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

John Dean's backroads take him to the dark skies of Watoga State Park, West Virginia. Here, he provides Insider Tips regarding the park.Photo by Jesse Thornton.
John Dean’s backroads take him to the dark skies of Watoga State Park, West Virginia.
Photo by Jesse Thornton.


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.

The Anne Bailey Lookout Tower is in Watoga State Park. The Insider Tips are provided by John Dean. Photo by Brian Hirt.
The Anne Bailey Lookout Tower is in Watoga State Park.
Photo by Brian Hirt.

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.”

Top Fall Drive Picks:
• U.S. 219 or SR 39 to Watoga State Park
• SR 92 through the adjacent Calvin Price State Forest
More info:;

John Dean travels with Jack and Max (standing). Photo by Donna Dilley.
John Dean travels with Jack and Max (standing).
Photo by Donna Dille

Being Home and at Peace at Watoga State Park

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.

Pastor John Sowers, No. 3737 of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at "home and at peace" at Watoga's 2021 Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon Race. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Pastor John Sowers, No. 3737, at “home and at peace” at Watoga’s 2021 Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon Race. Photo by Brian Hirt.

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.

The Grandeur of Watoga – Then and Now

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.

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

The Caplingers Make Memories at Watoga State Park

In a wooded setting at Watoga is the Caplinger family making memories at Watoga State Park. Watoga is West Virginia's largest recreation area.
The Caplingers take time to make memories at Watoga State Park with their son KC. 📸: Pam Morris, circa 1982.

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.”

All smiles are Ken and Judy Caplinger as they pose for a selfie making memories t Watoga State Park, Cabin No. 34, also known as the Honeymoon Cabin. The log cabin is in the background surround by a lush forest and mountain laurel that is common through West Virginia's largest state park.
Still making memories at Watoga State Park 45 years later are Judy and Ken Caplinger. Here, they pose for a selfie when they revisited the Honeymoon Cabin where they stayed following their wedding in 1975.

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 .

Ken Caplinger, II Comes of Age at Watoga State Park

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.

Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his brother Dave take a minute to pose for a photo at the Watoga Administration Building, circa 1963. Photo by: Ken Caplinger, Sr.
Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his younger brother Dave pose for a photo at the Watoga Administration Building, circa 1963. 📸: Ken Caplinger, Sr.

“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.’”

Posing together at the assistance superintendent's residence with brown wood siding are Ken Caplinger, Jr. and his wife, Judy, circa 1980. Photo by Richard S.
Ken Caplinger, Jr. and wife, Judy, at their home at Watoga State Park, circa, 1980. 📸: Richard S. Morris

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.

Part Two

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 .

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same at Watoga

Hues of orange and red signal the beginning of fall at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Hues of orange and red signal the season’s change at Watoga Lake. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

. . . The more things change the more they stay the same
The same sunrise, it’s just another day
If you hang in long enough they say you’re comin’ back
Just take a look, we’re living proof and baby that’s a fact . . .

Bon Jovi Greatest Hits, 2010

I have hung “in long enough” to say I’m “comin’ back” to Watoga State Park.

Earlier this month, I came back to where I grew up for more 6,000 wondrous, fun-filled days of my life.

Getting Much-Needed Watoga Hugs

As I drove past the historic swimming pool where I once worked, Watoga accepted me with open arms, reminding me to inhale the exotic mountain air frequently. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Watoga is unique in many ways — its pristine wilderness first and foremost. It stays the same. I love that fact.

Near and dear to my heart are my Watoga friends, co-workers, and the local mountain folks. I grew up with them. I am one of them. They are kind, community-minded and would give you the shirt off their backs.

At the Mountain State’s largest recreation area, I was surrounded by picturesque, untouched beauty at Watoga, Calvin Price State Forest and Monongahela National Forest. Yeah, I had an expansive backyard with miles to explore as did Freckles, our family’s pet deer. My dad, Vernon, worked at the park for 43 years.

Indelibly Etched Scenes That Never Change

But in early October, I came home and stayed at Cabin 11 — marvelously restored and updated in the Island Lick Cabin area. On several occasions, I admired the handicraft and attention to detail in the two-bedroom rustic log cabin.

Some things never change at Watoga. These early morning rays are near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. Views such as these near the Island Lick Cabin area and Bear Pen Trail. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.
Views such as these rays at Watoga State Park near Bear Pen Trail never seem to change. 📸: John C. Dean, October 7, 2020.

To begin with, Jack and Max, my two, seven-year-old labs, excitedly conquered the 15-step uphill climb to our encampment in a matter of seconds. Their sense of smell went into overdrive for several days.

While at Watoga, a friend told me that coming back “must be like a nostalgia tour.” And it was. Importantly though, I made new memories. Fresh mountain air intoxicated my senses once again. Nostalgic moments with breathtaking views unfurled before my eyes. In essence, those precious scenes are now indelibly etched in my mind.

There’s just something about Watoga that reinvigorates my inner being. After years of rush hour traffic and corporate deadlines, grasping nature’s artwork is the ultimate stress reliever. You see, Watoga’s magic never seems to transform itself into anything other than what is painted so perfectly. This vast paradise was and still is my home.

It’s a mesmerizing place. “The more things change . . .”

Meanwhile, on our first morning leaving Cabin 11, a westerly breeze rustled through the trees as Jack, Max and I trekked along a freshly cleared Bear Pen Trail. Among the century-old stands of birch, maple and oak, we stopped and listened to the familiar call of whippoorwills and the steady drumbeat of woodpeckers. Nearby, a gentle mountain stream flowed ever so softly. The harmony of other songbirds spoke to me in a classic Watoga-style melody.

Yet, when those tell-tale sounds of nature stopped, the tranquility of quietness took over. Some who are used to the constant humming of traffic and music may find this unnerving. However, I savor the stillness. This is the never-changing wilderness that always welcomes me with open arms. After all, Watoga is like Christmas morning as I open thousands of its gifts with childlike excitement. And therefore, at Watoga, I know that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”

As a youngster and teenager, every spring, summer, fall or winter, blooming rhododendron, billions of dazzling stars, spectacular sunsets, a fall tapestry of red, yellow and orange leaves, fresh fallen, pure-white snow greeted me in brilliant fashion. Obviously, Watoga is unique in its own spectacular manner. Once you visit or live there as I did for more than 16 years, this park tugs at your heartstrings, calling your name to return.

Watoga Didn’t Change. I Did.

Now, on this memorable reunion tour, Watoga blessed me with several stunning vistas, unfolding in picturesque format. I am ecstatic to report that those vivid scenes stay the same no matter what else changes. I think Ansel Adams would agree.

The wind whirled loudly at the T.M. Cheek Memorial Overlook while I admired the early fall foliage in the distant Greenbrier River Valley on a 70-degree day at Watoga State Park.

As I walked throughout various areas of the park, a multitude of improvements to the cabins, the trails, signage, the administration building were clearly noticeable. However, Watoga’s backdrop of natural beauty has not changed. The more things change . . .

Watoga aged gracefully all these decades while I was elsewhere in America. She withstood the brunt of Mother Nature’s forces. Still today, Watoga continues to sing her melodies and bless us with her plethora of natural wonders — some new and some old.

In any event, Watoga didn’t change. I did.

The Stories Still to Come . . .

Nestled near a brook flowing to the 11-acre Watoga Lake is Kermit McKeever‘s bench. Jack, Max and I took a few minutes to pay tribute to “Mac” who helped my dad further his career at Watoga. They were good friends working together tirelessly during Watoga’s infancy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Oh, the stories yet to be told!

Mr. McKeever was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948. He is commonly known as the father of West Virginia’s network of state parks. Many parks came to fruition under his leadership from 1948-1979.

On this occasion, I wondered how ecstatic the legendary Mr. McKeever and dad would be about today’s Watoga. Of course, as long as I can, I am determined to continue their love affair with Watoga.

In any event, take a few minutes to sit on any of the park benches strategically located throughout the park. Visualize what is before you — 10,100 acres of pristine magnificence and dreams yet to be realized.

Watoga, I Love You! See You Soon!

Then, before I am even a whisper in Watoga’s wind, I visualize my next encounter with my forever Wild and Wonderful Watoga State Park. Leaving on that melancholy fall day, I glanced into my car’s rear-view mirror. Cabin 1 was quickly fading into a symphony of colors. I slowed down instinctively. To my left, rays of light glistened off the Greenbrier River.

Then as if on cue, the lyrics to “The More Things Change” started playing again. Jack and Max leaned their heads out the rolled down windows, their noses twitching. I couldn’t resist but yell “Watoga, I love you! See you soon!”

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
Taking a break to admire the view surrounding 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.
About the Author

John C. Dean is a writer, editor, journalist, and blogger. He lives near Fayetteville, a few miles from the New River Gorge Bridge. You can contact John at .

Reminiscing About What Watoga Offers — Our Readers’ Turn

You too can reminisce about this spectactular sunrise at Watoga when you return home. 📸: Brian Hirt, September 3, 2017.
You too can reminisce about this spectacular sunrise at Watoga when you return home.
📸: Brian Hirt, September 3, 2017.

Reminiscing has a way of putting things into perspective, especially during a pandemic.

With the pool closed and Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s time for our readers’ perspective of their times at Watoga State Park.

Childhood Reminiscing

Where do I start? Watoga was my adolescence. It’s the place a significant number of my memories begin and where I grew up.

The pool was my place of refuge where I went to get away. We would either walk ourselves or bum a ride to make it there, but we made sure to get there every day before it opened and stayed until closing. We would gather together to round up our money to make sure we had enough to get in and some extra money for the vending machines.

As kids we always found ways to make the day even more exciting than the day before. Back then, the pool didn’t have the solar panels to warm it, so the water was always freezing. But that didn’t matter to us. We made a game of who would jump in first and who would be the first to chicken out.

Spending Everyday There

We spent every day of our childhood there. Even when it was raining and storming we still went; it didn’t matter to us if we weren’t allowed to swim. It gave us an excuse to hang out in the Rec Room and play numerous games of life and listen to the “Funky Cold Medina” or “Wild Thing” over and over on the old jukebox.

Every day brought a new adventure and every day we became avid swimmers. We learned to hold our breath longer and swim a little harder which was a great accomplishment as a child. Even when my best friend passed away during my 8th grade year of middle school, and we all grew up and went our own ways, the memories we made at Watoga will always hold a special place in my heart. And the stories I can tell will always keep those memories alive. So, it’s the place we created relationships of best friends and grew as children.

Alyssa Hall, 1997-2003

Reminiscing as a Former Employee

If you look at the window on the second story of the building [at the swimming pool], you’ll notice it has a curtain in it. That section of the building was actually a dormitory for the male summer workers at Watoga. The lifeguards and utility workers were housed there.

Moreover, I spent two wonderful summers there in the early 60s. What fun we had. The female workers were quartered over the dining room in the Administration Building. They were waitresses in the dining room. About 10 total summer employees. Great group. Fun times.

Gary Mitchell Hershman

Reminiscing About What Watoga Offers

Love, love Watoga! Beautiful place to spend time. So peaceful and lots of wildlife.

Pat Drake

Recalling the Cold

When mom asked if we were cold [after swimming], we always said, “No,” through chattering teeth!

Mary Beth Norman

Every 4th of July swimming in that cold, cold swimming pool and the best ever picnic with juicy watermelon as desert! Fond memories.

Judy Brown Cooksey

Refreshing! Not Cold!

I worked there in 1957 through the early 60s. I don’t remember the water being that cold. We were there most days between serving lunch and dinner. I know we sunbathed, but I just don’t remember the issue being that the water was too cold. Those were wonderful times. I lived at home and went to college so Watoga was my coming of age time.

Susan Higginbotham

I worked at Watoga 1956 thru 1959 and also lived at Watoga as a child while my father was superintendent so I am very familiar with the Watoga pool. I called it refreshing.

Charlotte McKeever Emswiler

Cabin 20 Reminiscing

My family rented the cabin next door years ago. Great vacation. We went several times.

Sharon Cecil

Talk About Something “Near and Dear to my Heart”

I lived there for one summer, either 1984 or 1985. Two college students lived over the pool building, and every Wednesday night was poker night. Me and two other girls lived over top of the restaurant, and worked there during the day. So Watoga was ours for one summer. Best summer ever! Lots of great memories.

That summer was the year of my first job, my first apartment on my own. . . . I was so young, 19, with all my life ahead of me. I explored every inch of that park and hiked every trail that summer, but you could usually find me floating in the lake on a paddle boat, reading a book.

The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. 📸: Jesse Thornton.
The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake.
📸: Jesse Thornton.

Later, I would bring all my children back to that park, and all of them learned to swim in that pool.

So Watoga State Park, has always been near and dear to my heart. My children grew up visiting this beautiful place. Listening to me tell them all about nature, the trails, the CCC camp builders. We all love this park!

Cherie Williams Hall

Hark Back to the Future?

Like going back in time.

David Price

About the Author

John C. Dean is a former journalist who grew up at Watoga State Park. His father, Vernon, worked at Watoga for 43 years. John is a freelance editor and can be reached at .

Watoga: How Our Grandparents Gave Us This Lifelong Gift

Guest Post by Rachelle Bott Beckner

My sister, Sara (R) and I have continued a family tradition spanning seven decades at Watoga. 📸: David Bott, 1987.
My sister, Sara (R), and I have continued a family tradition spanning seven decades at Watoga.
📸: David Bott, 1987.

For more than seven decades, the Botts have stayed in various cabins at Watoga State Park. The family fished, swam, hiked, and rode horses at the stables. This is Rachelle Bott Beckner’s memories about growing up spending summer vacations at Watoga.

Cabins Have Personality Too

It’s difficult to choose my favorite cabin at Watoga State Park. I think, over the years, we’ve stayed at nearly all of them. In particular, I have fond memories in Cabins 2 (River Cabin Area), 3 (Island Lick Cabin Area), 14 (Bucks Run Cabin Area), 20 (next door to the swimming pool) and 21 (Pine Run Cabin Area).

Of course, the years that Grandma and Grandpa Bott (who started this tradition when my father, David Bott, was a child) stayed at Cabin 20 were great. We would visit the pool daily and Grandma would give us money to buy treats from the vending machines inside the pool.

I loved Cabin 14 because my sister, Sara, and I would fly down the driveway on our bikes and ride down the hill with no hands until we reached the commissary. We’d visit the commissary nightly after dinner to buy an ice cream treat.

We are celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary on August 19, 1988 in Cabin 14 at Watoga. From L-R, foreground to background: Joanna Joseph Reynolds, my cousin, in highchair; Aunt Barbara Bott Joseph; Uncle Bob Joseph, my dad, David Bott, across from him Grandpa Bott (Leonard S. Bott); and my mom, Donna Bott. 📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.Rachelle Bott Beckner.
We are celebrating my parents’ wedding anniversary on August 19, 1988 in Cabin 14 at Watoga. From L-R, foreground to background: Joanna Joseph Reynolds, my cousin, in highchair, Aunt Barbara Bott Joseph, Uncle Bob Joseph, my dad, David Bott. Across from my dad is Grandpa Bott (Leonard S. Bott) and my mom, Donna Bott.
📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.

Finding Hidden Artwork in Wood Knots

Perhaps some of my favorite memories, though, are from Cabin 3, which was large enough to hold the extended family. Both of my aunts, Barbara Bott Joseph and Flora Jane Bott, would stay with us with their spouses or significant others. My sister and I would share a room. Some of our favorite pastimes were laying in our beds and finding pictures and stories in the wood knots in the paneling. I remember laying in bed one afternoon for an hour or more and my grandmother became worried what we were up to because we were so quiet. She expected some mischievous act, but we were just using our imaginations to find art in the walls.

Our family was devastated when it burned down one year and we couldn’t stay there again. Cabin 3 had the space to accommodate the extended family.

One year, there was a mix-up with the reservations in the office and we all had to stay in Cabin 14. The office gave us cots to use for everyone to sleep there. Sara and I were kids at the time so it didn’t bother us and we wouldn’t have thought anything about having nine people stuffed into a cabin built for four. As an adult, I can’t imagine how everyone survived that week.

Watoga is Near and Dear to Our Hearts

Growing up, my grandparents were mine and my sister’s best friends. I’m not gonna lie. We were spoiled. We were the only grandchildren at that time on my father’s side of the family. I was the first grandbaby on both sides of the family. We could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. We loved to spend Friday nights at their house, so a week at Watoga was like a weeklong sleepover. We’d stay up late and build fires, roasting marshmallows. A running family joke we have is the year it was too hot to build a fire in the cabin, but my mother did anyway. She built a scorcher of a fire and roasted my grandfather out of the house. He stood on the porch until it died down.

Creating a Lifetime of Memories with the Gift of Watoga

For all of the Botts, but especially me and my sister, Watoga holds a lifetime of memories. We will cherish our memories forever because they remind us of our grandparents.

Their love for us was shown by giving us the gift of Watoga and the beauty of West Virginia. During the week, Grandpa would take us down to the Greenbrier River across from Cabin 1 and teach us how to skip rocks. Sometimes, we’d drive down to Seebert to the little convenience store there. What’s more, on every trip, Grandpa would make his classic Dad joke and ask us if we knew where Seebert got its name. “There was a man named, Bert,” he said, “and he’d wandered off. The townspeople started asking, did you see Bert?” Thus, the town became named Seebert.

In 1948, my grandfather, Leonard (pictured here at Cabin 4), began our family's tradition of visiting Watoga every summer with his wife and my grandmother, Flora. 📸: David Bott, circa 1983.
In 1948, my grandfather, Leonard (pictured here at Cabin 4), began our family’s tradition of visiting Watoga every summer with his wife and my grandmother, Flora.
📸: David Bott, circa 1983.

Grandpa wanted us to know our state and appreciate nature. Of course, he’d take us on hikes around the lake and sometimes the whole family would go on the planned nature hikes on one of the many trails in the park. One year, most of the family (not my grandmother or mom) took a night hike with the park ranger.

The Allure of Watoga

During the day, we’d swim at the pool or go horseback riding at the stables. We’d stay at Pine Run when we were preteens. Grandma would bring her jar of quarters she saved all year for us to use at the rec center near the pool. We’d walk the trail from Pine Run around the lake and to the rec center, where we’d spend our quarters on the jukebox, arcade games and rounds of ping pong.

My parents, David and Donna Bott, enjoying a summer day 2007 with their granddaughter, Belle (my daughter), at Watoga Lake. 📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.
My parents, David and Donna Bott, enjoying a summer day in 2007 with my daughter, Belle (their granddaughter), at Watoga Lake.
📸: Rachelle Bott Beckner.

Later in the evening, the entire family would visit the rec center for the family movie night, which was usually Woodsy the Owl or Smokey the Bear. In particular, it didn’t matter how many times we had watched the films at Watoga or the nearby Cranberry Glades; it was so familiar to us it felt like home. We’d sing along with the song, “Give a hoot—don’t pollute!”

In the evenings, we’d go down to the lake at dusk to catch a few more bluegills with our trusty crickets for bait. Later, we’d drive through the park spotting deer. When we returned to the cabin, we’d wait and watch for the raccoons to come out.

Watoga—A Most Precious Gem

In this slower quarantine time, your mind can easily float back to the slower days at Watoga, which weren’t so rare then. In today’s crazy-paced, high-tech life, the real beauty that Watoga offers families is a rare opportunity to unplug; to take a deep breath and smell the pine trees; to switch off the phones and TVs and cut a switch off a bush to roast marshmallows; to find yourself and connect with your family and one of the state’s most precious gems.

My mom, myself and my sister, Sara, hiking on one of Watoga’s many trails in 1990. Pictured in foreground: Me. Background is my mom and sister. 📸: David Bott, 1990.
My mom, myself and my sister, Sara, hiking on one of Watoga’s many trails in 1990. Pictured in the foreground: Me. In the background: my mom and my sister.
📸: David Bott, 1990.

Generations of the Bott family have enjoyed the quiet reprieve of Watoga. Without doubt, it is important to me for that tradition to carry on, which is why when my girls were infants we stayed at Cabin 20 for a week. Like me, they were bathed in the kitchen sink. Like me, they swam in the freezing waters of Watoga pool. Like me, Belle and Lilly fished with crickets to catch bluegills from Watoga Lake.

Now, our family has a cabin near Green Bank and the family cabin has become our home away from home. In fact, it’s Watoga that was the impetus for my grandparents to build our family cabin. It’s Watoga that the Botts have to thank for a love of nature, the state and her people.

In conclusion, I invite all West Virginians to reconnect with their families and rediscover all that Watoga has to offer. You won’t be sorry you did.

About the Author

Rachelle is a West Virginia native and former journalist. She now lives in Clemson, S.C., with husband, Andrew, daughters, Belle and Lilly, and their dog, Whittaker. Rachelle works with Tigers United, which is dedicated to preserving natural habitat around the world to save wild tigers.

Arrowhead Discoveries in All the Right Places at Watoga

Have you ever seen an arrowhead at Watoga State Park?

Recently, I spoke to two gentleman (both named Ken) who found arrowheads at the park.

Finding an Arrowhead with your Dad — Priceless

Ken Caplinger, former Watoga Assistant Superintendent (1979-1984), later served as West Virginia State Parks Chief and is now a board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.

“One was by an employee when we were building the Allegheny Trail connector from the Beaver Creek Campground over toward Honeymoon Trail.

“The other was when my Dad was visiting me and he accompanied me on a work task to the picnic area over across from Pine Run cabin area. We were walking along the little creek that comes down from the picnic shelter and he spotted an arrowhead in the edge of the creek.”

Finding an 11,000-Year-Old Arrowhead

Ken Springer, Vice-President of The Watoga Foundation, relayed the following:

“I found the arrowhead approximately three years ago on the Monongaseneka Trail. See more of Ken’s find including the history of arrowheads here.

Ken stated that the “design indicates it may be Archaic, a group of Native Americans who lived in settlements in our area in the period from 9000 BC to 4500 BC. “

Arrowhead found at Watoga on the Monongaseneka Trail, 2018. Photo by Ken Springer.
Arrowhead found at Watoga on the Monongaseneka Trail, 2018. 📸: Ken Springer.
1-5/8 inch arrowhead found at Watoga State Park. Ken Springer is illustrating the length of the point. Photo by Ken Springer, 2018.
1-5/8 inch arrowhead found at Watoga with this image illustrating the length of the point. 📸: Ken Springer, 2018.

“If it were a projectile point, it would have been used with a spear and atlatl [a spear-throwing lever], not a bow and arrow as they were yet to be invented in North America.”

Ken Springer’s arrowhead is on display at the Watoga Nature Center. Please note that it is illegal to remove any object, such as an arrowhead, from any park in West Virginia.

Finding Your First Arrowhead With Your Brother

I was with my older brother, Ronnie, when I discovered my first arrowhead, but I was not allowed to keep it. Our dad, a park ranger at Watoga, taught us at a young age not to keep what nature left for us and others to admire and enjoy.

However, it was always an adventure searching for these flint-like creations. The expansiveness of Watoga and nearby Calvin Price State Forest provided Ronnie and I ample opportunities to search for arrowheads. And, getting to see one up close and personal proved to be exhilarating for an 8-year-old.

The Airstrip and Calvin Price State Forest

There were a couple of spots where Ronnie and I found those treasured items.
Specifically, we had the most success on our exploration missions at the expansive airstrip near the Beaver Creek Campground.

At least once a week, Ronnie and I would venture into the secluded wilderness that surrounded us. Notably, the first time that I ever spotted an arrowhead was along the path leading into the forest, close to a small mountain stream oftentimes reduced to a trickle during the heat of the summer. Just seeing one and not even having picked it up yet caused my heart to beat faster.

Excitedly, I jumped up and down with joy.

“Ronnie, Ronnie, look what I found! Come over here. I think it’s an arrowhead.”

Of course, Ronnie was wiser about these matters than me, and upon closer inspection, he said: “You sure did, Johnny. Wow, that’s a nice one too!”

Remembering What Dad Taught Us

Before crossing that small creek to head home, Ronnie stopped. He showed me what Dad had taught us about not removing or keeping historic artifacts that we may discover at the park. Ronnie slowly bent down and carefully placed the tan-colored arrowhead neatly under a nearby rock.

“There,” Ronnie said, “I wonder who will discover this next?”

During your stay at Watoga, explore and take in the wilderness surrounding you. You may even see the arrowhead that Ronnie and I returned to its rightful place more than 50 years ago. In the meantime, please give any discoveries to personnel at the park office for display at the nature center or simply leave it where you found it. The next park visitor will be glad that you did.

About the Author

John C. Dean lived at Watoga from for 16 years until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service with the Division of Natural Resources. On John’s “bucket list” is returning to the airstrip and seeing an arrowhead one last time. You can reach John at .