In the land of Canaan, an outdoor enthusiast discovers untrammeled wilderness, great views—and a peak experience no matter what the season
The Freeland Trail in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a study in snow and ice. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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The snow-globe-like powder that seemed so storybook had turned to full-on blizzard, wind racing in like a sled dog down a mountain. The Luna bar I had brought as a snack and attempted to eat halfway up the mountain was frozen solid. Although I could see off the edge of the cross-country ski trail into the evergreens, I did not know where the trail would end, given that its name, Three Mile Trail, actually refers to a one-way distance, rather than round-trip. The turnaround was somewhere nebulous, high up and far away.
I had never come so close to the top of Everest.
Or so it felt. Our actual coordinates were in the high Alleghenies of the Canaan Valley, in West Virginia—one of the highest valleys east of the Mississippi—just about four hours from Bethesda in a pocket of relatively undiscovered winter wonderland.
My frozen face, my blistered heel: Everything was cured once we switchbacked down Cabin Mountain to the White Grass Café, part of the White Grass Ski Touring Center’s day lodge, where I promptly devoured a platter of nachos. Like all of the meals at this folksy spot—hearty, homemade, vegetarian-friendly and nearly always consumed while recovering from great physical exertion and cold—it tasted like food of the gods.
Now that we had survived our excursion, the rustic shack, with its blazing woodstove, wood paneling and cozy tables, felt luxurious. Everyone there had withstood the storm and was now wet, steaming and smiling, stripping off layers of polypropylene-fleece garments and draping them on every hook and chair as kids ran around like spinning tops.
The “get-it-while-you-can” vibe of fellow winter-lovers and adventurers is palpable in the Canaan Valley. It’s what draws my husband, Neil, and me there again and again. While the Washington, D.C., area struggles to provide a convincing winter—freak Snowmageddons notwithstanding—the Canaan Valley (pronounced ke-NAIN, not CAIN-an; no one knows why) has no problem delivering. During the winter of 2009-2010, more than 250 inches of snow fell there. The average snowfall at White Grass is 160 inches per year, and the mountain has seen minus 24 degrees.
An oval, 13-mile-long, 3- to 5-mile-wide high-elevation area, the valley was named in 1800 by a colonial explorer who looked down from Cabin Mountain and proclaimed, “Behold the land of Canaan!” Yet it is described in historical records not as a land of milk and honey, but rather as a treacherous landscape “festooned with rocks, cavities, and impenetrable rhododendron thickets”—a place that would “strike terror in any human creature.”
Of course, landscapes that are inhospitable to humans can also be beautiful. Designated a National Natural Landmark, the valley is described by the U.S. Department of the Interior as ranking on a par with Yosemite and Yellowstone for its grandeur and magnificence. It’s known for its great diversity of boreal flora, sphagnum bogs and harsh conditions that are more akin to subarctic locations like Canada than anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic. As a comparison, while the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains is about 4,000 feet, the floor of the Canaan Valley is located at 3,200.
For those of us who revel in the cold, these conditions hit the spot. On another winter trip to the area, Neil and I parked at the “warming hut” at the Blackwater Falls State Park Sled Run & Cross-Country Ski Center along Canaan Loop Road—we could drive no farther due to snow—and skied down the middle of the long, straight thoroughfare, where bowling balls of snow rested among the dark silhouettes of trees around us. After a mile, we tucked into the thick brush of the narrow, curvy Lindy Point Trail, our skis and poles playing tug-of-war with laurels and shrubs. Once around this bend and the next, we found ourselves on a wooden platform overlooking Lindy Point, taking in the wide, open view of the upland plateau and the Blackwater River Canyon.
It was 10 degrees.
We spent that night in a small, Spartan log cabin we had rented in the state park, making dinner in its tiny kitchen and cozying down with books we don’t usually have time to read and games we otherwise never play. We were two of the happiest campers there ever were.
Other cross-country ski trips to Blackwater Falls State Park and Canaan Valley Resort—a state park and conference center with 30 kilometers of ungroomed cross-country ski trails and 39 downhill slopes with summits of up to 4,280 feet—had us ending our days in Davis (pop. 648) at Sirianni’s Pizza and the Bright Morning Inn. The latter, an old lumberjack boardinghouse and saloon built in 1896, is a place where breakfast (“banana dream” French toast and chocolate-chip buttermilk pancakes) is something to start looking forward to the night before.
It was there that my husband and I (both of us former upstate New York residents) logged the lowest temperature we had ever knowingly been exposed to since moving south: 1 degree, during one of our morning departures.
Still, the Canaan Valley is more than just a winter paradise. It’s also a relatively undiscovered summer retreat for those who want to escape the smog, mosquitoes and blasting heat and humidity of the D.C. environs.
Last August, we rented a place in Dryfork, a “town” nestled among a multitude of federal and state preserved natural areas—more than any outdoor enthusiast would expect to find on a weekend drive from Bethesda. The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is home to 31 miles of trails and more than 200 bird species. And the million-acre Monongahela National Forest—the first parcel of which was established in the 1920s in an attempt to re-wild plant and animal species that had been devastated by logging—includes countless trails inside and outside the Dolly Sods and Otter Creek federally designated wilderness areas.
Dryfork is also a stone’s throw from the two state parks. The view from our hot tub at the “Sweet Little Cabin” at Cherry Ridge revealed an interplay of sun and mist between the rolling swells of the Blue Ridge Mountains that was just about as picture-postcard as you can find.
During that trip, days reached the high 70s, and we hiked the high plateaus in such mild, humidity-free comfort we could have been out West. The Rohrbaugh Plains Trail in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area met us with blankets of thick, green club moss, walls of large rhododendrons and mountain laurels—like an Amazon rain forest—and a massive rocky outcropping of white boulders that seemed poised to tumble into the vast Red Creek drainage. The panorama made us feel quite small.
Dolly Sods is one of those high-altitude, weather-fickle areas where they say temperatures can plummet to freezing in any season. It’s also a place where you might actually need a map and a compass to rescue yourself—the wilderness trails are marked with blend-in-with-the-scenery rock cairns—and where, in rare circumstances, you can still come upon a live mortar shell (don’t touch) from the World War II artillery practice that once took place there.
Hiking the Boar’s Nest and South Prong trails, which took us up to Flatrock Plains, we discovered the old remnants of a railroad and homestead site, spied an unusual stinkhorn mushroom poking up from the leaf litter, and scarfed mouthfuls of sweet, wild blueberries that bled purple juice into our hands.
On the Otter Creek Trail in the Otter Creek Wilderness Area, we felt compelled to swim, despite the fact that I had goose bumps in the shade. The first stop was our own private plunge pool in the freezing-cold, tannin-brown creek. Later, on the way back, we took a dip in the relatively warm Dry Fork River as evening set in. Lying out on a flat rock under a peach sky after an invigorating freshwater swim, we savored the momentary absence of technology and man-made noise: a simple, free, old-fashioned kind of fun.
We did make our way into town a few times for a dose of civilization. Hellbender Burritos in Davis, a dark, hole-in-the-wall joint, serves up unusual combination wraps as large as a shoebox (think pulled pork or vegetarian seitan in barbecue sauce with horseradish, coleslaw, rice and cheddar jack), which we walked off while shopping at the antique (some would say junk) shops of Thomas (pop. 577), picking up a hand-painted three-legged table as well as locally made blueberry wine. For gift-buying, we beelined to MountainMade, a large, high-end gallery of handblown glassware, pottery and other locally made art.
After dinner, live bluegrass music and ice cream at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas—a relaxed, old general-store-turned-music-tavern-and-café—was a nice prelude to returning to the cabin for a night of fleece jackets and down comforters, as temperatures dipped into the 40s.
As the state’s Sen. Robert C. Byrd once said, “West Virginia is…the most southern of the northern and the most northern of the southern; the most eastern of the western and the most western of the eastern.” It’s also the only state in the country that’s contained entirely within the Appalachians. With its weather extremes, rare flora and unusual topography and geology, the Canaan Valley is the epitome of these anomalies.
Perhaps it’s these indefinables that keep the crowds away. Though a few developments of second homes have cropped up on the edges of town over the last 20 years, I am still amazed by the un-Jackson-Hole-ness of the place, the scarcity of condos and resorts, the few spare restaurants and shops, and the fact that summer is considered the off-season. Even the new state highway, known only as Corridor H, comes to an end nearly an hour short of the destination.
That’s the lure of the place, of course, and one need not question life’s small miracles.