Beyond Country Roads: The Wild and Wonderful in West Virginia

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week on our program, we tell you about a popular area for outdoor activities in the state of West Virginia.

(MUSIC: "Country Roads")

The song "Country Roads" was very popular when John Denver first recorded it in nineteen seventy-one. It still is popular with people who live in West Virginia and visitors who have fallen in love with what is known as the Mountain State.

West Virginia is a small state. But it has many different areas of interest to visitors who like to hike, camp, climb rocks, raft in rivers, fish and hunt. One area that offers many kinds of outdoor activities is called the Potomac Highlands. It is in the eastern part of the state, not far from the border with the state of Virginia.

The Allegheny Mountains divide the area from north to south. Rivers on the east side of the Potomac Highlands flow into the Potomac River and continue on toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Monongahela National Forest is in this area. It covers more than three hundred fifty thousand hectares of West Virginia, mostly in the Potomac Highlands.

A good place to begin a visit to West Virginia is at Spruce Knob. It is about one thousand five hundred meters high, the highest mountain in the state. You can drive your car slowly up a rough road to the top.

There are places to stop along the road to look at the fields and forests down below and far in the distance. At the top, you follow a short path to a stone-and-steel observation tower. On either side of the path are what look like river beds of big rocks. Wildflowers of different colors brighten the rocky land. From the tower, you see wilderness in all directions.

Whispering Spruce Trail follows a circular path around the observation tower. The path leads past an open field covered with huge rocks, through a group of tall spruce trees, and past a field of blueberry bushes. Off in the distance you see a valley way below and lines of bluish gray mountains that seem to reach forever.

Spruce Knob has more than one hundred kilometers of hiking trails. Some of them are paths made in the early nineteen hundreds by men who climbed the mountain to cut trees. It also has a lake for fishing and a campground where people can stay.


Near Spruce Knob is one of the best-known places in West Virginia -- Seneca Rocks. This rock formation is made of white-gray quartzite, a kind of sandstone. It is about three hundred meters above the river that flows below. When the sun shines on the almost straight-sided rocks, they look like bright shining wings rising out of a mountain of green trees.

Experienced rock climbers love Seneca Rocks. The rocks are very difficult to climb. Not many people were known to have climbed them until the Second World War began. Then the Army used the rocks to train troops for action in the mountains of Europe. Now there are almost four hundred mapped ways to climb Seneca Rocks.

Visitors who are not experienced rock climbers can follow a steep man-made path that takes them to the top. The path begins at Seneca Rocks Discovery Center at the base of the rocks. The Discovery Center has exhibits about the earliest American Indians who lived in the area. The center also has information about the wildlife and plants of the area.


West Virginia is a state divided by mountains. But the area has also been divided in other ways during its history.

In the early years of the United States, it was the western part of the state of Virginia. It was part of Virginia until eighteen sixty-one. Then, as the American Civil War began, the Virginia state government voted to rebel against the United States. Virginia joined other southern states in forming the Confederate States of America.

But representatives from the western counties opposed the decision to leave the Union. So the area separated from Virginia. In June of eighteen sixty-three, West Virginia became the thirty-fifth state.

Many Civil War battles were fought in West Virginia. Even though West Virginia had remained in the Union, about half of the people in the state supported the South. Many families were divided. Sometimes brothers fought on opposite sides. After the North won the war, divisions in the state slowly healed.

Most of the people in the state were farmers in the eighteen hundreds. Then two natural resources -- coal and trees -- became important. Mining of coal and logging of the forests became major industries as transportation improved on the rivers and railroads were built. Coal and wood continue to be important to the state's economy.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, tourism became an important industry. The number of visitors to West Virginia continues to increase every year.


The Potomac Highlands area of West Virginia has a lot of sandstone. Sandstone is a soft rock. The action of wind and water can form cave openings like natural rooms within the rock.

Two major caves are open to the public near Smoke Hole and Seneca Rocks. Seneca Caverns and Smoke Hole Caverns have been used through the ages. Native Americans used them to build fires to dry their food. During the Civil War, soldiers from both sides used them at different times to store weapons. Now these caves provide underground experiences for visitors.

Guides lead groups on lighted paths down into the ground and through the caves. Visitors see wonderful formations hanging from the ceiling and growing up from the floor. It takes centuries for water dripping through the rock to make these beautiful formations.


Breathtaking. Wonderful. A treasure. These are words that visitors use to describe Dolly Sods, a large wild area in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. About one hundred fifty years ago, a magazine described this same area as very dangerous. It said the forests and undergrowth were so dense, no one could get through them. Bears and panthers lived there but no people.

In the eighteen hundreds, a German family named Dahle raised sheep on wet, grassy open places called sods. Local people changed the spelling of the name and the area became known as Dolly Sods.

Dolly Sods once was covered with a dense ancient forest of red spruce and hemlock trees. By the late eighteen hundreds, railroads reached the area. Loggers cut down the huge trees and trains carried the wood to fast-growing cities in nearby states.

For years, fires from lightening and logger's campfires burned through the areas where the forest had been cut down. The constant fires burned everything down to the bare rock base.

In nineteen twenty, Congress created the Monongahela National Forest. The United States Forest Service soon had trees planted in some areas and a rough road system built.

In nineteen seventy-five, much of the Dolly Sods area became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The Forest Service is protecting the area from too much human activity so it will return to its natural wild condition. Native plants and animals are returning.

Dolly Sods is up high, almost one thousand meters. So plants and animals there are more like those found in northern Canada than in the rest of West Virginia.

The northern part of Dolly Sods is called the scenic area. You can walk among the large rocks known as Bear Rocks and pick blueberries and huckleberries from low-growing bushes. You can spend quiet time looking at the mountains off to the east. You are up high, so even in the summer the air usually is cool.

People come to Dolly Sods to get away from the noise and crowds of city life. They camp in the wilderness far from other people. They pick wild blueberries growing on the rocky fields and red cranberries growing in wet bogs. They hunt deer, turkey and rabbits. They fish in rivers that flow through the area. And they walk on rough, rocky paths, many of which follow old railroad tracks and roads used by loggers long ago.

Signs along roads entering the state welcome you to "wild, wonderful West Virginia." Visitors to the Potomac Highlands have a chance to experience some of those wild, wonderful places.


Our program was written by Marilyn Christiano and directed by Caty Weaver. To see pictures of West Virginia, and to download transcripts and MP3 files of our shows, go to voaspecialenglish. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.