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 as well.
In Preston 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 also.
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 cliff-top views.
According 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 and meadows.
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 the preserves
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 hike.
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 changes.
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
Another Pendleton 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 4,000 feet.
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 forest.
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 Mountain.
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.
In Berkeley 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.