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Little-known W.Va. state park holds foggy mystique, eerie charm

By Bob Downing

Akron Beacon Journal

HILLSBORO, W.Va. -- The Beartown rocks are very cool and maybe a little surreal.

What you will find is a puzzling but intriguing network of overhanging sandstone cliffs, deep crevasses and massive boulders. You are walking through greenish canyons on a boardwalk. The greenish tint comes from moss and lichens.

It's a magical and enchanting place, like a rocky labyrinth from a fairy tale. It has a special aura.

You will find little-known Beartown State Park off U.S. 219, southwest of Hillsboro in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties in southeast West Virginia. The 107-acre natural area is located on the eastern summit of Droop Mountain.

Its name comes from the local legend that black bears sometimes winter in the rocky caves, and from the deep crevasses that formed in something of a crisscross pattern, appearing from above like the streets in a small town.

By the way, the bears move in and out of the park and you are unlikely to see one on your visit.

The park's sheer volume of exposed rock creates a kind of geologic wonderland. Visitors find themselves dropped into the middle of a maze with rocks above, below and at eye level.

The rocks are composed of Droop or Pottsville sandstone formed 300 million years ago. That 30-foot-thick layer sits atop Droop Mountain. Under it is a layer of softer shale that is eroding away. That means less support for the sandstone, which is slowly slumping downhill, creating cracks and fissures.

The result is crevasses from 30 to 50 feet deep that look and feel like sunken streets in a town of rocks, far enough apart to build walkways. The cliff faces are pocked with hundreds of pits from erodible materials in the stone. They range from tiny to very large.

Beartown is dark, cool, shady and even a little bit eerie. Moss and ferns grow from pockets in the rock and provide the dominant green color. Trees cling to the rock walls, sending roots into small cracks. Lichens flourish on the rock faces.

It is often foggy at Beartown with its elevation of 3,425 feet and that adds to its mystique.

Visitors are urged to stay on the boardwalk in order to protect the natural resources and for safety.

One troubling change is clearly visible: Hemlock trees in its ravines are dead and dying. The park was home to one of West Virginia's last old-growth hemlock forests.

The trees are being wiped out by the hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect from Japan. It feeds on sap in the needles, causing defoliation, and eventually the decline and death of the tree. The long-term outlook for hemlocks at Beartown and in the Appalachians is bleak.

There is already evidence of forest succession at Beartown where young black birches are replacing the hemlocks, said Superintendent Mike Smith.

Ice and snow are frequently found in the heavily shaded crevasses until mid- to late-summer.

The park itself is open from April to October or by making arrangements. In the winter, you can park at the locked gate and hike in. Admission is free.

Beartown is a no-frills park. There is little in terms of development except the boardwalk, a few signs, a small picnic area, well water and basic bathroom facilities. Development has been minimized in order to preserve the natural features.

The state acquired the land in 1970 with funds from the Nature Conservancy and a donation from Mrs. Edwin Polan of Huntington, in memory of her son, Ronald K. Neal, who died in Vietnam.

A viewing platform at the southeast corner of the exposed rock is handicapped accessible. There is a 250-foot-long trail from the handicapped parking to the platform. Much of the boardwalk is not accessible because of stairs.

Beartown is West Virginia's smallest state park. It gets about 30,000 visitors a year. For more information, call 304-653-4254 or 800-CALLWVA, or see www.beartownstatepark.com.

For visitation out of season, contact the superintendent of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park at 304-653-4254 or www.droopmountainbattlefield.com.

Droop Mountain is very close to Beartown, on a plateau overlooking the pretty Greenbrier River Valley. It was the site of West Virginia's last significant Civil War battle.

On Nov. 6, 1863, federal troops under Brig. Gen. William Averell attempted to disrupt the Virginia-Tennessee Railroad and faced Confederate troops under the command of Brig. Gen. John Echols.

His smaller Confederate force held the high ground and blocked the highway with artillery. But he was outflanked and forced to retreat south into Virginia. Federal troops occupied Lewisburg on Nov. 7.

Military operations in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in spring 1864 drew Confederates out of West Virginia. A total of 7,000 troops were involved in the battle, with 400 casualties.

A federal Civilian Conservation Camp from the mid-1930s was built on the old battlefield. Its workers built a popular wooden observation tower at the park.

Today you will find a small Civil War museum in a log cabin at Droop Mountain. Nearby is a Confederate cemetery.

It is open from May through October. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and $3 for students. The house is at 8129 Seneca Trail, Hillsboro.

For information, call 304-653-4430 or www.pearlsbuckbirthplace.com.


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