A West Virginia Fall Color Day Trip
by Melissa Moore
Where does your family go to enjoy the vibrant colors of leaves changing color? Maybe, you follow the crowds to Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive. Or, possibly you head to your favorite pumpkin patch, the one with pumpkins still attached to the vine, and hope that there are some colorful trees in the background for the perfect family photo. This year, with family in town from California, our family went searching for the most impressive display of color that we could find within a three hour drive of Washington DC, and we hit the road for the mountains of West Virginia. On our one day road trip adventure we visited both Blackwater Falls State Park and Seneca Rocks.
Blackwater Falls State Park
When our family arrived at Blackwater Falls State Park the third weekend in October, we were greeted by country road lined with golden trees sparkling in the sun. With near peak foliage, I expected to find crowds, but we had no difficulty parking our car wherever we stopped. Apparently, peak color arrived quite late in 2016; in subsequent years you should expect this high elevation area to change before Skyline Drive and other local foliage hot-spots.
The hiking trails in the park are short, so short that in most cases they are more walkway than trail. Kids will easily find rocks to climb and brightly colored leaves to collect. While the park is named after the waterfall near the park’s entrance, the views out into the Blackwater Canyon are not to be missed.
There are two ways to view Blackwater Falls, from the wooden boardwalk behind the Trading Post and Snack Bar and from the paved, accessible walkway just off the road to the Lodge. Plan to spend about 20 minutes walking the steps to the falls from the Trading Post; there are a few viewpoints along the way. The other viewpoint from across the canyon is just a quick five-minute stop.
In the autumn months, the viewpoints are likely even more stunning than the falls. While both the overlooks that we visited had wooden boardwalks with railings, it is easily possible to access steep drop-offs that are not protected by railings nearby; you’ll want to keep a close eye on little ones. Personally, during our morning visit, I preferred the view, lighting and color at Pendleton Point, located just down the road from the Trading Post, more than the view from Lindy Point, accessed via a narrow road and short 1/3 mile trail. Nevertheless, both viewpoints are must-see attractions, and the trail to Lindy Point would be particularly beautiful in the spring as it is lined with rhododendron bushes.
After a morning at Blackwater Falls State Park, my family drove to Seneca Rocks. The scenic drive was a good part of the fun – especially for those of us still looking out the windows and appreciating the colorful leaves. Regardless of how long you have to spend at Seneca Rocks, the view from the Discovery Center should not be missed; it’s also a great pit-stop with clean restrooms and a place to fill up water bottles.
The hike up to the observation point at Seneca Rocks is 1.5 miles to the top including a 900ft elevation gain. We saw many young children (ages four and up) hiking this trail. With frequent breaks, this well-maintained trail of switchbacks and stairs is likely possible for most families. That being said, we ran out of time and only hiked about a third of the way up. There’s no question that we would have made it the entire way if we had started at Seneca Rocks first thing in the morning and made it a priority. My kids loved climbing around on the rocks on the first quarter of the trail. Plan to allow about two hours round trip with kids.
A Three Hour Drive – One Way
Yes, we did drive all the way from the DC area to Blackwater Falls and Seneca Rocks in just one day. Years ago I had decided that West Virginia, beyond Harper’s Ferry, was just too far away to go for a day trip. But now, my kids are older; they can read chapter books, do puzzle books quietly and listen quietly to audio books as we drive. Still, I wasn’t sure if over six hours in the car to hike some trails in West Virginia would be worth it. The verdict: we all had a great experience on our one day family road trip.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that this sort of road trip isn’t for every family. You could easily spend the entire weekend in this area of West Virginia; there are lots of cabins and lodges that would make this area the perfect weekend getaway for a DC area family.
The Details of our Itinerary
Early on a Sunday morning, around 7:30AM, loaded up with coffee and cinnamon rolls, we hit the road driving west on I-66. From I-66, we went a few miles south on I-81 before exiting at Interstate 48 and driving west. Interstate 48 took us almost directly to Blackwater Falls State Park; it was an easy drive through the mountains mostly on a divided highway. My mom and I enjoyed the awesome display of color from the front seats while the kiddos listened to an audio recording of “My Father’s Dragon” in the backseat.
By noon, we felt like we had fully experienced Blackwater Falls so after grabbing a bite to eat at a deli in Davis we drove south on Highway 32 followed by Highway 33 towards Seneca Rocks. If we hadn’t decided to rush home for Sunday night swim lessons, we would have had plenty of time to hike the 1.5 mile trail to the viewing platform at Seneca Rocks.
Finally, after a hike at Seneca Rocks, we piled into the car one last time, drove Highway 55 until it hit Interstate 48 and drove eastward towards home.
For more family travel adventures, follow the author, Melissa Moore, on Twitter and Instagram as @DCTravelMom and read her articles as the DC, MD and VA family travel guru on the acclaimed national website, Trekaroo.
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