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SCOTT SHALAWAY Almost heaven, in his own 'backyard'



Published: Sat, May 26, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



When we plan our summer vacations, we sometimes overlook the obvious. My family usually heads to the Jersey shore because we have family there, and that's what we've always done. Yet the state of West Virginia, which I've called home for almost 16 years, offers so much to outdoor adventurers. From wild and wonderful state parks to the best whitewater rafting in the east, West Virginia welcomes travelers with attractions few states can match.

Here's a brief account of some of my favorite West Virginia destinations. (For more information, dial 800-CALL-WVA (225-5982) or visit www.callwv.com. Or subscribe to Wonderful West Virginia, a monthly magazine that shines a full color spotlight on the state; $15 per year; 800-CALL-WVA to subscribe.).

West Virginia's State Park system ranks among the best in the country, as well it should. Tourism is West Virginia's future.

Panhandle resort: The eastern panhandle's Cacapon Resort, for example, boasts 6,000 acres, log cabins, an impressive lodge, miles of hiking and bridle trails, and a championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones.

In the heart of the state, Canaan Valley and Blackwater Falls State Parks must be considered our crowned jewels. Spend some time here, and you'll understand why the phrase & quot;almost heaven & quot; has become synonymous with West Virginia. Whether you camp, rent a cabin, or stay in the lodge, these parks offer something for everyone. Canaan sits in a high mountain valley. Some of its plants and animals are found elsewhere only hundreds of miles to the north. Golfers can enjoy another championship course. Blackwater Falls offers spectacular cascades of chilly, dark water stained by the tannic acid leached from the fallen hemlock and spruce needles. Birding along the miles of trails at Blackwater Falls can be spectacular.

Farther south, you'll find the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Cranberry Glades, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The Cass Railway was built in 1901 to haul timber. Today the original steam-powered locomotives pull passenger cars up 11 miles of track to the top of Bald Knob, at 4.,842 feet the second highest point in the state.

The bogs at Cranberry Glades are home to unusual carnivorous plants and a variety of mountain wildlife. And the National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a & quot;don't miss & quot; destination for anyone who enjoys stargazing and pondering the universe.

South of Beckley, Pipestem Resort State Park offers another championship golf course and a lodge on the rim of the Bluestone River Gorge. And if you're looking for isolation, there's a smaller lodge at the base of the 1,000 foot gorge, which is accessible only by an aerial tramway.

Coal mine: Back in Beckley, just off I-77, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine offers underground tours that bring history to life. Retired miners serve as guides as they recall the state's storied mining heritage. If you've got some time, search the state's southern counties for the ugly scars of a modern, grotesque mining technique -- mountain top removal.

Hikers and campers looking for a wilder and more remote experience can roam for miles on the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, and Monongahela National Forest. Just be prepared; many of these areas are not for the casual tourist.

I've saved my favorite West Virginia attraction for last -- whitewater rafting. The New and Gauley Rivers offer great fun, adventure, and just a hint of danger. Recently a group of seniors from the local high school spent a day on the lower New. Afterwards Milos Markovic, an exchange student from Yugoslavia told Jim Rogers, the trip sponsor, & quot;That was the most fun I've ever had! & quot; Amen. (For more information about whitewater rafting in West Virginia, call 800-VISIT-WV (847-4898)).

This only scratches the surface of what West Virginia offers its visitors. My apologies to all I've omitted. And I'm sure every state can make an equally compelling case. If you have a favorite park or outdoor experience, tell me about it, and perhaps I'll feature some outdoor attractions in other states.

Festival note: On June 2 and 3 the 4th Annual Garden Festival will be held at Tamarack in Beckley, Speakers will address various gardening topics on both days. On Sunday June 3, at 2 p.m., I will present a program on attracting backyard wildlife. Tamarack is located at Exit 45 of the West Virginia Turnpike in Beckley.

sshalaway @aol.com.




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