Not just a summertime getaway
Watoga State Park is by no means a local secret, but memories of time spent there probably conjure up images of summertime barbecues, the outdoor pool, or the hiking trails. “The River of Islands” is by no means a seasonal operation. Although the park winterizes most of their 34 cabins and camping areas during its down-season, there is still plenty of outdoor fun to be had during the winter months.
“This time of year we have ten cabins that are open — ten modern cabins,” explained assistant superintendent Kelly Smith. “We just ended up closing twenty four cabins at the end of October, our standard cabins — they only have a fireplace for heat.”
The traditional wood-heated cabins — that have already been shut down for the season — were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The more-modern, electric-heated cabins are scattered throughout the park next to the CCC-era cabins. Anyone renting one of the modern cabins doesn't need to bring much — Watoga furnishes most of the necessities, and firewood is always provided.
“They come completely equipped with a full kitchen, all of your linens, towels, pots, pans — all you really need to bring is what you wanna wear and what you wanna eat,” said Smith.
Although there are only 10 cabins available in the winter months, Watoga can accommodate families and groups large or small, and the cabins rarely sit vacant.
“The Nature Conservancy was in not long ago, they held a meeting,” said Smith. “We've got eight person cabins with four bedrooms, and you can put cots in there, so really a maximum of about 12 people. This cabin at the very end has always been known as the Honeymoon Cabin, being at the end of the road and on its own — it's a two person cabin. During the holidays all the cabins go pretty quick, we get lots of families that come out and stay with us.”
Smith said campers come from all over in the winter season, and they travel a good distance to stay at Watoga. Although she sees a lot of West Virginia license plates, she meets lots of folks from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Smith, originally from Milton, Pennsylvania, received her bachelor's degree in wildlife biology at WVU, and she's been assistant superintendent at the park since August of last year. She's no rookie when it comes to West Virginia state parks though, and she said she really enjoys working at Watoga.
“Prior to coming here, I was the activities coordinator at Cacapon State Park in Berkley Springs for the past thirteen years, so I've been in the park system for awhile. I feel pretty lucky, lots of times I stop and think — 'hey, I'm getting paid to do this,'” joked Smith.
Smith said she's an avid birder, and Watoga is a prime spot for the hobby. She said campers are likely to see a wide variety of wildlife in the winter months.
“We get lots of spring migration and fall migration birds. It's great for waterfowl and different ducks. Ruffed grouse, wild turkey, whitetail deer, bobcat, raccoons, opossum, fox — I've seen both gray and red fox, and flying squirrels — they get into our cabins occasionally,” laughed Smith.
The Greenbrier River serves as one of the boundaries to the park, and you're likely to see fishermen on the river year-round. Smith also said ice-fishing is a popular sport in the wintertime on the stocked, 11-acre lake at Watoga.
“Die hards that can't get enough I guess,” joked Smith.
Smith said surprisingly enough, in the wintertime, lots of hikers use the trails that meander through the 10,000+ acres at Watoga. The park also closes some of the roads to provide cross-country skiers the opportunity to scoot around. Hunting is permitted in the Calvin Price State Forest adjoining Watoga, but not actually at Watoga itself.
According to Smith, four-wheel drive isn't a necessity, the county and the park do a good job of keeping the roads clear. There are handicap-accessible cabins available and many are pet-friendly. Reservations can be made up to a year in advance, and the rates range depending on the size of the cabin, so call ahead for pricing and availability at 1-800-CALL-WVA.