I prepared myself all week for an adventure that would really test my abilities. I had read about the “Via Ferrata” (Italian for “iron road”) at Nelson Rocks in Pendleton County, West Virginia, and had wondered if I should give it a try. Nelson Rocks is a privately owned rock cliff area south of the famous Seneca Rocks. Besides traditional rock-climbing opportunities, the owners have installed a long series of metal rungs with adjacent safety cables so that even novice rock climbers can easily get the experience of transversing a rock face.
I have what I consider to be a normal fear of heights, but after successfully completing the New River Gorge Bridgewalk a few weeks ago, I was ready to try a new challenge. The Bridgewalk takes tourists on the narrow “catwalk” underneath the bridge surface that was originally intended for maintenance workers. It was easier to look down on the rapids of the New River nearly 900 feet underneath you when you know you are wearing a harness and are clipped into a safety cable. Perhaps that same reassurance would allow me to scale the sheer cliffs at Nelson Rocks.
I drove to Nelson Rocks yesterday for my “Via Ferrata” adventure, but unfortunately, the intermittent rain caused it to be cancelled. [Although it messed up my plans, I know the farmers needed the rain.] I did get to check out their operation, and I was impressed with their professionalism. We talked for a good while and I got to drive up to the base of the rocks.
So after leaving Nelson Rocks, I went to my backup plan—caving. A few miles up the road is Seneca Caverns. Going underground was a good thing to do on a rainy day. Seneca Caverns is a typical tourist cave, complete with colored lights in some areas. They have done a good job making it interesting. When we got to the end at the back exit for the caverns, it was still raining, so their policy is rather than make folks walk outside in the rain, we got to reverse course and make our way back to the main building via the cave. As we neared the entrance, we ran into the “Traveling West Virginia” television crew from channel 8 and 11 in Charleston, who were videotaping a segment on Seneca Caverns.
My tour of Seneca Caverns was nice, but I wanted something more. Fortunately, they have opened up a new cave adventure further down the hill called “Stratosphere,” which is operated as a wild cave. I had to try it, too! The only lights are attached to your helmet. There are a number of tricky inclines to traverse, aided only by a rope. I got back to the log cabin main office just in time to purchase my ticket for the next tour that was getting ready to leave.
My trip through Seneca Caverns had been with a group of about 15. However, for the “Stratosphere” wild cave tour, there was only one other couple (they live and work in DC, but have bought a small cabin in West Virginia for weekend getaways) besides myself and our guide. It is very different experience to be in a large cave with only a light on your helmet. The guide did an excellent job answering our questions and pointing out amazing features—such as the couple of delicate mushrooms growing in total darkness inside the cave.
The hike itself was moderately challenging, but I recommend good hiking boots, because unlike Seneca Caverns, there is no designated footpath that has been conveniently covered in gravel or has nice steps built to make climbing easy. Much of the floor of the Stratosphere cave is moist, slippery clay—with a few rope “bannisters” to provide something to hold onto. It is primarily downhill to the lowest point of the cave (and the feature that gives this cave its name), and then a return trip uphill to the entrance.
It was an interesting adventure—and best of all, the rain had stopped upon emerging from the second cave. After cleaning the mud off my shoes, I got in the car and headed north to Seneca Rocks. This iconic West Virginia landmark (which some had mentioned for the back of the West Virginia state quarter) is a huge rock cliff that juts skyward from the valley floor. I hiked the 1.5 mile path to the top (a vertical gain of 1000 feet) in just half an hour. The view from the top of Seneca Rocks is absolutely incredible! It is as if you have hiked into the sky. I have visited here numerous times over my lifetime, but its scenic vista never fails to amaze.
So I got to experience the lowest point below the earth’s surface within Seneca Caverns as well as the highest point on Seneca Rocks. Both of these destinations owe their names to the Seneca Indians, who primarily are associated with living in upstate New York. However, like other Native American tribes, they frequently came south to hunt and visit in West Virginia, thus lending their name to some of our locations.
I finished my day trip by driving north to Morgantown via two-lane roads through Harmon, Parsons, Rowlesburg, Kingwood, and Masontown. I even got to view the section of the Cheat River that we kayaked last weekend. It was a beautiful trip through the West Virginia countryside, and was much better than backtracking westward across Rt. 33 through Elkins to Weston, and then taking I-79 northeast to Morgantown. Even though I had to change my plans, I had a very memorable day in wild, wonderful West Virginia!