We have a kids friendly swimming pool and great playgrounds. Paddle boats on the lake. Amazing mountaintop overlooks. Best soft serve ice cream in the universe at Jack Horner’s Corner in Seebert. Beautiful mountain valley around nearby Hillsboro, WV.
Experience Watoga’s old growth forest!
Watoga State Park is 10,000 acres. The southwestern section of the Park is unmaintained Wilderness. Hike the Burnside Ridge Trail to access this area. Allow yourself several hours to get out and back. Further south from this area is the Spice Run Wilderness Area of the Monongahela National Forest.
While struggling recently to somehow narrow down an expansive list of the Top 10 Things to Do at Watoga State Park for this blog, John Denver’s smash hit “Country Roads” became stuck in my brain — for days. Other songs did also.
Watoga does “remind me of my home far away.” In fact, I grew up in the park. But until I am in the park visiting my old haunts there, those memories of country roads seem oh so distant.
Of course, that is until I get to go back to my favorite places at the state’s largest park. So, here are five of my “must-do’s” at Watoga (in no particular order). Moreover, the next five will round out the Top 10 in a future blog.
1. A Definite Top 10 — Watoga’s Fishin’ Hole
Watoga Lake is 11 acres with paddle, canoe and rowboats available. Fishing opportunities abound, ranging from trout and bluegill to largemouth bass and channel catfish. Stroll the circumference of the trail around the lake while casting a line to take in nature’s beauty on full display.
Location: From the southern entrance to the park, travel five miles. The lake is just a few steps from the CCC Museum, the gift shop, and the park’s office.
“What a fine day to take a stroll and wander by the fishin’ hole.
I cannot think of a better way to pass the time o’ day . . .”
Watoga provides visitors with many opportunities to explore, hike, and bike with 40 miles of trails. My fave is the Brooks Memorial Arboretum Trail, a 4.5-mile loop, rated easy to moderate. However, there are 12 other trails to explore throughout the park.
Location: The trails are well marked throughout Watoga’s 10,000-plus acres of this recreational playground. The park office and the Internet have maps of the trails system.
Take a hike to the observation tower named in honor of Revolutionary War scout Ann Bailey. You will not be disappointed by the panoramic vista of the Greenbrier River and the farmland in the Little Levels district of the Hillsboro area. Remember your camera or phone.
Location: East of the T.M. Cheek Memorial. Park at the Ann Bailey Trailhead. You can then hike or ride your mountain bike for three miles along an old roadbed, traversing along the top of Pyles Mountain and Workman Ridge. Along the way, you are sure to see or hear something you have not for a while. Please note that this trail is rated as moderate to difficult.
With expansive views of the Greenbrier Valley and Kennison Mountain, it is well worth your time to take a seat for what lies before you. During your visit to the T.M. Cheek Memorial, there is also a hillside picnic area – the perfect spot for lunch with your family or friends.
Location: Travel east from the park office past the Buck’s Run cabin area, along a winding, country road.
While there, have a seat on Vernon’s bench. He was my dad and friend. In effect, we kept going back to try to solve the world’s problems while taking in the view. The theme song to “Friends” comes to mind.
5. The Brooks Memorial Arboretum
Not only is this a naturalist’s dream come true, but the Brooks Memorial Arboretum is a place where you can take in the smells, sights and sounds—rhododendron in bloom, mountain streams flowing gently, and songbirds a chirpin’. Even so, it is not as quiet here as you may imagine.
Watoga – A Top 10 Song Worth Listening To Over and Over
For Watoga’s Top 10 List of Forever Hits, you too can enjoy spring’s symphony of birds, summer’s mesmerizing lightning bugs, fall’s rustling leaves, and winter’s howling winds to mention a few.
So as I cross the Greenbrier River at Seebert to return to the city, those words to “Country Roads” begin playing again. I am at peace knowing that Watoga, my forever Wild and Wonderful home, will always play the right tune for me when I return.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a writer and editor, grew up in Watoga where his favorite sights and sounds melodically filled the air throughout the year. You can reach John with your list of the Top 10 Things to Do at Watoga State Park by emailing him at .
This edition of “Watoga State Park News You Can Use” showcases the building formerly known as the Rec Hall. It is now the Activity Center. And yes, it’s still usable in many different ways — just not the same as in decades gone by.
Just a short walk from the park’s swimming pool is the former Rec Hall building. It has undergone a major transformation to a multipurpose building in the last few years. We’ll provide details on that in a moment.
But first let’s take a quick look back in time at a few details. The rec hall is nestled against a wooded backdrop where for 50-plus years you had a variety of indoor entertainment options. Those included ping pong, billiards, pinball machines, a juke box, to mention a few.
Built in the mid-1960s, the building served as a home base for the park’s naturalist as well as options for park guests on a rainy day. A floor plan from 1964 shows the recreation hall is approximately 2,100 square feet.
Just What Has Changed?
But now, the brown-sided structure plays host to a variety of events, ranging from weddings/receptions to family and class reunions, company meetings, and even school dances.
What changes were made to convert the former Rec Hall to a multiuse building? Here’s some news about improvements to that building.
Of importance to groups now renting the Activity Center is the addition of a household style kitchen with wood cabinets blending in with pine paneling.
“We added a new drop ceiling throughout,” says Jody Spencer, park superintendent. “New flooring, lighting, and a heat pump were installed too.”
“The old chimney leaked really bad due to old crumbling stones and cement joists falling apart, Spencer says. “That was the reason for the terrible floor. So, we removed the chimney, and installed gas logs in the fireplace.”
Recently, all new tables and chairs were purchased. The building features public Wi-Fi.
Spencer explains that depending on the set-up for an event inside, 75-100 people can enjoy the facilities with almost unlimited space outside.
News You Can Use — Reservation Details
The Activity Center is available for rent in the spring, summer, and fall. Prices are $175 per day for all reunions and parties (for example, birthdays, baby showers, or anniversaries) and $250/day for wedding/wedding receptions. All park rules must be followed, including limits on excessive noise. Events must end no later than 10 p.m.
Peak demand occurs in the summer when the building is rented most weekends. But it’s not too late to book your special occasion. You may contact the park office at 304-799-4087 for reservations. At this time, online bookings are not available.
While the area surrounding the Activity Center is about three acres or so, visitors and guests can still enjoy the other 10,100-plus acres in the park. With 40 miles of trails, an 11-acre stocked lake, three campgrounds, and much more, Watoga offers something for everyone.
“For weddings or reunions where guests have to travel from a distance, the park offers cabin and camping-type lodging for folks to gather nearby,” Spencer notes.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “Watoga State Park News You Can Use.”
About the Author
John C. Dean is a writer and editor. He grew up in the park in the 1960s and 1970s when the Rec Hall was first built.
Since spring is about to arrive, we say goodbye to winter at Watoga State Park with these photos. In fact, even the cold and snow could not keep photographers from capturing magical scenes at this winter wonderland.
Special thanks to photographers Angela Hill, Stanley Clark, and Ann Groves for their unique perspective of Watoga State Park.
If you would like to submit photos for our next blog, please email for more information.
When you visit one of the oldest state parks in West Virginia, you may feel as if you just stepped back in time. While you can still experience that feeling these days, you can also enjoy modern-day amenities and conveniences. So here is some Watoga State Park news you can use!
In the past few years, Watoga’s 88 campsites and 34 cabins have undergone a transformation unlike any seen in recent history. In 2018, to fund improvements at state parks and forests, West Virginia sold $55 million in lottery revenue bonds.
“The Division of Natural Resources has approximately $3.6 million budgeted to Watoga as part of our current bond funding,” says Brad Reed, West Virginia Parks Chief. “Some of this work is already completed. Most of the funding is for cabin renovations, utility upgrades to camping, and water/wastewater infrastructure projects.”
Jody Spencer, Watoga’s superintendent, explains that “major infrastructure projects include a new sewer plant at Beaver Creek along with sewer upgrades in the Pine Run Cabin Area.” Moreover, 90 percent of the park’s water lines, and systems are being replaced. “Additionally, all campsites at Beaver Creek and Riverside campgrounds will now have electrical service,” notes Spencer.
Major upgrades have been made to Watoga’s legacy and classic cabins. These include modern kitchens with high-end cabinets, cultured marble countertops, and new appliances. Likewise, in living spaces, you will enjoy the comfort of furniture crafted of solid wood. Stylish window treatments and light fixtures enhance the cabins’ new look. In addition, bathrooms feature tile floor, cultured marble surrounds, and stylish bathroom fixtures.
At eight classic cabins, large decks enhance your outdoor enjoyment of the nearby forest. When you reserve one of the park’s legacy cabins, on-demand water heaters and heating/air units supply year-round comfort. Of course, there is always the wood-burning fireplace to enjoy.
But wait! There’s more Watoga State Park news you can use.
Making News at Beaver Creek and Riverside Campgrounds
Remodeled bathhouses at Riverside and Beaver Creek campgrounds feature culture marble or tile shower surrounds, ceramic floor tiles, and new plumbing fixtures. Both camping areas have larger areas to pitch a tent or park an RV.
At Watoga Lake, repairs to the existing boat docks will appeal to anglers. New fishing boats and pedal boats are available as well.
Spencer points out that “for fishing and joy riding, a pontoon-style pedal boat has become very popular.”
“Over one hundred feet of new floating docks were constructed and added to the existing boat rental docks,” said Spencer.
“Hot Spots” and Park Benches
The Recreation Hall, close to the park’s swimming pool, underwent a makeover to serve as a multi-purpose or activity building. As a matter of fact, with a newly added kitchen, it is a popular site for weddings, reunions, and corporate meetings. You can contact the park office at 304-799-4087 to reserve the building for a meeting or special occasion.
Also, as part of several recreational activities outside the building, work on the tennis courts will start soon.
For those who have not visited recently, the park’s offices have moved to a new location. It is now in the end of the Administration Building formerly occupied by the restaurant. Moreover, this new space has Wi-Fi and a gift shop. Other Wi-Fi hot spots are at the swimming pool, recreation hall, the Beaver Creek Campground check-in building and both Riverside Campground bathhouses.
While driving through the park, you may notice some of the 37 park benches placed in scenic vantage points.
At Watoga in 2021, you can still take that step back in time. But now, you have modern-day amenities at your fingertips.
Stay tuned for more Watoga State Park news you can use about mesmerizing lightning bugs at Watoga as well as the park’s dazzling dark skies.
During the day, enjoy Watoga’s 40 miles of trails and scenic vistas throughout West Virginia’s largest state park. At night while roasting marshmallows by the campfire, take in the dark skies and lightning bugs like you have never seen them before.
About the Author
John Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. You can contact John at
West Virginia’s largest state park made for an incredible childhood home for one local writer. His brief account is published in the February, 2021 edition of Wonderful West Virginia, The Magazine, as The Grandeur of Watoga – Then and Now.
Our writer, John Dean grew up at Watoga State Park and is a Pocahontas County native. He pens a blog for the Watoga State Park Foundation on this site.
John is a 1984 graduate of West Virginia University’s School of Journalism and is an editor and writer. He enjoys visiting Watoga with his Labrador retrievers, Jack and Max.
Talk about a park with views and news! Happy News Year from Watoga State Park. It’s going to be a memorable one here in this 10,000-acre magical forest.
You may be wondering why I wrote Happy “News” Year to start this blog. To begin with, it’s going to be a busy news year for Watoga State Park, dominated by the Dark Sky Project and synchronous fireflies. But rest assured that there will a variety of Watoga news in 2021.
Learning the Basics of Accurate and Factual Newswriting
But first, a little background about how I became interested in journalism and how I learned to write a news story.
At Pocahontas County High School (WV) in the 1970s, I was first introduced to newswriting by journalism teacher, Grace Jane Wigal. In those days before computers, spell checks, and print-on-demand technology, Mrs. Wigal expertly taught us how to put together the high school’s first-ever newspaper, the Smoke Signal—mostly by hand.
The newspaper staff conducted interviews utilizing the 5 W’s and H (who, what, when, where, why, and how), took their own photos, and watched as stories came to life on a Royal manual typewriter. Then the tedious process of carefully cutting (yeah, with scissors) from an 8-1/2” x 11” sheet of paper began. Next, we carefully glued those articles onto a layout template. After that, Mrs. Wigal sent those pages to the printer while we waited impatiently to see the end result.
Notably, Mrs. Wigal’s leadership and guidance in the 1970s and 1980s helped her students consistently produce award-winning newspapers and yearbooks. Furthermore, many newspaper and yearbook staff members won state and national journalism awards. Moreover, multiple students under Mrs. Wigal’s direction pursued degrees and careers in journalism, including me.
Above all, Mrs. Wigal taught us how critical it was to accurately report facts.
Newswriting Dreams: My Role Models, and Their Inspiration and Impact
After PCHS, in 1989, Mrs. Wigal earned a Doctor of Law degree (J.D.) from the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law. From 1989-1992, she practiced law with Steptoe and Johnson, a Clarksburg, West Virginia law firm. Later, Mrs. Wigal taught aspiring attorneys as a professor at the WVU College of Law, serving as Director of Academic Excellence, Director of Legal Research and Writing Program, and Director of Appellate Advocacy Program. She is a retired Teaching Professor Emerita.
Thank you, Mrs. Wigal. You will forever have a special place in my life, along with my Dad, for motivating me to pursue my newswriting dreams. Not only did she set the bar high for myself and others, but she also explained why. Years ago, she gave me permission to call her “Grace,” but she’s fondly known to me as Mrs. Wigal. However, she will always be THE TEACHER who inspired me to aim for more than what I thought I could accomplish.
And here’s a special thank you to Mr. William P. McNeel for the influence and impact you have had and still do in my writing and editing career. Mr. McNeel is an editor emeritus of the Pocahontas Times (WV). Additionally, he’s a well-respected historian and a board member of the Watoga State Park Foundation.
News You Can View at Watoga
Which brings me back to the topic at hand. For Watoga, 2021 could be one of the busiest news years ever for Watoga State Park. Here’s why:
Second, the discovery of synchronous fireflies at Watoga could mean more big “news” for you. Officials have confirmed the existence of this wondrous species in a location yet to be disclosed publicly. Additionally, the Dark Sky Project and those lightning bugs are intertwined. Likewise, I’ll explore why and how both of these impact Watoga and you in the near future.
Third, I’m also going to write about improvements at the park that will enhance your stay or visit.
Fourth, I’ll be penning a unique, two-part, Ten Best Things to Do at Watoga article.
Fifth, there will be personal anecdotes and adventures from visitors and myself while growing up at Watoga. For instance, there even may be some never-before-published news.
Happy News Year. Until next time, signing off from Watoga’s Wild, Wonderful World of dark skies and synchronous fireflies.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. He credits Mrs. Wigal for helping him earn a journalism degree with a focus on newswriting from WVU. John lived on-site at Watoga for 16 years. You can send your news tips to him at .
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.”
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
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 .
As 18-year-olds, Judy and Ken Caplinger, II began a 45-year journey of making memories together at Watoga State Park. That first stop: Staying in the aptly named Honeymoon Cabin at West Virginia’s largest state park. This is Part 2.
The Caplingers spent time after their wedding at Cabin 34 in the Pine Run Cabin Area. Like so many couples before and after them, in a dining table pullout drawer, the newly married teenagers inscribed “Kenny and Judy Caplinger, May 19, 1975”.
In Part One, Caplinger explained how he spent some of his “coming of age” years at the park. In the 1960s, Caplinger’s dad, Ken, was assistant superintendent. He also touched on his time in the same role as his dad from 1979 to 1984. Watoga is nestled in mountainous terrain near Seebert in Pocahontas County.
The Next Chapter of the Caplingers Making Memories at Watoga State Park
Coincidentally, just four years later, the couple began another journey making additional memories at Watoga.
Now, the Caplingers are revealing what it was like as a young couple beginning their lives together at Watoga.
“It not only was a park I lived in as a child, but it is also where Judy and I got our start as a team/couple working/living in the park system,” said Caplinger.
Judy said she was excited and enthusiastic. “It seemed like a great adventure.” Her first impressions? “How appreciative I was for the welcome we received from employees, their families, and all the local folks,” she said.
Caplinger said that once they moved into the assistant superintendent’s residence, a new journey had begun.
“We both had officially embarked on the next chapter of our young lives.”
Ken Caplinger, II
Soon the two began writing that first chapter together at Watoga. For fun, they enjoyed swimming at the pool, and playing softball games in the summer with park visitors and staff at the airstrip. Judy’s hobbies included cross-stitching, biking and cooking. Her husband enjoyed hunting, fishing, weightlifting, and running.
Moreover, Caplinger stated that Judy “has a great singing voice, but is too shy to often reveal it. Back in the day, when she would occasionally sing in karaoke venues, she sounded a lot like Patty Loveless, the well-known country music star.”
Transforming Challenges and Obstacles into Memories
Judy’s biggest challenge at Watoga was adjusting to the park’s remote nature and the distance required to travel to obtain basic necessities. Her favorite times and places were “family get-togethers at the park, gathering at the swimming pool, hiking, and Cabin 34, of course.”
Along the way, the Caplingers made lifelong friends, became immersed in the park’s natural beauties, and enjoyed a plethora of Watoga’s activities for five years. While this sounds idyllic, there were adjustments and obstacles to overcome as young parents.
When the Caplingers moved to Watoga in 1979, their son Kenneth Caplinger, III (fondly called KC) was a toddler. Living there had its happy moments, but it also presented challenges as well. Thus begins the story of how the Caplingers make memories at Watoga as a family.
In 1977, while the family lived in Morgantown, doctors diagnosed KC with Kawasaki disease and he barely survived. Even after moving to Watoga, they had to deal with KC’s residual coronary artery damage. Additionally, they traveled several hours one way to West Virginia University Medical Center (now J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital) for KC’s appointments.
But in 1981 when KC was five, they received an unforgettable phone call from that medical facility.
“We were told that KC had finally recovered enough from the damage done by Kawasaki disease,” Caplinger said, “and that he could go off medications and should be able to live a more normal life.”
KC, now 44, is doing just that. He’s a successful businessman who owns an insurance agency in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area.
They Loved Watoga So Much That . . .
When the couple returned to Watoga earlier this year, the Caplingers said they had a “main and recurring conversation about their five years at Watoga.
“Our time at Watoga was among the happiest and most satisfying of our entire lives due to the beautiful park we had the good fortune to live in,” Caplinger said. “The great local folks and park workers welcomed us with open arms, and there were great friendships we developed with superintendent Craig Ackerman and his wife Cindy as well as with conservation officer Dick Morris, his wife Pam and their kids Sam and David who lived next door to us.”
So, what would be the couple’s advice to making memories to first-time park visitors?
“Hike the trails. Make sure you go to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. Use the swimming pool. Go explore a bit along the Greenbrier River. Fish the Greenbrier, Watoga Lake, and Laurel Run.”
Nevertheless, the Caplingers echoed a commonly heard sentiment from former park personnel. “We loved Watoga so much we really would have liked to remain there longer.”
Many still do . . .
After Watoga, Caplinger culminated a 35-year career with West Virginia’s state parks system by serving as its parks chief. He retired in 2013. Currently, Judy is Director of Office Operations for a home furniture company.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a former journalist, also grew up at Watoga. Caplinger was John’s supervisor in 1979 at Watoga. From 1962-1964, the Caplingers lived next door to the Dean family at the park. John is a legal editor and writer. He can be reached at .
Long before Ken Caplinger, II reached a career pinnacle as West Virginia’s parks chief, he had his coming of age at Watoga State Park. This is Part One.
During the early 1960s, Ken, Sr. and his wife, Doris, lived next door to my family from 1962-1964. Accompanying them were their four children – Ken II, Dave, Kaye, and Sue. The siblings’ sister Carol already had become independent and brother Mike was not born yet.
When the family moved to Watoga from Babcock State Park, Caplinger was six. At Watoga, his dad was assistant superintendent and Herb Robinson was superintendent. Caplinger’s dad spent 20 years at various parks including Blackwater Falls, Cass Scenic Railroad and Babcock.
So when a young Caplinger grew up at Watoga, he and his dad often fished together at the lake.
“Dad taught me how to fish there in a rowboat,” said Caplinger. “He used to laugh about me hooking him in the lip with a big hook with a nightcrawler on it during one of our first fishing excursions on the lake.”
Caplinger’s Coming of Age at Watoga Using Education, Inspiration and Dedication
Caplinger’s first full-time job: A maintenance worker at Blackwater Falls State Park. Prior to that, he worked seasonally as a desk clerk, recreation attendant, campground attendant, and maintenance worker. Starting his management career, Caplinger spent five years as Watoga’s assistant superintendent. After Watoga, he moved to Pipestem State Park and was its assistant superintendent for two years and its superintendent for six years.
“Dad inspired an understanding of state parks as a legacy held in trust for future generations. Keith Simmons, Blackwater Falls Assistant Superintendent provided me with great examples of how to be businesslike and focused on goals. Henry Burr at Watoga taught me a lot of park maintenance skills and how to lead by example in tackling any challenge ‘hands on’ instead of relying on others to do all the hard work.”
Moreover, Caplinger said he grasped how important education, inspiration and dedication were from his “heroes.”
Sage Advice About Coming of Age
Caplinger’s dad reinforced that “you are just a part of something greater than yourself.”
Keith Simmons advised him to “avoid drama and just do your job.”
Henry Burr recommended that “if something works, give others credit for it. If it fails, be prepared to take responsibility yourself.”
A Slippin’ and a Slidin’ at Watoga Lake
Furthermore, Caplinger recalled a memorable experience that occurred when he received that first park assignment in 1979 at Watoga.
In fact, that residence at the park as a child growing up later became his and wife Judy’s home.
“About a year after I was hired as assistant superintendent, I finally got a box delivered to the house with my ‘official’ full superintendent’s unform,” Caplinger recalled. “I excitedly put it on and drove over to the lake to check the licenses of the many trout fishermen at the base of the dam. And I took one step down the hill and slipped and slid all the way on my back into the water between two fishermen who looked down and asked, ‘want to check our licenses?’ I said ‘No.’”
Coming of Age Sometimes Means Turning Lemons into Lemonade at Watoga
After that humorous misstep at Watoga, Caplinger, however, had more serious hurdles to overcome.
One such obstacle included “dealing with an extremely limited budget compared to the magnitude and size of the park and its extensive infrastructure,” he said. “I recall especially one year when we were only provided $2,000 for building repairs/alterations in a park with almost 60 structures of various types.”
As an assistant superintendent, Caplinger oversaw nine full-time staff, a dozen summer employees and eight seasonal housekeepers.
But overcoming obstacles also led to coming-of-age accomplishments while at Watoga for Caplinger.
“One such success was working with Superintendent Craig Ackerman (now Superintendent at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon), Henry Burr and the maintenance crew of Dale, Tom, Wayne, Basil and Letch Pyles, and Charlie McComb to re-roof, paint, and do interior renovations on all 34 cabins over several years and with very little budget. It was done by hard work and ‘elbow grease’ and dedication from all of the named individuals.”
And this is just another example of Caplinger’s coming of age at Watoga that assisted in his career development. With 35 years experience in hands-on and management roles, Caplinger has seen a little bit of everything. However, specifically, what would he tell future assistant superintendents/superintendents at Watoga?
“Make sure you enjoy and remember every day at one of the greatest state parks in the U.S.A. Embrace and get to know the great people in the local community and make them your friends. Go talk to Henry Burr regularly and use his advice.”
Watoga: Then and Now
When Caplinger returned to Watoga with Judy earlier this year, he did notice a couple differences from 1979 and today.
“All the great intrinsic values remain the same. But the cabins and other infrastructure are in even better condition now due to the park system having had more fiscal resources for repair/renovation,” he said. “Also, the forest was impressive and looking mature even when we were there. But it has gotten even more impressive and wonderful in the 35-40 years since we were there.”
Would that be a coming of age at Watoga?
Watoga Through Caplinger’s Eyes
While at Watoga earlier this year, Caplinger had a few observations.
“I would like to see the Arboretum somewhat restored/improved. We need to be vigilant and active in preventing resource exploitation such as the park logging initiative of two years ago. I see Watoga’s core value of nature and the great outdoors always being its biggest and most valuable attraction.
“Looking ahead, how about a 100th anniversary to be held in 2037 to celebrate the park’s opening in 1937?”
Furthermore, Caplinger stated that it would be nice to commemorate Watoga’s past, long-time workers.
“For example, maybe something like the ‘Gaylor Recreation Center,’ the ‘Henry Burr Picnic Shelter’ and the ‘Vernon Dean Trail.’ Honor them somehow for their lifetimes of service,” Caplinger suggested.
To explain, the Gaylor sisters (Nettie and Lillie Mae) lived on Chicken House Run Road that borders the park. They were decades-long cabin cleaners. Likewise, Henry Burr devoted 54 years of service to Watoga. Vernon Dean is my dad. He worked at the park for more than four decades. And like Caplinger, I also had coming of age moments at Watoga.
Caplinger was deputy parks chief from 1991-2006. Then he served for seven years as West Virginia’s parks chief overseeing 35 state parks, recreational use management of seven state forests, five wildlife areas, and two rail trails before retiring. He stays involved with park initiatives as an at-large board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.
Now, Caplinger spends time with his three grandsons. He goes golfing, works on cars and home improvements, and creates artwork with an emphasis on wildlife subjects.
Next up: What was life like during the Caplingers’ five-year stay at Watoga in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Tune in then.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a former journalist. Currently, he is a writer and legal editor. He can be reached at .