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A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.
This West Virginia park near the remote hamlet of Mathias features 3,934 acres of forest, 23 miles of hiking and bridle trails and 26 cabins, many of which were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I visited earlier this summer with my favorite hiking companion, Millie the Labrador retriever. Well, she’s sort of Lab-ish, anyway. She’s a 50-pound rescue who loves exploring the woods as much as I do.
We discovered that Lost River State Park isn’t on Lost River; however, the creek that trickles down the pine-shaded hollow where the park is nestled – a creek once known as Lee White Sulphur Spring and now shown on the map as Howard’s Lick – is close enough to the source of the river that it ought to be considered a source.
Howard’s Lick trickles down the mountain valley to find its way to Lost River.
The Lost River really does get lost, but not in a very dramatic fashion. It gradually disappears in among the rocks of a dry streambed at the base of a mountain 31 miles north of where Howard’s Lick connects with it. On the far side of that mountain, two miles further away, the river re-emerges as the source of the Cacapon (“ka-KAY-pun”) River, which winds its way north to join the Potomac three miles east of Berkley Springs, West Virginia.
Howard’s Lick Run Trail follows along the bank of this mountain creek, its water as clear as a Mason jar full of moonshine.
The name “Lost River Valley” is as hauntingly beautiful as the valley itself, so much so that I’m surprised it had never been memorialized in an Appalachian folk song. Green fields span the narrow valley floor dotted with round bales of golden hay. The 3,000-foot, tree-covered ridges on either side of the narrow valley converge into the distance like an art student’s practice in perspective drawing.
The Lost River valley is as hauntingly beautiful as its name implies.
A historical marker relates that John Jackson and wife, great-grandparents of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, settled near here about 1750. Edward Jackson, Thomas’ grandfather, was born here before the family moved to the Buckhannon River.
When you get to the tiny village of Mathias, you turn off the main road and head up a winding lane. You’re soon enveloped in a deep forest of pine and hemlock, following the course of the creek as it tumbles over the rocks. Lost River State Park dates back to 1937, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built some of the log cabins that still accommodate visitors. But the site had been a vacation destination long before the CCC crew ever got there.
One of the log cabins, perched on a hillside overlooking a grassy glade shaded by ancient hemlock trees, was built in 1800 as the summer retreat of Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the Revolutionary War general and father of future Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was owned later by Charles Carter Lee, Robert’s brother. The restored cabin sits across the creek from Lee White Sulphur Spring. There’s a pavilion overtop the spring, and you can see the white-tinged water trickle out – and smell it, too. Indians would have known its medicinal value.
Revolutionary War hero “Lighthorse” Harry Lee built this cabin in 1800 as his summer retreat.
A summer storm was passing over the mountains the day we arrived from Annapolis, a 2-1/2 hour drive away, so Millie and I spent the night in one of the cabins rather than setting up camp in the wet at one of the three sites accessible by car. Nine of the cabins are pet-friendly. We were assigned one of the modern cabins, far more spacious than we needed, but the last one available.
West Virginia State Parks go all-out with their cabin accommodations. This one had a full kitchen, large main room with a stone fireplace, two nice bedrooms and a bathroom, not to mention air conditioning. It was one of the two wheelchair-accessible cabins in the park. While the inside was nice, it was a little too pristine for us, so we spent much of the evening on the front veranda watching the rain wash the meadow and dowse the surrounding woods, me in a bentwood rocking chair and Millie curled up in her traveling bed.
The next morning was still a bit drizzly and overcast. Walking among the towering hemlocks along the trail that followed Howard’s Lick Run reminded me of hiking through a rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula. We crept across the creek on a swinging suspension bridge that gave Millie the willies.
Later on, the clouds cleared and we decided to try the White Oak Trail that runs from the riding stables up to the Cranny Crow overlook at the crest of Big Ridge Mountain. Just as we were heading up the trail, a family of four came down from the top on horseback. They had opted for a two-hour ride. Apparently, there’s yet another cabin on top of the ridge that you can get to by riding a horse if you don’t want to hike up with all your gear. There are also two hike-in campsites up there.
The elevation at the stables is 1,980 feet. The first quarter mile of the trail is fairly steep, and I was glad I had brought my two hiking sticks. The trail crosses an old logging road and begins to follow the contour of the end of the mountain, zig-zagging up about 1-1/2 miles to the crest. The trail is named for the white oaks, of which there are many, but I noticed even more chestnut oaks, with their serrated leaves. There seemed to be more dead trees than you’d expect in such a pristine location.
I met just a few couples coming down from the top. The higher you get, the rockier the terrain and the open spaces between the trees were filled with locust trees, low blueberry bushes and tall milkweed stalks whose clusters of buds had yet to blossom. Tiny neon Deptford pink flowers decorated the side of the trail, and I watched a lucky dung beetle earnestly rolling a delicious morsel of horse manure up the mountain like a miniature Sisyphus.
The stone shelter at the Cranny Crow overlook shows the hallmarks of the Civilian Conservation Corps artisans who built Lost River State Park in 1937.
The phenomenal view from the overlook takes in much of Lost River State Park’s 3,934 acres of forest.
At the top of the mountain, the pines are spread out like a city park and the trail opens up onto the Cranny Crow overlook, a rocky outcrop perched on the southern edge of Big Ridge Mountain. There’s a stone shelter with a welcome bench where you can take in the view of five surrounding counties. As I sat there, feeling pretty smug at having tackled what to me was a fairly challenging climb, two women even older than me showed up, chit-chatting cheerfully without a hint of fatigue and no walking sticks at all. That point is 3,200 feet high and the view is absolutely worth the effort.
You can see five West Virginia counties from the Cranny Crow overlook at the top of Big Ridge.
Sisters from South Dakota chat in the stone shelter while taking in the view from an elevation of 3,200 feet.
Millie and I could have walked further along the mountain crest, where the trail leads to a fire tower and ends at Miller’s Rock, but we had been lollygagging and the day was getting late, so we headed back. On the way down, we passed the stand of milkweed, and I swear, in the short time it had taken us to climb to the top and back, the buds had blossomed and little orange butterflies were flitting about.
An Aphrodite fritillary butterfly investigates a newly-bloomed milkweed plant along the trail down the mountainside.
When we got back to the stables, we had logged 3.6 miles up and down 880 feet in a leisurely 3-1/2 hours. Millie was as chipper as ever and wanted to play with the kids tending the stables, but I was pretty beat.
Next time, I’ll take a horse.