiques. The Purple Fiddle is a legendary live-music venue where you can find good music and family-friendly fun on the weekends.
For a bite to eat, check out Picnic, a taco shop tucked into the back of a white house along the Appalachian Highway. The laid-back spot serves takeout from a window and claims a nearby sunny patch of grass as its dining room. There's also Farm Up Table, which got its start as a food truck and now offers Southern classics from a blue-and-white storefront at the opposite end of the street. Nearby Mountain State Brewing Co. is the source for handcrafted local beers, wood-fired sandwiches, and more.
Book a room at Cooper House Bed & Cocktail next to The Purple Fiddle to rest after waterfall watching, or follow the Appalachian Highway five minutes southeast to the neighboring community of Davis. Along the way, you'll see The Billy Motel & Bar, a mid-century-style 10-room property that promises a great stay for anyone eschewing camping for the comforts of home. Keep driving, and you'll pass Highland Market, a grocery store and eatery that sources food from area farmers; Stumptown Ales; Trailhead Coffee Shop; and Sirianni's Pizza Cafe—all just a stone's throw from the Blackwater River and trailheads leading back into Blackwater Falls State Park.
Chart a Course
Traverse the canyons, marvel at the cascades, explore the towns, and you'll soon see that the opportunities for adventure in West Virginia are endless. Discover a landscape of ridges and valleys papered with the colors of autumn. Whether you're seeking road trip routes, hiking trails, unmatched views, or surging waterfalls, you'll find them all here in abundance. West Virginia guarantees room to roam and a welcome breath of fresh air. Set out along its country roads, and you might just find the adventure you've been looking for. The mountains are calling—won't you answer?