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.
It started as a typical summer at Watoga State Park. But it began and ended as the summer with Tog.
There were seven of us hired for the summer jobs. Several of us had been there the earlier summer or two, and we knew each other. The others were new. We were all about the same age—some were college students, and others were local—just a typical beginning to the summer.
We usually had wild animal babies to raise. Well-intentioned tourists would “rescue” a baby animal, not realizing the mother was probably just gone for a short while. Fawns were the most common as we usually ended up with at least one every summer. One summer we had Mamie, the groundhog, Phoebe, the raccoon. But that’s another story.
This particular summer we had two fox pups — Ruff and Ready. One day they disappeared along with Mr. Park, the park superintendent. When he reappeared, he was accompanied by a small black bear cub. We named him Watoga — Tog for short. Mr. Park had taken the fox pups to the game farm and exchanged them for a bear cub!
A “Park” Loves a Bear and Tog Loves a “Park” Back
Tog quickly became the darling of the park. He had a very large dog kennel cage in a shaded corner of the staff parking lot. In the daytime, we hooked his leash to the clothesline between the supply house and the administration building and he had a wheelbarrow filled with water that he could play in.
Mr. Park loved that bear. Not only would he take Tog in his truck as he made his rounds through the park but it was not unusual to see a bear sitting in the passenger seat as he drove around. The two of them usually ended up at the swimming pool where Tog would swim in the kiddie pool.
In the afternoons, Tog liked to nap in the lounge chair in Mr. Park’s office. Unsuspecting park guests would think he was a dog when they came in. Frequently, they would ask about wild animals in the park. Mr. Park would name the various animals they might see and then casually wave his hand at the chair and say “and we have a bear.” Many a park guest did a doubletake at their first meeting of Tog!
We hand-fed Tog warm milk from a 2-liter bottle. Sometimes, we would be feeding Tog from a bottle in one hand and Flag, the “rescued” fawn that summer, with a bottle in the other hand. They didn’t know they were supposed to be enemies.
Popsicles, Soda Pop, and a Water Hose
Tog developed a fondness for popsicles and soda pop — both of which were sold in the commissary. We would warn guests not to get too close to Tog with either of those items because Tog would just reach out and take them. We tried to be outside when guests were around because they didn’t believe how quickly that paw could reach out or how long the claws were.
Tog also loved to play with the hose. In the afternoons, we would play “keep away” with him. We usually ended up soaked as Tog would grab the hose and chase us with it.
At night, whenever we returned from a movie or the rec center or wherever we had been, we would try to tiptoe past Tog’s kennel without waking him. It never worked. He would wake up and cry like the baby he was. So we would have to go to the kitchen and heat a bottle for him, and then he would go back to sleep, and so could we.
The End of That Summer With Tog
But the end of the summer had come.
Flag was not a problem. The park took “rescued” fawns to their home on the other side of the mountain where they could keep them safe or at least try to keep them safe from hunters. But Tog was a different story. He had to go back to the game farm. This was in 1959 — a different time in the care of animals. Of course, it’s also a good lesson on why wild animals should be raised as wild animals, not as pets. Tog, who had been a pet with all kinds of freedom all summer long, suddenly was confined to a pen with all his freedoms gone.
Eventually, Tog became a mean and dangerous bear. Mr. Park visited whenever he could and Tog always remembered him. In spite of the rangers’ warnings that it wasn’t safe, Mr. Park would go into the cage and he and Tog would greet each other like the old friends that they were.
I visited Tog several times. It was hard to believe that that big prowling bear was the adorable little cub we had hand-fed and played with for one memorable summer — the summer with Tog.
About the Author
Susan Higginbotham worked at Watoga the summers of 1957-1960. She lived upstairs over the kitchen and office with the other girls who all worked in the restaurant and also in the commissary.
Of her experiences with Tog and Watoga, Susan says “I loved Tog. I’ve always loved animals and Tog was just special to me. I had two pictures Mr. Park sent me. They were of me with Tog. I carried them in my billfold for years. When my billfold was stolen, I was devastated over the loss of those two pictures. All these years later, I can’t remember anything else that was lost. Just those pictures.
“I lived at home and went to college. Those summers at Watoga were my growing-up time. They were a great experience. As I look back on it now, I realize that I should have been a forester or a naturalist in some way but those weren’t considered ‘women’s work’ at the time. I loved every minute of my time at Watoga. Mr. and Mrs. Park were like surrogate parents. Watoga was a great place and Tog was part of it.”
Tog died in 1979.
From time to time, Susan retells stories from those memorable summers at Watoga. After college, she became a schoolteacher and now lives about 30 minutes from Chicago.
Ah, those summertime sights, sounds, and smells entice many people to visit Watoga each year. This summer was no different.
From the children splashing about in the pool’s crystal-clear water to a family of deer meandering alongside a mountain stream, there’s always something to fill your senses in this 10,000-acre park.
Wildlife, Back to Nature, and Dark Skies
Raccoons, bats, and owls highlight the summertime night sights and sounds, but the dark skies alone are worth a visit to Watoga. Here, you can see the Milky Way along with other galaxies, planets, and constellations. You can even “wish upon a star!” And don’t forget to chase or catch a lightning bug or two during your summertime visit!
Roads less traveled, where to find them and why they’re worth it.
Reprinted with permission from Blue Ridge Country magazine’s September/October 2021 issue. For subscription and other information on the magazine, please go to blueridgecountry.com.
One of my favorite pastimes when I was at college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains was hopping in the car and just driving. Any backroad was fair game. I “discovered” small ponds with baby geese; old-timey stores with giant wheels of cheese under glass domes; service stations where they washed your windshield; unimproved mountain roads where the quietness was vast; and, roadside stands of produce where an overall-clad fella would tell me all about this year’s tomato crop and how his honeybees were doing.
In tandem with these mini-journeys it happened…I read the new book “Blue Highways: A Journey into America” by William Least Heat-Moon. The rural roads on my paper maps (picked up at the service station, unfolded once, never to return to their original shape!) were drawn in blue just like the ones used by the author of this now classic book. Somehow, I felt a kindred spirit with his goal of “just paying attention” to the world around him.
And I still wonder where that road goes…
Our featured travelers also explore their blue highways in the Blue Ridge…and that has made all the difference (Robert Frost).
Let’s meet them!
“Let nature take over all your senses,” says John Dean, a writer, journalist and editor. “Backroads trips in and around Watoga State Park are a chance to get reinvigorated and inspired by the amazing discoveries along the way. Watch for black bear or deer roaming through the forest. Fill your lungs with fresh mountain air; hear the sounds of nature at work and stand in places so silent that it can be deafening; visit a pioneer cabin; and, maybe even see a ghost,” he adds with a smile.
Generations of Dean’s family have called this region home. “My grandparents’ 211-acre farm bordered the park. They worked with the CCC to ‘build the park.’ And, my dad worked there for 43 years. One of my uncles was West Virginia’s first-ever game keeper; and another was a founding member of The Watoga State Park Foundation” (where Dean now serves as a member of the board of directors). “And I lived on site for 16-plus years,” he states.
Dean welcomes fellow travelers to experience “the peak months of autumn in nature’s paradise with hues of orange, red and yellow” at a park “so remote that GPS will not find specific directions to it! Once you visit,” he concludes, “you’ll return year after year, especially in the fall. Each autumn when I depart, those rustling leaves whisper my name to return…and I do.”
Reprinted with permission fromHighland Outdoors magazine (www.highland-outdoors.com), Fall 2021 edition, p. 9.
Stargazers, rejoice! Watoga State Park is on its way to becoming an officially recognized Dark Sky Park. Watoga has long been known as one of the darkest and most light-pollution-free areas in Central Appalachia, providing spectacular views of clear night skies.
At 10,000 acres, Watoga will be West Virginia’s first Dark Sky Park. Expected to be included in the designation are Calvin Price State Forest, which adjoins Watoga to the south, and nearby Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Together, the three areas encompass 19,869 acres.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a Dark Sky Park (DSP) is “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
As the largest state park in West Virginia, earning the DSP designation would add yet another spectacular feather to Watoga’s cap. The application process began two years ago, culminating in a 99-page application that included detailed measurements of night sky depth by local astronomers and light pollution maps, and resulted in the replacement of 181 outdoor light fixtures and bulbs to be dark sky-compliant.
Watoga Lake, the Anne Bailey trailhead, and other areas in the park should provide scenic nocturnal viewing opportunities for astronomers, tourists, photographers, and visitors. Future plans include educational programs and star parties for dark-sky enthusiasts at Watoga, Droop Mountain, and Calvin Price.
“The [pending] designation will put Watoga on the radar of groups or individuals who seek out dark sky facilities,” said Watoga superintendent Jody Spencer. “Dark skies have always been noticeable at Watoga, where night hikes, nighttime boating, and owl walks are popular activities. I think the real benefit to park guests is the fact that light pollution on the park has been greatly diminished.”
Stay tuned to our website (highland-outdoors.com) for more information on this exciting announcement.
John Dean is a writer and editor who grew up in Watoga in the 1960s. He is an active board member for the Watoga State Park Foundation.
In many ways, the area feels like a second home to me. When I drive into the park and see those trees arch over the road, I exhale and sigh the sigh of being at home and at peace. My experience at the park is rich in years. Anything I can do to make sure that generations who come after me have that same experience, I am ready to lace up my shoes or drive my car as the case may be. I think the main reason I made the drive was and is support for the mission of the Watoga State Park Foundation, and a deep love and respect for the area.
The trip to Watoga was certainly a longish drive. When I mapped it out, it said if I took all interstates it would be about 13.5 or 14 hours with no stops, but I decided to make a longer trip of it and take all blue roads (U.S. highways and state highways).
This extended things to about 20 hours of driving time and about 980 miles each way. I made this a part of my vacation and took two days to make the drive. I am a person who has always liked to drive and take the “scenic route.”
The Challenging Part of the Mountain Trail Challenge
Usually, I always joke with people that one needs to emphasize the “Mountain Trail” and “Challenge” part of the race. It is definitely a very challenging course, and there is a deep feeling of satisfaction to completing the course no matter where you are in the pack. I firmly believe the only way you could actually train for this run is by training full-time on this course. It is always a feeling of accomplishment to complete a half marathon or long-distance run, but I think there is an even greater sense of satisfaction when the course is so challenging.
This actually is my third time doing the race. I ran in 2016, 2017, and now 2021. I should note that before I left the park, I reserved my cabin for 2022.
A funny story: I have always been a bit of a runner, so I was pretty cocky in 2016. Guess what? I got my clock cleaned by the course and was very near the back of the pack in 2016. After that, I pledged that would not happen in 2017, and in 2017 I placed 6th overall. I was a little nervous about being away for four years, but I was only a minute slower this year and placed 7th overall so I figured it wasn’t too bad for four years older.
Forty-Plus Years at Watoga
I checked with my Dad to figure out when we started coming to the park. Our first trip was in the autumn of 1980 for the school system’s fall break. My oldest brother would have been 10, my next brother would have been 8, I would have been two months shy of 4, and my youngest brother was 3 months old.
My parents enjoyed it so much they decided we start doing our one-week Spring Breaks there. Dad believes our first Spring Break was 1982, and with rare exception we went every year. I graduated from high school in 1995, and I spent nearly every spring break there.
When we first started going to the park, it was not open year-round. There were even a couple or three years when our Spring Break was technically before the park opened. In those years, the superintendent gave us special permission to rent a cabin and be in the park. We had the whole park to ourselves! And we would always rent cabin 28 in Pine Run. We are all long since grown, but my parents still go every Spring and rent cabin 28. In fact, when I checked in at the park, the person checking me in asked if I was related to that couple that comes during the Spring every year! I smiled and said, “Those are my parents.”
As I mentioned, I do try to stay connected to the area with a mail subscription to the Pocahontas Times. My parents also have a mail subscription.
Inspired to Run and More . . .
Running is an important part of my spirituality and faith life. In my work a day life, I am the pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I have been serving in Leavenworth for three years as of May 1. As of June 30, I have been ordained 19 years.
Running allows me to fulfill my vocation more fully. In pastoral ministry, it is common to work 60 to 70 hours a week, odd hours, and functionally be on call 24/7. It is the running and attention to my diet that allows me the energy to live the life of a vocational pastor. Also, when a person gets in fairly good shape, you don’t have to really think about moving your arms and legs in concert to run, but the body just takes care of itself. That means in the midst of one’s run, there is time to think, pray, wonder, and ponder during the space of a training run. (Many sermons have been considered and many prayers have been lifted during my runs).
It would be fair to say that I come from a running family. In my childhood, there were times when all six of us of would run races. We tended to be an active and athletic family. Watoga is and was good for us. We would hike almost every day of our one-week stay. There were even some days that were long enough that lunches were packed for the hikes. One day of the week was always spent in Lewisburg though!
A Watoga Spring Break Like None Other
One of the things I vividly remember about our trips is that we would bring lots of books and board games for the evenings. After our week at “the cabin,” as we called it, we could come back home. We would be rested, refreshed, and closer as a family. Many of my classmates would come back to school more tired after Spring Break than when they had left. I felt like we always did things the right way.
Thousands of people visit Watoga State Park to escape urbanity. Others come to hike or run on wooded mountain trails or to experience scenic vistas along with nature’s sights and sounds. But, there’s a unique group of individuals who immerse themselves in the utter calm at Watoga. Throughout the year, they visualize, dream, and create works of art. Thus, at the 4th Annual Watoga Art in the Park this Labor Day weekend, art and nature come together. Talented artists, artisans, musicians, and photographers will take center stage.
The free event features hands-on workshops, juried fine arts and crafts, live music, and of course, food.
Artisans, Musicians, and Food Too at Watoga Art in the Park
This year’s festival spotlights six workshops. There will be Wood Turning, Clay Birdhouses, Exploring the Cosmos, Fused Glass, Pendant Making, and a Kid’s Corner with crafts and activities for children. However, children must be accompanied by an adult. Watoga State Park Naturalist Kayla Bowyer will lead discovery hikes on Saturday and Sunday.
Music by Jim Snyder begins at 11:00 a.m. Saturday. Trash Fairie, a ukulele group, performs at 2:00 p.m. Sunday’s musical entertainment also includes a performance by Uncle Gary and the Porch Pickers at 2:00 p.m.
“We are thrilled to again offer visitors and residents alike a unique event to enjoy,” said Laura Finch, president of the Board of Directors of Experience the Arts, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization. “The focus of this year’s event is on local artists and artisans.” Last minute registrants can contact watogaartinthepark at gmail.com.
An added bonus to Watoga Art in the Park is the variety of food selections.
“We are especially excited for the food offerings this year, with a full spread of nibbles and nosh from Sally Cobb, including her world-famous chicken and sausage gumbo, shrimp etouffee over rice, along with veggie (and meat lovers) burgers and dogs,” said Finch.
Watoga annually hosts this popular and ever-expanding arts and crafts extravaganza the first weekend each September. The two-day festival is at the park’s picnic area, close to the swimming pool. Look for the Watoga Art in the Park logo on signs at Seebert Road/U.S. 219 or from the northern part of the park on Beaver Creek Road before you get to the campground.
The overall finishers, top male finishers, and top female finishers follow:
1. Aaron Walker, Spring Dale, WV, with a time of 1:55:12.1 2. Daniel McDowell, Princeton, WV, with a time of 1:57:24.9 3. Donald Marsh, Mount Clare, WV, with a time of 2:06:38.6
1. Aaron Walker, Spring Dale, WV, with a time of 1:55:12.1 2. Daniel McDowell, Princeton, WV, with a time of 1:57:24.9 3. Donald Marsh, Mount Clare, WV, with a time of 2:06:38.6
1. Elise McClintic, Lewisburg, WV, with a time of 2:08:27.2 2. Donna Wright, Roanoke, VA, with a time of 2:24:59.3 3. Megan Lively, Oak Hill, WV, with a time of 2:30:50.4
1. Bryon Shrewsberry, Daniels, WV, with a time of 23:48.5 2. Ben Palisca, city unknown, with a time of 23:54.9 3. Hannah Scrafford, Marlinton, WV, with a time of 26:03.5
1. Bryon Shrewsberry, Daniels, WV, with a time of 23:48.5 2. Ben Palisca, city unknown, with a time of 23:54.9 3. Alexander Pearson, Arlington, VA, with a time of 27:41.4
1. Hannah Scrafford, Marlinton, WV, with a time of 26:03.5 2. Devin Haynes, Williamsburg, WV, with a time of 26:08.1 3. Kelly Pults, Mount Jackson, VA, with a time of 26:47.7
Without you . . .
Without all of the runners, more than 60 volunteers, including registration gurus, cuisine experts, professional photographers, knowledgeable aid station personnel, expert communications teams, ready-to-respond emergency personnel, and the dedicated Watoga State Park Foundation Team, none of this would have been possible.
The Foundation’s “Challenge” is to make the races better each year. Special shout-outs to the Mountain Trail Team whose hard work shaped the course into its best-ever condition for this year’s races.
Special thanks to many phenomenal local businesses and sponsors who donated so selflessly. Kudos to the talented Pocahontas County artisans who handcrafted special edition mugs and plates for the runners. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Much appreciation to APTiming.com for your technical expertise in calibrating each and every runner’s times to the exact 1/1000ths of a second. Likewise, a round of applause is in order for media outlets and other organizations both in West Virginia and outside the Mountain State for helping to publicize the races.
To Watoga State Park employees who welcome so many people with open arms throughout the year to the largest state park in the Mountain State: Many thanks!
Finally, to the Mountain Trail Challenge runners who make these races second to none in America: We enjoy seeing you at the park even when there’s not a race. We admire your athleticism, stamina, and enthusiasm. You’re simply the best!
Cooking by the campfire headlines this week’s Watoga State Park naturalist activities. But, be sure not to miss owls, dragonflies, and turtles presented by Kayla Bowyer, park naturalist. Kayla will even help you sharpen your nocturnal skills.
Nature Journaling and a Creek Crawl too!
Thursday, August 26 Nature Journaling 4 p.m. Stop by Riverside Campground check-in to learn about Nature Journaling. All you need is a pen and a paper plate (which will be provided)!
Sunset Hike 7:30 p.m. Join Naturalist Kayla at the pool parking lot for a short hike to the top of the dam to observe the sunset. Take in the lovely views of Watoga Lake and learn about some of the critters who hang out at dusk. Expect an hour to an hour and a half hike. Feel free to bring headlamps for the hike back.
Friday, August 27 Creek Crawl 2 p.m. Gather at the pool parking lot to learn about the critters that inhabit our creek. Learn why scientists collect these critters and you can collect some yourself. Be prepared to get wet and wear appropriate footwear.
Watoga Wildlife: Owls 4 p.m. Come to Beaver Creek Campground to learn about the top predators of the night; Owls! Kayla will talk about some of the common West Virginia owl species and their calls.
Campfire Cooking 8 p.m. Stop by Riverside Campground check-in to try some campfire cooking. Learn a new recipe and feel free to share your own.
Naturalist Activities to Remember!
Saturday, August 28 Turtle Talk 2 p.m. Come on down to the main park office to experience West Virginia’s Turtles! See some shells and walk away with a turtle craft!
Dragonfly Hunt 5 p.m. At the pool parking lot, we’ll hunt for dragonflies. We will be walking around the backside of the lake to try to catch these acrobatic hunters.
Night Hike 8:00 p.m. Join Naturalist Kayla at the Boat Dock for an hour to an hour and a half night hike! Learn about our nocturnal skills and the world after dark. We will be focusing on using natural vision, so we will be limiting the use of headlamps. Please feel free to bring red light headlamps for the hike and headlamps for the walk back to the car.
Even though the weather was not perfect for the 6th Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races, runners young and old alike turned out to take on the “challenge” of the 5K Run/Walk and Half-Marathon.
The stage is almost set for the Sixth Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Challenge Races. Saturday’s races will feature runners from Virginia to California and across the United States. Because of Watoga’s unique racecourses, 5K and Half Marathon enthusiasts come from across the U.S.
Race Day morning temperature will be a comfortable 63 degrees. Talk about ideal running conditions! Meteorologists currently predict afternoon temperatures of 84 degrees. There’s a 39 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in nearby Hillsboro. However, at Watoga, it should be five to 10 degrees cooler along this challenging and hilly route.
As you drive into the park, race signs, strategically placed to “get your attention,” will direct you to the Beaver Creek Campground. You also may notice deer out grazing so early in a mist-filled morning.
From 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., Race Day entrants can complete the registration process near the Beaver Creek Campground. Whether you’ve registered online or are waiting until that morning, don’t worry. Our volunteer teams will assist you.
All race proceeds benefit Watoga State Park. Any donations may be tax-deductible.
Because of the unavailability of Internet services, only cash or checks are accepted. Moreover, if you have never been to Watoga, please print your directions or save them to your mobile device prior to leaving. You will not have internet-based map directions for the entire trip to the park.
Along the 5K and Half Marathon Courses . . .
Along the half marathon route, runners will traverse through a 13.1-mile adventure. Elevations will range from 2,560 feet to 3,200 feet. Six aid stations staffed by volunteers providing nutrition and essential hydration to runners. The 5K will have one aid station situation mid-way in the 3.1-mile course.
This year’s tread (the surface runners feel underfoot) is in the best shape ever! Importantly, continuous and necessary work during the past six years has resulted in steady improvements to prevent erosion and tread wear.
Communications teams, rescue personnel, and emergency response squads will be in various locations throughout the park.
Photographers will be documenting your journey, your smiles, and even a grimace or two as you leave sweat behind.
The half marathon starts promptly at 8:30, followed by the 5K with both slated to end at 2 p.m. A cookout and an awards ceremony will be at the Beaver Creek Campground airstrip.
Race organizers, event planners, volunteers, and park personnel will be following protocol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as well as local and state health guidelines. You can review current guidelines issued by the CDC. Additional COVID information will be provided in the pre-race meeting.
Watoga State Park and the Foundation are looking forward to welcoming you to the Watoga Mountain Trail Races. See you Saturday!