As every intrepid traveler knows, chasing the ephemeral fire of autumn foliage is a delicate balance of timing, location, and a bit of luck. That moment after drifting through an endless sea of green, and the world bursts into a kaleidoscopic explosion of color feels vividly magnified in the midst of the forests, lakes and mountains of Cacapon Resort State Park in West Virginia.
While it was my good fortune to visit during peak autumn color, it was immediately evident that there’s not a bad season to visit this off-the-beaten-path treasure. Just two hours from Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., sitting in the shadow of the highest peak in the eastern portion of West Virginia, Cacapon provides spectacular scenery and a multitude of outdoor adventures. Within this gorgeous park’s 6,000 acres, visitors can enjoy hiking and horseback riding, fishing and boating at two lakes (one featuring an expansive white sand beach), mountain biking, a stunning mountaintop overlook, game courts, geocaching, a nature center, rental cabins, a lodge, and one of the top 130 best-designed golf courses in the country.
Upon entering the park, I immediately passed a cascading waterfall, soon finding myself on the edge of a beautiful lake, flanked on one side by an impressive outcropping of Oriskany sandstone. After stopping to pick up my cabin key and a welcome packet at the lodge (under renovation but opening in February 2021), I headed toward my cabin and soon passed another lake, a stunning panorama with clouds of mist floating over the autumn forest mirrored perfectly in the water. Continuing on, the surrounding forest soon enveloped the winding road in a veritable crayon box of fall colors. In addition to their blazing colors in fall, the mixed conifer and hardwood forests produce variegated greens in spring and summer and occasional green among the bare trees in winter – a four season bonanza for photographers.
Arriving at my cabin, I couldn’t stop smiling at the rustic perfection. There are four types of cabins of varying sizes and styles: legacy cabins, traditional rustic cabins originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s; economy cabins, compact cabins with a summer camp feel to them; and the larger classic and vacation cabins, which have a more modern look. Mine was a legacy cabin, nestled in the forest and charmingly rustic, but with all modern amenities: full kitchen, refrigerator, heat, air conditioning and hot water, bathroom with shower; linens, and a large stone fireplace stocked with wood (with plenty more stacked outside).
After a perfect evening relaxing in front of a fire, I spent the next day exploring, heading first to the mountaintop overlook. Several signs warned of the “extremely rough road” ahead, but as long as drivers take it slowly, it’s fine for any vehicle. One of “West Virginia’s best kept secrets,” Cacapon Mountain Overlook provides a stunning panoramic view of four states at once. At 2,400 feet, the mountain is the highest point in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. To the left of the overlook platform is Prospect Trail, a 12-mile flat fire road easily accessible to horseback riders and hikers. The trail ends at Prospect Rock with spectacular views of the Potomac and Cacapon Rivers.
Once back at the base of the mountain, I turned off into a loop passing a nature center and an expansive picnic area with full ADA accessibility. I parked adjacent to a large playground, and headed over a small bridge to a bathhouse and sprawling lakeside beach of white sand dotted with boulders. Just across the lake, a boat house offered boat rentals in season and a fully-accessible fishing pier jutted out into the water as anglers in kayaks drifted slowly across the placid water.
In addition to the other opportunities to explore, there are 23 miles of hiking trails of varying distances and terrain for all skill levels. The park offers a remarkably-helpful trail guide that provides a description of each trail’s highlights, difficulty level, length and estimated walking time. The park also has an on-site riding stable for those who prefer to pursue scenic vistas on horseback, and single-track paths and mountain switchbacks for mountain bikers. After exploring all day, at sunset I headed up the 1.5 mile Ridge Trail, starting at the beach area. Peaking at an elevation of 1,080 feet, the trail leads past lichen-covered Oriskany sandstone outcroppings, where I perched for a stunning view as the sun slowly set over color-splashed Cacapon Mountain.
It was abundantly clear, after my short time visiting, that the park is a true vacation destination. As astonished as I was at the breathtaking colors and scenery in mid-autumn, one could easily envision how lovely the park would be blanketed in snow, or with spring and summer blooms, and how families could easily spend a week here without a moment of boredom. Inasmuch as the park itself is a treasure, its proximity to other points of interest is also notable. The park is part of the Washington Heritage Trail, a 136-mile national scenic byway inspired by the travels of George Washington. Winding across mountains and rivers, through forests, farms and orchards, the trail connects five fascinating historic towns: Berkeley Springs, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, and Charlestown.
Just ten miles from the park sits the historic town of Berkeley Springs, voted one of USA Today’s “Top Ten Best Small Southern Towns” in 2015, featuring eclectic shops, art, restaurants and lodging. Since 1930, thousands have enjoyed the warm mineral waters (a constant 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit) that flow from a mineral spring at the center of town, providing approximately 2,000 gallons of clear, sparkling water per minute. The word Cacapon is a derivative of a Shawnee Indian word meaning "medicine waters," a reference to the renowned healing powers of the mineral springs. Visitors can visit an indoor spa, or simply enjoy a free dip in the outdoor springs.
After a too-short visit to Cacapon, exiting through a historic town founded on namesake healing waters seemed a perfect ending…and the beginning of what I suspect will be many more return visits to this beautiful mountain respite.