Mountain State nears its gorgeous peak



CHEAT LAKE, W.Va.-- Famous for its white-water rafting and crazy bridge jumpers, New River Gorge is the It Place when it comes to a wild West Virginia adventure. But there are plenty of other water-centric destinations in the Mountain State, including this small but picturesque lake just a few miles east of Morgantown.

Originally called Lake Lynn, the 13-mile-long, 1,730-acre reservoir on the Cheat River is a favorite destination for local boaters and fishermen. But only until shortly after Labor Day. On football Saturdays in fall, all of the action is in town at Milan Puskar Stadium, home to West Virginia University's beloved Mountaineers.

"It kind of clears out," says Brad Burns, general manager of Sunset Beach Marina, a full-service (if tiny) fuel dock and marina on the lake's southern end.

That's a good thing, though, for weekend leaf-peekers looking to enjoy the region's stunning fall colors, which this year are expected to be at their peak in the Morgantown area in early- to mid-October. (For a report, go to wvforestry.com and click on "fall foliage" beginning Thursday.)

No crowds means there's no traffic on Route 857, the picturesque, two-lane country road that twists and turns and climbs its way from Morgantown across the Mason-Dixon Line to Uniontown. It also means you'll have no trouble renting a pontoon or fishing boat in which to explore Cheat Lake's 27 miles of shoreline or angle for bass, sunfish or walleye. For more solitary -- and athletic -- pursuits, the marina, which stays open until mid-October weather permitting, also rents canoes, kayaks and pedal boats. Prices start at $10 an hour (sunsetbeach-marina.com or 1-304-594-0050).

I always marry my travels with a few culinary adventures, so after walking on a rickety dock to the lake's edge and checking out the marina's colorful collection of boats, I head next door to The Lakehouse restaurant (lakehousewv.com) for a look-see. Owned by WVU grad and Steelers fan Dustin Barnes, it didn't disappoint: along with water views, it offers a large variety of sandwiches, seafood and Italian specialties. Perfect for a family.

It's a bit more rustic just down the road at the Whippoorwill Bar & Grill, a teeny-tiny eatery tucked under the eaves at Edgewater Marina (cheatlakedocks.com). In addition to bottled brews, it serves a standard American fare of burgers, wings and hotdogs at metal tables clustered on a large deck. There's also a takeout window for boaters.

"It's kind of a dive," someone in town cautioned me when I asked for directions, wrinkling her nose. Yet I found the place charming, which is probably why a co-worker recommended it. It also has a great backstory. Back in the day, when there was a dance hall on the site, "The Whipp" hosted performers Patti Page and Dean Martin before he became well known, owner Brian Thayer told me. Alas, the bar closes today, so would-be visitors will have to wait until next spring to try it out.

What's always open is the region's many trails and parks. This neck of West Virginia is a hiker's and biker's paradise, with any number of foot- and bike-friendly paths offering stunning mountain and forest views. One of the best is at Cooper's Rock State Forest, so named for a fugitive who hid from the law near what is now its signature overlook (he was a cooper, or barrelmaker). Accessible by car as well as trail, this steep, rocky overlook offers a commanding view of the Cheat River in Cheat Canyon. The park also includes the Henry Clay Iron Furnace, a National Historic Landmark built between 1834-36. Thirty feet tall, the pyramid-shaped stone structure produced tons of pig iron each day during the height of production, which continued until 1847.

Cheat Lake also has a lovely park and scenic walking trail, as does Dorsey's Knob Park just south of Morgantown on Route 119. The mountain's landmark Sky Rock climbs almost 1,400 feet, providing a terrific view all around from the top, but particularly of the Monongahela River. Don't forget your camera.

If you're planning an overnight trip, you'll probably want to use Morgantown as a base -- a college town that springs to life after dark, it's full of funky shops and restaurants. It's also within easy driving distance of two upcoming festivals worth a visit: the 71st Annual Preston County Buckwheat Festival on Sept. 27-30 (buckwheatfest.com) in Kingwood, and the Fifth Annual West Virginia Chestnut Festival Oct. 7 in Rowlesburg (rowlesburg.org). If the timing's not right on the former, make the 30-minute drive along Deckers Creek Trail (Route 7) for breakfast at Becky's Cafe, located within the red-and-white Heldreth Motel. It's famous for its crepe-like buckwheat cakes and sausage, which come super quick and super cheap. My bill, which also included an egg and coffee, was $6.20.

I also had some fun exploring Forks of Cheat Winery and Distillery (Exit 7 on I-68). Whiskey has a long tradition in the Appalachian Mountains, but who knew you could also grow grapes in West-By-God-Virginia?

When Forks of Cheat was established by Jerry Deal in 1989, it was one of less than 10 licensed and operating wineries in the state. Today, it's one of 24, and will bottle some 25,000 gallons of wine made with grapes and other fruit grown on 16 acres overshadowing Cheat Lake. The distillery, which sits inside a 10,000-gallon, fiberglass gasoline tank buried on the hillside, is in its sixth year. Tastings of both products are free every day and so are tours, except on Sunday. The view from the tasting porch is fantastic.

travel

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published September 23, 2012 4:00 AM


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