Sunday, September 4, 2016

Labor Day: Blackwater Falls State Park, WV

We had planned for some weeks to take advantage of Labor Day to get away from Winchester for a two-day weekend to Blackwater Falls. Planned is something of an overstatement: we talked about it a couple of times, which the way we operate, is pretty much a plan. We saved the falls for the two-day weekend simply because it is two hours from the house and we wanted to have plenty of time to do and see all there is to do and see. Still, up until a couple of days before the trip, we didn't think we'd be able to get away at all and so I really didn't do my usual reading up on what to do while there.

The trip from Winchester started poorly the evening before with me forgetting my sunglasses at work, thinking I would get them on the way out of town the following morning, and then leaving my work keys at home. Doh! Luckily we were headed west and the sun was behind us all the way out. From Winchester, we took Middle Road out to its junction with route 55 (which is also posted as the new US 48, to be moved when the four lane is finally put in, if it ever is) at Lebanon Church. Route 55 heads up over Great North Mountain (the border between our county, Frederick, and Hardy County, West Virginia), down into Wardensville, and then becomes Corridor H, which terminates 2100 feet higher just before Davis, WV where Blackwater Falls is situated.

I always enjoy the drive out Corridor H as it goes up and over each successive range in the ridge and valley system and then climbs the edge of the Allegheny Front massif just about Mount Storm, where the equally massive Mount Storm coal-fired power plant and the turbines of the Mount Storm Wind Farm dominate the landscape. The amount of effort it took to drive this beautiful four-lane highway through some of the most inhospitable terrine is awe inspiring. The expansive views always make me think that I am driving along the top of the world. In any case, it has made the trip over to Davis in Tucker County, very, very doable, and has certainly enhanced this area's reputation as the winter sports capital of the mid-Atlantic.

And so it was after an unhurried morning and a pot of coffee at home that we arrived at the lodge in Blackwater Falls State Park mid-morning. I was expecting to get a map from a ranger at a contact station on the way into the park like at just about every other park I know, but there are no contact stations and no entrance fees. I cannot believe that a park this gorgeous does not have admission fees. We went in to the front desk at the Blackwater Falls Lodge, run by the state park system, and got a map from them. While there, I asked about a walk that would get us away from people and one of the women rolled her eyes at me, knowing that the area is wildly popular. One of the guys suggested Pase Point, which I filed away as an idea for later or for the next day.

The Lodge at Blackwater Falls
Back out at the car, we put on our walking shoes, moved lunch from the cooler to my pack, consulted the park map, and set out. We decided to walk from the lodge back up river to see the falls. Not knowing our way around, we did not realize that the closest vantage point is on the other side of the river from the lodge, not that the extra half a mile walk really mattered.

We headed off on the Yellow Birch trail in the direction of the falls and almost immediately, all became quiet and peaceful in the hemlock and rhododendron forest, punctuated here and there with yellow birch. These are trees that we don't have in abundance back home. While the trail is pretty well blazed with yellow diamond blazes, the trail is really more of a suggestion than a trail in some places, the woods being so open that you can walk about in any direction and find little hint of a path. Still, only did we once have to hunt around to find the path: it appears that a blaze went missing so we didn't really know where to find the next blaze.

Open Birch and Hemlock Woodlands, Tree on Rock
At one point, the trail went through a narrow gap in the rocks, which was no problem for my gigantic self, but it was a little more difficult for Ann. It's nothing like on Old Rag, but still it was a little creative hiking.

A Little Gymnastics Needed
This tree reminds me of the old chicken and egg question, but it seems almost certain that the rock has been here for eons before the tree, though it surely looks like the rock rolled up and stopped against the little tree.

Yet Another Crazy Rock/Tree

Yellow Birch Trail Namesake
Although we had noticed along the trail sections of deep mud rutted from mountain bike tires and other soggy areas, I hadn't realized that we would come upon a couple of full-on cranberry-peat bogs where we crossed Engine Run and Falls Run. They reminded me greatly of nearby Dolly Sods. I wish we had more time to poke around the bogs; what little we saw of them is unique to this part of the world and not something we are likely to see again in the near future. In places the ground was very shifty; there's no telling how deep the sphagnum mosses are there.

Wild Cranberries, Vaccinium macrocarpon
Behind the gentian in the photo below, the first I have ever seen or recognized that I have seen, you can see a lot of strawberries with their set of three leaflets and their red runners growing on top of the very shifty sphagnum moss. Aside from these, the bogs had a fair share of ferns and various club mosses that I would have liked to have spent more time looking at.

Narrowleaf Gentian, Gentiana linearis

Cottongrass, Eriophorum angustifolium, in Sphagnum Bog
The trail came back to the paved park road right at the parking area for what they call the Gentle Trail to the falls overlook and right where the River Road Trail heads into Davis. A hundred or so yards after starting down the Gentle Trail (all the trails we took were gentle with almost no elevation change), we came to the edge of the canyon and a deck overlooking the falls from high above.

First View of Blackwater Falls

Blackwater Falls from the South
From above, we could see that people were crowding the decks on the north side of the river opposite and far below us, so we decided to walk around over the bridge and see what was over there. We had to walk along the park road to get there and the margins were covered in all manner of fall-blooming asters (mainly tall white ones with masses of tiny blooms, but some smaller purple ones with larger single blooms), oxeye daisies, and goldenrods.

Beautiful Purple Aster
At the point where the park road crosses the Blackwater River, it looks like any other fairly peaceful river flowing through the mountains. It looks like a wonderful trout stream, in fact, with lots of room to cast without trees in the way. Little would you know that right around the corner in the photo below, the river takes a hard left-hand turn and starts with a whopping 62-foot drop over the falls and races through Blackwater Canyon which is between 200 and 500 feet deep. It is really hard to imagine that though while standing on the bridge looking at this idyllic scene.

Blackwater River Above Falls

Blackwater River Looking Upstream
Once on the far side of the bridge, we wound around back downstream for a few hundred yards to find a parking lot packed with dozens and dozens of vehicles. Welcome to the crowds. We walked down the paved trail to a set of wooden stairs with tens and tens of other people come to see the spectacle of Blackwater Falls. And they are an impressive set of twin cataracts formed where the river splits along a horn of rock and dives over the cliff to the floor below.

Blackwater Falls from North, Note Rainbow
With the sun almost directly behind our backs at the viewing platform, the near waterfall had a constant rainbow near the base. The photos do not give any sense of scale, but the trees on top of the falls are largely full-sized trees and you can stack two or three of them end-to-end to reach the bottom.

Sixty-Two Feet High
In the photo below, if you look at the water as it topples over the ledge, you can see that it appears brown. This is not an artefact of the photo: the water is brown. The river takes its name from this brown water, tea-stained from tannins leached from the abundant hemlock and red spruce needles in the local watershed.

Tea Colored Water Spills Over Ledge

She's Not Having Any Fun
At the very lowest of the observation decks, we came out in the full sun along the riverbank, giving us a chance to see a lot of flowers, including some very impressive Joe Pye weed with bushel basket-sized bloomheads, lots of asters, and lots of solidagos.

Pink Turtlehead, Chelone lyonii, at Falls

Bittersweet Nightshade: Solanum dulcamara

Jack-in-the-Pulpit Berries: A Sign of Fall

The Selfie Queen
On our walk back to the lodge and the car from the waterfall, we encountered a lot of rocks adorned with trees, but none crazier than this one. It was really good to get back in the woods and away from the crowds.

One of Many Crazy Trees

A Sure Sign of Fall
Blackwater Falls was impressive from afar and even more impressive closer up. But they are too popular for our liking. Stay tuned for the two other falls that we liked far better, both because we could get right up close to them and because we were pretty much alone to enjoy their splendor without a lot of company. We both like people but too many people just spoil a good outdoors experience.

Next: Part Two of our Labor Day Getaway

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