Sunday, July 9, 2023

North Bend State Park

    One of the sad truths of most of our childhoods, no matter where we are from, is that we didn’t truly appreciate all the wonders and beauty of where we grew up. Rachel and I were both born and raised in West Virginia yet decided after we were both north of 50 years old that, combined, we had only seen a handful of the state parks, historical sites, quirky locales and beautiful places located here in God’s backyard, Almost Heaven. This had to be remedied.

    We knew we wanted to see the state. We also knew that we wanted to hike the trails through the mountains and valleys and hollows. Further, thanks to Rachel’s brother, Adam, we knew we wanted to eat an Appalachian staple, the West Virginia slaw dog, everywhere we went in an effort to find the best ones in the state. We had kicked around the idea of daytrips to some of the state parks since summer of 2022, but on April 29, 2023, we finally pulled the trigger.

    “Blennerhassett Island,” she said. ”Start off big. Historical.” She had never been. I went once in middle school and the fact that I went is all I remember of the trip. Jumping in the truck, we hit I-77 northbound to Ravenswood, my old stomping ground, then took Rte. 68 north, following the Ohio River to historic downtown Parkersburg, WV. I expected to see a sign for dock parking or ferry landing, but I couldn't find it.

    Instead, I showed Rachel some of the cool places to see there including the oil and gas museum (both were discovered first in North America along the Little Kanawha River which flows into the Ohio there), the “haunted” Blennerhassett Hotel (she had stayed there a few years before and can attest to it’s alleged hauntedness), and the 6th Street railroad bridge and trestle which, when built in 1903, was the longest of its kind in the world. Finally, to figure out where to catch the ferry, I decided to check at the Blennerhassett State Park Museum and Gift Shop located at Juliana and 2nd.

    We were two days early. The ferry didn’t start running until May 1.

Let's Go Parking Lesson #1: Always check the hours of operation for your location before you go. Don’t assume just because the weather is nice and it is daytime, it will be open. Some parks or parts of parks do close certain days of the weeks and certain parts of the year aswell as in certain weather conditions. This includes the museums and gift shops at some parks. Check the WV State Park website or call park offices first.

    “What else is nearby?” I had remembered hearing about trails going through old railroad tunnels in the Parkersburg/St. Mary’s area. Googling them we found the North Bend Rail Trail and North Bend State Park about 30 miles away. North Bend State Park sits astride the North fork of the Hughes River in Ritchie County and is named for a sharp bend in the river that formed the park’s original boundaries in 1951. There is a lodge with restaurant there as well as cabins and camping sites. The park houses an amphitheater, a 305-acre lake for fishing and boating (with an ADA accessible dock for fishing) and nearly 20 walking trails (including an ADA trail) from a quarter mile to 4 miles in length and ranging in difficulty from easy to difficult.

     We jumped on Route 50 headed east and an easy 40 minutes later we turned right into Ritchie County following the signs for Cairo, WV. That’s KAY-ro, not KYE-ro. Route 14, Low Gap Run took us straight to the newly renovated North Bend Lodge sitting on the crest of the hill. We came here first for a bathroom break and second because the gift shop or lodge in the state parks is usually the best place to find park maps and walking trail maps (usually the park map has the walking trails, but some parks have special trail maps). Plus, after the last stop, we wanted to make sure everything was open and available.

Let's Go Parking Lesson #2: The maps for all locations can be found on the WV State Parks web site and app. We recommend always downloading these maps (pdfs) to your phone because you will not have reliable signal in some of these parks and especially not on some trails. Having the map already on your phone is a big help. If you operate better using paper maps, pick one up at the park.

    In speaking to the welcome center desk clerk about our plan to visit and hike each of the state parks, but wanting to break into it easy to make sure there were no aches or pains that would pop up on a hike, we were recommended to try Overhanging Rock Trail, a half mile easy to moderate trail. “But,” the welcome person suggested, “walk it backwards.”

    “Yeah, you know, we’re kind of old and not that agile.”

    “No, in reverse. Start at the end of the trail and hike it to the beginning. I think the view is much better that way.”

    To get to our trail, we had to drive around the mountain to the amphitheater which sits at the end of the road. The lovely recreation area which includes the amphitheater sits on the north side of the river next to an ADA accessible playground, basketball court, picnic shelters, restrooms, and an educational nature center that was closed when we were there. After we parked, we started down Extra Mile trail, the paved ADA trail that begins by the nature center, behind the basketball court. It is almost halfway down this trail that Overhanging Rock trail empties out. We left the paved trail and started our hike up the hillside.

    Walking the trail backwards, or rather, in reverse, in our opinion, is the way the trail should be enjoyed. Granted, this does cause one to begin with a moderate climb, but, for us, being there after several weeks of rain, it also afforded a very nice view of the small hanging rocks and fallen trees across the ravine and the mountain stream cascading down the rocks as we walked beside it. The trail took us up the left side of the stream and, eventually, above it, as well. Because of the mud, there were a few slippery areas. We had to be careful before one of us slid down the hill and into the water. There was a 50-50 chance which of us it would be.

Let's Go Parking Lesson #3: Shoes. Granted, we started the day thinking we were going to be taking liesurely walks around a historic island and so did not think to bring shoes better suited for hiking. Rachel's tie-dyed VANS were cute and comfortable, but not fit for hiking in the mud. Personally, I prefer a water-proof hunting boot for hiking, one that laces up the shin. Rachel has problems bending her ankles in high-ankled hiking boots but found some trail shoes that may or may not be life-changing. Always have good hiking footware handy, no matter where you go.

    Just before hitting the turnaround point at the top of the trail, the path took a right turn and we climbed down a flight of steps to a bridge that crossed the stream and deposited us in the middle of a large section of the sandstone hillside had been eroded away by eons of runoff. The water had carved a swath through the rock high enough in places that I, at 6 feet and change (or around 2 meters) tall, could stand upright. It was a nice place for a break.

    Collecting our wind, we followed the trail around and up over the rock under which we had just stood and there was no sign that anything like that existed. It looked like the steep hillside just dropped off. We could only see the stairs we climbed down. The steep climb was short, though, and the rest of the trail was relatively flat or at a casual slope downhill. There were some very interesting trees and rocks along the way and the trail ended (began) just a hundred yards or so from where we parked.

    It was a nice, introductory trail and it showed us where our current threshold is for hiking. We were both glad to have taken the trail backwards because of the views, but we also agreed that it would have been a much easier hike had we gone the intended direction on the trail.

Being the middle of spring, there weren’t a lot of leaves on trees and the ground cover was just starting to sprout/come back to life. One particular piece of vegetation we found was a groundcone. These little guys are part of a species of plants that do not create their own chlorophyl and so will attach to the roots of trees (primarily alders) for nutrients and water. Though they are technically parasitic, they are not invasive or, seemingly, detrimental to the trees to which they attach themselves.

    Our confidence boulstered, we left the area and set out to find one of the access points for the North Bend Rail Trail, a 72 mile stretch of former Baltimore & Ohio railway complete with tunnels that stretches from Parkesburg, WV, to Wolf Summit just west of Clarksburg, WV. We had seen a sign for an access point as we were driving through Cairo, but when we went back to look for it, we found the signs confusing. The area where it seemed to indicate one would get on the trail was not filling us with confidence and, rather than take the risk of walking on private property, we opted to research the trail a bit better and come back another time.

    It was our intention that, after visiting parks, we would find locally owned restaurants to try their version of a West Virginia slaw dog, but by the time we got back Parkersburg to the historic North End Tavern, West Virginia’s oldest restaurant dating back to 1899, we were far too hungry. A NET burger each and a glass of their house amber for me hit the spot.

    Despite two small setbacks, our day had been a beautiful, educational, and very fun adventure. We made note of the lessons we learned so far and committed ourselves to applying them next time. We will come back to Blennerhassett this summer and be better prepared to find and hike some of the Rail Trail, too.

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