Ever rode on a coal-burning locomotive through the backwoods and mountains of West Virginia? It’s a great adventure that most every woodsman and his family will enjoy. I’ll provide the details first then follow with a short story about our adventure including a few pictures of the train and the mountain views.
The Cass Scenic Railroad is a coal-burning steam locomotive and longest state park in West Virginia. The Bald Knob trip takes about 4.5 hours and reaches an elevation of around 4700 ft. above sea level. The train travels through the mountains and forests of rural Pocahontas County, WV, one of the more rural counties east of the Mississippi River. The tracks were built in 1901 for the logging industry. Eventually, the logging cars became passenger cars that have carried around 2.5 million passengers over the past fifty years. Ticket prices increase during fall foliage season but for our trip, we paid $24 per adult and $17 for children (Turtle, our youngest rode for free.)
If you ask any of my children how my wife or I feel about being “on time,” they would most assuredly point out that “if you’re on time, you’re late.” We strive to be early for everything. Sadly, this wasn’t the case as we left our home Saturday morning en route to Pocahontas County to ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad. We left nearly a half-an-hour later than planned. Eventually, we exited the interstate and began traversing country roads – perfect for enjoying the scenery and for driving a bit faster than we should have. The Jetta’s wheels screeched from time to time as I hurried through the George Washington National Forest and into the Monongahela National Forest.
We had planned to arrive at around 11am to allow plenty of time to pick up our tickets from will-call and find a seat on the train. As we arrived at 11:27, we were a bit worried that we’d miss out and be forced to stand for the entire train ride. We gathered our boys and our backpacks and immediately began looking for my dad. He was meeting us there to enjoy the train ride. It didn’t take long to spot him and to hug and say “hello.” We walked as quick as a family with a toddler (and an old guy – just kidding dad) could to the station. As we entered the building, an announcement broadcast from the speakers “All Aboard!” With so many passengers waiting to board the train, I knew then that we’d have a hard time finding seats. It didn’t take long before we were back outside, tickets in hand.
We searched up and down the train but no seats were to be found. Finally, we gave up and stepped onto what we thought was the first car (it was next to the engine.) Fortunately for us, there was a large gear box at the end where we could all sit down. In my opinion, it turned out to be the best seat on the train.
It wasn’t long before the train’s engine grew louder and the announcer’s voice came over the speaker system. Being so close to the engine, all we could hear was the classic Charlie Brown “Wah, wah, wah.” Even so, we knew we were about to depart. Our thoughts were verified as an ear-piercing whistle blew a few times and the train began its monotonous droning clackity-clack, clackity-clack. To our surprise, we were going in the opposite direction of what we expected.
We quickly left the station and passed by the workshops where old railroad relics lie waiting for a slow rust-filled death. After that, we entered the forest – not just any forest but thick and lush Pocahontas “you could get lost forever here” County forest. We passed a few roads here and there (each accentuated with the train’s whistle) before leaving civilization entirely.
As we climbed the mountain, we were treated to views of several beautiful streams, mountain ash trees, American chestnut trees, countless species of flowers and plants, and spectacular views. The train used a switchback process that allowed it to traverse an 11% grade (2-3% is considered a heavy grade for modern railroads.)
As we grew in elevation, the views changed as did the type of forest. Conifers became more and more present as did the spagnum moss. The CSR website explains that at this higher elevation, the forests are quite similar to those of areas of Canada. Although I’ve never been there, I can testify that the forests began to resemble the northern forests that I’ve seen in pictures and movies.
We reached Whittaker Station, a planned stop for the train ride. There were restrooms, picnic tables, and even a small vendor selling hot dogs and such. The boys took the opportunity to rough house in the cut grass while my wife, father and I took the time to stretch out old stiff muscles. After about fifteen minutes, the whistle blew letting passengers know that it was time to re-board and head to our next destination, Bald Knob.
Bald Knob is the third highest point in the state at 4843 feet. We arrived there with plans of eating lunch and site-seeing. As it turned out, lunch took a bit longer than expected so we didn’t have long to enjoy the overlook platform. Note: If you take this trip, eat at Whittaker Station so that you have time to look around at Bald Knob. After lunch, we made our way to the platform where Misti took a bunch of photos, I chased the boys around, and my dad took major steps in overcoming his fear of heights. Before we knew it, the whistle was blowing so we headed back to the train for the ride down the mountains.
Both boys (and all three adults) were a lot less lively on the way down the mountain. Between the drive to get to Cass and the 2+ hour ride up the mountain, we were all exhausted. While the boys spent time sitting with Misti, my dad and I took a while to catch up. He also took the opportunity to help me identify some of the plants growing in the area. This is by far my weakest woodsman skill so it was great to have some fatherly mentoring as we enjoyed the train ride.
Eventually we made it back to the station. We looked around the country store for a few minutes and same as with all of our adventures, we settled for T-shirts to commemorate the day.
The drive home was long and slow. We were all exhausted from the long day of car and train rides. Even so, we talked frequently about how awesome the train ride was and how happy we were to get to spend some time with my dad. All in all, it was a fantastic day that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
If you happen to live in West Virginia, or even if you find yourself visiting for a few days, and you don’t take the opportunity to enjoy a ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad, you’re missing out on a great Mountain State adventure. For all of the enjoyment of the train ride, the visit to our mountainous backwoods, and the local history, the Cass Scenic Railroad is a wonderful and relatively inexpensive adventure the you and the whole family will enjoy!