Christmas at Watoga State Park — No Presents Necessary

A fresh coating of snow during a Christmas scene at Watoga lines the banks of a mountain stream. During Christmas at Watoga, the author and his brother encountered scenes such as this near the Island Lick Run Cabin area. Photo by Stanley Clark©
During Christmas at Watoga, the author and his brother encountered scenes such as this near the Island Lick Run Cabin area. Photo by Stanley Clark©.

Christmas at Watoga State Park meant always receiving a special present from my Mom. I still cherish that gift all these years later.

Of course, the park unwrapped presents for me to enjoy year-round, especially at Christmas. Watoga appeared to hibernate, but it was alive with life. White-tailed deer still foraged for food in the snow-covered hillsides. Otter, fox, and racoon tracks could still be seen in the freshly fallen snow. The male and female cardinals still landed with ease in the nearby white oak trees.

While growing up at the state’s largest park, I loved all the seasons. Winter at Watoga arrived early, usually in late November, and it snowed a lot – like by the foot!

But first, a little background about my family.

In the 1930s, Dad and Granddad (Pap) were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They helped with various projects at Watoga. A few months before the park opened in 1937, Dad wed my Mom, Devada Goldie Scott from nearby Lobelia.

Dad was promoted to maintenance foreman at Watoga in the spring of 1960, which meant on-site housing at the park. Dad, Mom and five of my siblings moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath cabin near the Beaver Creek Campground. Mom was pregnant with me.

Later that year, I was born — on Christmas night. For years, and even to this day, many people lament that I must not have received many birthday gifts. Although this may be true, I proudly tell them that I need neither Christmas nor birthday gifts. Soon, the reason why is explained.

Christmas at Watoga

Leading up to Christmas, my older brother, Ronnie, and I ventured to nearby hillsides to sleigh ride. We built many snowmen with rocks for eyes, large carrots for a nose, and a curved twig for a smile. Snowball fights lasting hours then ensued. Later, we ventured to nearby Calvin Price State Forest to be the architects of secret passageways in the snow drifts. When we returned home, four-foot icicle daggers frozen on our home’s gutters entranced us.

Coming in from the cold, we sat next to the warmth from dancing flames in the native stone fireplace. In the small kitchen, the aroma of Mom’s homemade hot chocolate wafted throughout. The smells, sights, and sounds of Christmas at Watoga filled the air.

And then came the day to select our Christmas tree. Dad would take Ronnie and I to Pap’s nearby farm. Each year, we took turns picking out the pine tree to grace our living room at the park.

By 1968, my “baby” sister, Vicki was five. She, Ronnie and I would decorate the tree. Mom had a collection of large ornaments with a family story behind each one. Regardless of the year, Mom always made homemade popcorn for us as we used needle and thread to string festive garlands around the tree. I usually ate more popcorn than what ended up on the tree.

Growing Up Poor

I did not realize it until my teenage years that we were poor.

Mom and Dad provided us with the necessities to survive. Dad used to say, “be thankful that you have a roof over your head, some food on the table, and clothes on your back.”

On Granddad’s nearby farm, Mom worked in the fields like a man, planting, hoeing, clearing rocks from the soil, and harvesting the fruits of that labor. Later, in the fall, colorful vegetables, juices and jellies in Mason jars lined the shelves in Grandma and Granddad’s cellar.

The Deans shared that bounty to get through the winter as a family. Mom always made sure that we had something to eat throughout the year.

In 1966, Mom joined the cabin cleaning crew at Watoga to help the family financially. Della, my older sister, watched me, Ronnie, and my younger sister, Vicki, while Mom worked. A warm evening meal as a family was never missed. Christmas at Watoga arrived in many splendid ways throughout the year.

A Christmas Story Like No Other

Every Christmas Eve though, Mom would tell me her Christmas Story at Watoga.

With Christmas just hours away, Mom would ask me to sit beside her on the couch. The fire’s embers still glowed. The 13-inch black and white TV had been turned off for the night.

“Johnny, when I was pregnant with you,” Mom began, “I had a craving for popcorn.”

During Mom’s pregnancy, she and my older brother, Gilbert, would eat bowl after bowl of popcorn. It had been perfected in a well-worn, time-scarred, aluminum clad kettle bearing black marks on its bottom. Gilbert was six.

On Christmas Day, Gilbert and Mom continued the popcorn tradition they both loved so much. Unbeknownst to either Gilbert or Mom, something got in the way of that day’s plans to eat more popcorn. It was me! Just as Mom and Gilbert savored a few bites out of that big ole bowl of warm popcorn, Mom’s labor pains began. And they would not stop.

Not known for his patience, Dad sprang into action. He quickly started the blue Chevy Impala to transport Mom to the hospital in Marlinton, 16 miles away. Before Mom left, she opened the screen door and glanced at Gilbert, who was still clutching that big bowl of popcorn.

“Mom, mom, here, want some more popcorn?” asked Gilbert.

After my birth, Mom never enjoyed popcorn the same way again like she had with Gilbert.

Every Christmas Eve, Mom always ended the story the same way.

“Johnny, you’re the best Christmas present I ever received. I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.”

A snowy backdrop for Christmas at Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation.
A snowy backdrop for Christmas at Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation.

About the Author

John Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. He lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. You can contact John at

Photos of Watoga State Park — When Fall Arrives

A curving road separates trees of yellow, magenta and tall pines lead the way along a leaf-lined road at Watoga State Park. A picturesque fall scene unfolds near T.M. Cheek Memorial at Watoga State Park. Photo by Stanley Clark©.
A picturesque fall scene near the T.M. Cheek Memorial at Watoga State Park welcomes visitors. Photo by Stanley Clark©.

Do photos of Watoga State Park mesmerize you no matter the time of year?

So with that in mind, we decided to feature fall’s parade of colors from this year and prior years. Nonetheless, Watoga is West Virginia’s largest recreation area at 10,100 acres. Since 2010, Watoga has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Moreover, it is located in scenic Pocahontas County in the Appalachian Mountains.

Indeed, There Were Star-Filled Nights and More

Specifically, from Watoga Lake to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower and beyond, our photographers captured images of what Watoga offers visitors in the fall. During late September through November, we experienced crisp mornings, sunny afternoons, and star-filled nights exploring Watoga’s vistas. Consequently, we hope that you will enjoy these photos of Watoga as much as we did taking them.

But, as each season fades and a new one begins, we will publish even more sights and sounds of Watoga from photographers and videographers. Also, for information about submitting your photos and videos of Watoga State Park for use in a future pictorial, please email .

An array of fall colors presents itself up a stone walkway leading to a mountain cabin at Watoga State Park.Framed ever so perfectly by fall's foliage is a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation©.
Framed ever so neatly by fall’s foliage is a Watoga cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Photo by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources©.
Tall tees of green, red, orange and yellow are captured in a reflection on Watoga Lake. Reflections on Watoga Lake on a fall day. Photo courtesy of Tana Shifflett - Facebook.
Reflections at Watoga Lake on a fall day. Photo courtesy of Tana Shifflett – Facebook.
Hues of orange red and yellow highlight the foreground of TM Cheek Memorial Overlook where you can see Kennison Mountain and the Greenbrier River Valley in the distance. Always worth a photo no matter the season is the overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial. Photo by Stanley©.
Always worth a photo no matter the season is the overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial. Photo by Stanley Clark©.
Stunning fall views await. Seeing the vistas on the other side of the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower is well worth the hike on a crisp October day. Photo by John Dean©.
Seeing what’s on the other side of the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower is well worth the hike on a crisp October day. Photo by John Dean©.
You can see for miles and miles with this fall scene. This is just one of the many stunning views at Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. In the distance are the Greenbrier River Valley and the Little Levels District of Pocahontas County. Bench was donated by the Young family. Photo by John Dean©.
This is just one of several stunning vistas at Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. In the distance are the Greenbrier River Valley and the Little Levels District of Pocahontas County. Bench was donated by the Young family. Photo by John Dean©.
A star-filled night sky captivates watchers near the Beaver Creek Campground one clear October night. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation©.
A star-filled night sky captivates watchers near the Beaver Creek Campground on a clear October night. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation©.
Taking a break to admire the view of the Watoga swimming pool on a 70-degree fall day are John Dean and his two labs, Jack and Max. 📸: Flora Jane Bott, October 7, 2020
John Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. On visits to Watoga, John is always accompanied by his two Labrador retrievers, Jack and Max. He lived on-site at the park in the 1960s and 1970s, and now resides near the New River Gorge National River. Photo by Flora Jane Bott©.