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By LORI A. SMITHBERGER
While the Smoke Hole is in the news now, it's not
the only natural attraction located in the Mountain State.
Forests, river gorges, swamp lands and rocky cliffs are all waiting
right here in West Virginia as well, and they comprise some of the
state's most impressive Nature Conservancy preserves.
In Mercer County
visitors can follow Brush Creek to its mouth at the Bluestone
River and along their journey find 124 acres of river gorge; Brush
Creek Falls the largest water falls in southern West Virginia;
and impressive limestone and sandstone cliffs.
Along the preserve's wide foot trail visitors can also find
a variety of rare species, ranging from the state's famous wildflowers
to migrating warblers, and according to the West Virginia Chapter
of the Nature Conservancy, the preserve is scenic in all seasons.
While spring reportedly features trilliums and a variety
of migrating birds, summer and fall each have their own displays
County and extending into Garrett County, Md., The Nature
Conservancy operates 1,000 acres of northern boreal swamp, fens
and wooded upland. The primary feature of the preserve is its
bog swamp land, with a boardwalk that offers visitors a first-hand
view of sundew, Larch trees and cranberries.
The preserve also features four trails that loop through
a number of unique areas. Each about a mile long and easily walked,
the color-coded trails wind their way through native vegetation
and wildlife, which varies depending on the season.
According to the conservancy, the largest number of plants
are blooming in late August and early September, but in the spring
visitors can view bright skunk cabbage and spring flowers.
During the summer months Cranesville is home to a number
of nesting birds, and if the area's unimproved roads are drivable,
the preserve reportedly offers breathtaking snow scenes in winter
Greenland Gap Preservation
Located in the Grant
County community of Greenland, the Greenland Gap Preservation's
primary feature is its symmetrical water gap. Formed by the North
Fork of Patterson Creek, the 250-acre water gap is ringed completely
in Oriskyany sandstone cliffs, rising as much as 800 feet above
the clear-water creek.
Two trails, one on each side of the gap, provide a challenge
for the physically fit, offering steep and rocky climbs to dramatic
to the conservancy, these views are most colorful in October because
of fall foliage, but in the summer turkey vultures and ravens
can be seen circling in the gap's warm updrafts. Regardless of
the season, however, visitors are advised to bring water, hiking
shoes and a hiking stick.
An ongoing project of the conservancy and a number
of volunteers who have assisted in improving and mapping the preserve's
trails, Hungry Beech consists of 124 acres of forested hillsides
Located in Roane County,
a main attraction at the preserve is its 40 acres of outstanding
cove hardwood and oak hickory forests, including American Beech
and White Oaks over 13 feet in circumference and some trees exceeding
56 inches in diameter.
The forest houses more than 80 species of spring flowering
plants and many neotropical migrants that can be viewed along
Mary Wallace loop trail. Beginning with ridge-top fields,
the trail descends into wooded areas, where sandstone outcrops
can be seen year-round, and in the spring and summer wildflowers,
nesting birds and wildlife prevail.
In the fall, the preserve reportedly offers great views
of rolling hills adorned in fall foliage.
In addition to the preserve's main trail, a side trail to
the old growth stand currently is in the planning stages.
One of the state's most unusual preserves is Ice
Mountain, located in Hampshire
County. Home to a natural phenomenon resulting in a year-long
refrigeration effect, Ice Mountain's most known feature is its
ice vents that blow 38-degree air all year long.
Formed from detritus tumbling from the preserve's series
of 200-foot high vertical cliffs, known as Raven Rocks, the ice
vents are situated within a talus area formed at the base
of the slopes. Some 50 feet deep in places, ice annually
accumulates deep inside the talus during the winter and remains
there into summer, expelling cold air from its 60 vents.
Open to visitors April through November, ice can be seen
in the vents well into May and felt throughout summer.
Because of this refrigeration phenomenon, however, the preserve
is also home to a number of unexpected plants. Several species
normally associated with either boreal regions of North America
or at elevations exceeding 4,000 feet make their home near the
ice vents at an elevation of only 700 feet, with the largest number
of these plants blooming in May.
Because of their rarity, the Nature Conservancy protects
and maintains the best examples of these unusual communities and
offers visitors a history tour of the preserve, including highlights
of both the human and natural history of the area. To avoid any
damage to this sensitive environment, these tours are given to
groups of 15 or less, and visitors are asked to visit Ice Mountain
only with a guided tour.
Located in Ritchie
County near Pennsboro, the Murphy Preserve is 276-acre tract
of land donated to the conservancy in 1967 as a means of ensuring
a safe haven for natural processes without human intrusion.
Included in the preserve are two tracts of old oak-hickory
forest on a series of rolling hills and coves featuring some of
the state's most beautiful wildflower displays in spring and summer
and expanded views of the surrounding hills in winter.
Two man-made ponds on the property are home to a number
of amphibians, with the most notable activity occurring each spring,
and in the summer nesting birds including the Cerulean Warbler
can be seen.
While there are no formal hiking trails, the preserve's
mature forests have an open understory that affords a low-impact
Panther Knob, known for its 400-acre dwarf pitch
pine woodland, is located near Franklin in Pendleton
County, where North Fork Mountain flattens into a plateau.
Its high elevation heath and rocky cliffs host this rare plant
community similar to pine barrens found on Long Island and New
Jersey. But different from these lower elevation woodlands, Panther
Knob's pine are at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet.
Also included in the preserve are sandstone cliffs, wildlife
and one of the area's few virgin Red Spruce forests.
Because Panther Knob has been named a "Wilderness Preserve,"
there are no trails and no development is planned. This leaves
the preserve untouched and wild, but also means natural hazards
do exist, including rattlesnakes and extreme and sudden weather
Because of that, staff-guided tours, generally conducted
each summer, are the only way visitors are permitted to brave
the difficult hike.
Pike Knob Preserve
County preserve, not far from Panther Knob, is the Pike Knob
Preserve. Another example of Appalachian terrain and wildlife,
the primary feature of the preserve is its 750-acre, virgin red
pine forest surrounded in fields at an elevation of more than
Other highlights include Appalachian grass balds, natural
openings with a variety of plant and wildlife species and multiple
sandstone cliff outcrops, waterfalls and overhangs nestled in
The main trail into the preserve consists of a carriage
road and travels up hill to the top of North Fork Mountain, offering
scenic views of flowers and foliage year-round.
In Monroe County
near Sweet Springs, visitors can find what the conservancy describes
as a "globally rare shale barren community"on Slaty
Donated to the conservancy by the Westvaco Corp., included
on this 153-acre preserve are hardwoods, pines, the well-preserved
barren and its assortment of rare species. Its steep south-facing
shale slopes are home to such state rarities as the Yellow Buckwheat,
Steele's Aster and Kates Mountain Clover, and atop Slaty Mountain,
visitors can take in one of the greatest views of southern West
Virginia's ridge and valley region.
While late summer reportedly is the best time to see the
shale barren plants in bloom, a hike in the late fall and winter
allow beautiful mountain-top views, all of which can be accessed
using a loop trail that takes visitors up Slaty Mountain, across
the top and then back.
County is the Yankauer Preserve, which includes 107 acres
of cedar, open meadows, and second growth hardwood forest.
"A classroom for understanding and viewing old-field
succession,"according to the conservancy, the preserve's
open meadows demonstrate how areas fill with sapling, while the
center of the property is a perfect example of a more mature forest
of large oaks and maples.
Amid this varied habitat are limestone outcrops and sinkholes,
and at the eastern edge of the property is a bluff overlooking
the Potomac River. The preserve is ideal for birding and an annual
hot spot for spring wildflower displays, as well as fall and winter
sightings of warblers and other migrating birds.
Visitors can make their way through the preserve on one
of three loop trails, the Kingfisher Trail, South Trail
and Dan Fisher Trail. All of the above preserves are open
to the public under certain conditions set by the conservancy,
including no pets, camping, fires or ATVs. Visitors are
also asked to respect all wildlife residing in the state's preserves
and are advised to know their limits when hiking the preserves'many
trails and cliffs.
While most preserves can be visited without prior arrangement,
those planning visit those indicated as requiring a guided tour,
should contact the conservancy in advance.
For additional information on these preserves or West
Virginia's other natural attractions: contact the West Virginia
Field Office of the Nature Conservancy at (304) 637-0160.