Eli Brooks plays ball in his home court with local youth

BLOG: Next weekend, W.Va.'s Canaan Valley is almost heaven

Bil Bowden

John Denver sang about it 45 years ago. It's been the butt of many cruel jokes. After a visit to West Virginia, it's hard to imagine any place more inviting to the nature lover or anyone just wanting to get away.

Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" talks about the back roads that wind through the state's mountains, into places like Dolly Sods, Droop Mountain or Canaan Valley.

There might be more spectacular scenery elsewhere in the U.S., but probably not within four hours of York. Davis, W.Va., is a good place to use as a hub for your long weekend or multi-week long vacation.

The 28th Annual Leaf Peepers Festival, held mostly in Davis and Canaan Valley, is Sept. 23-25. The Fireman's Parade is Friday evening, inflatable rides all weekend, food and craft fair Saturday and Sunday, 5k/2k Run/Walk on Saturday, Oktoberfest and live music Saturday, car show and golf tournament Sunday.

Near here, visitors can tour mountain wilderness areas, climb into caverns,  hike hundreds of woodland trails, stare at gentle waterfalls, roll along a bike rail-trail, go whitewater rafting, visit a bird banding observatory or just relax on a mountain swing at one of the many mountain resorts.

And if it's beautiful now, imagine the fall color that will explode in a week or two.

Shoppers should check out Thomas, just a five minute drive from Davis.  While there, stop in at Buxton Landstreet Gallery and Studios, what the Canaan Valley website calls "a lighthouse for Appalachian/regional artists." Browse through antique shops and art galleries while there.

In winter, skiing is king at any of the six state slopes, five of which are within an hour of Davis. One of these, Canaan Valley Resort, is a state park.

For bikers, the lovely Allegheny Highlands Trail travels 24.5 miles along various scenic rivers from nearby Hendricks to Elkins. Much of the trail is paved, and it rolls through a few small towns with plenty of restaurants and parks. At Parsons, five markers explain the Battle of Corricks Ford that happened there July 13, 1861, just three months after the war began. Confederate Gen. Robert S. Garnett died there, the first general on either side to be killed in battle.

Pocahontas County, an hour south of Davis, is loaded with bike trails, including the 21-mile West Fork Trail at the far northern tip of the county.

In summer and fall, many of those ski resort homes are large enough (can you say huge?) to rent for a family reunion or an office retreat. At Timberline Four Seasons, there's a five-story house (with elevator, of course).

Monongahela National Forest, named for the Native Americans whose tribes disappeared long before Europeans came here, covers 919,000 acres, parts of 10 counties. The Nature Conservancy considers the forest to be in an area of global ecological importance. The Monongahela is one of the most biologically diverse national forests.

Other tourist-friendly outings and places of interest include train rides, Seneca Caverns, Smoke Hole Caverns, theaters, Civil War battlefield sites, outdoor outfitters and craft barns. Obviously, some attractions are open during tourist season.

Blackwater Falls State Park is just three miles outside Davis. The overlook for the 62-foot falls is easily accessible by a stepped boardwalk. For the more adventurous, the Elakala Falls behind the park's Conference Center offers some pretty views, although the water volume is just a fraction of the Blackwater Falls. There's a path, but it's sometimes a challenge, and the smaller falls on Shay Run below Elakala Falls is equally beautiful.

Aside from the falls trails, the park offers 20 miles of forest hikes.

Outside of Davis, it can be frustrating to drive 30 miles from one side of a mountain to another when by air miles, it's only four miles. Slow down, relax, enjoy the ride.

One place to wander is the Dolly Sods Wilderness, where fog rolls in and covers the mountain for much of the day, while the valley below is sunny.

From Wilderness.net-- In the mid-1800s, the Dalhe family used open grassy fields called "sods" for grazing sheep in this area, which now bears the name Dolly Sods Wilderness. The region, located high on the Allegheny Plateau, is known for its extensive rocky plains, upland bogs, and sweeping vistas.

The Sods boasts 47 miles of hiking trails, some atop the bare mountain. Other trails follow creeks through the area and depend on rocks for steps over soggy ground. At the very mountain top is Bear Rocks Trail, a 9.6 mile loop hike with five fords. Walking over the mountain-top ground, feel your feet sink into the dry bog.

Across the road from Red Creek Campground, a dozen or so intrepid volunteers head out before every summer sunrise to tag thousands of migrating birds. Mostly songbirds, and mostly warblers, are caught in nets, cataloged in a national system and then released, many heading down south to Central America.

Tagging continues until early October.

The dirt road to the Sods is a long one with plenty of loose stone and daring deer.

Down below in the valley is the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge with plenty of trails, mostly on the short scale, mostly easy to moderate. By the way, before the locals correct you on it, Canaan here is pronounced Kin-ANE, unlike Canaan of the Bible.

The Canaan Valley is a large dish in the center of the national forest, and it's a good idea to take a few minutes to visit the visitor center before heading out on your adventures.

To reach Davis from York, it will take about four hours, no matter which route is taken. Davis is directly south of Maryland's western boundary.

Either route promises a comfortable trip.