Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Bay Journal and Baltimore Sun.
There’s lots to find at Lost River
West Virginia park draws hikers, cyclists, horses
Lost River State Park was almost lost, a near casualty of Colonial era land speculation and Depression era hard times. Thankfully, West Virginia stepped in and bought this beauty in 1934, making it available for all to enjoy.
Today, the 3,712-acre state park in Mathias features 19 trails, including one that reaches Cranny Crow overlook and offers a stunning mountain view. The park also has an outdoor pool, tennis and volleyball courts, and riding stables.
Overnight guests can choose one of 26 cabins, from modern homes with heat and air conditioning to rustic log cabins that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930s. Every cabin has a view of green hillsides and a babbling brook. This water eventually runs into the Lost River, which becomes “lost” around Wardensville as it disappears into porous limestone, then re-emerges as the Cacapon River and eventually meets the Potomac.
Many visitors book their trips a year in advance, especially those who visit in the fall, when the lush trees turn the park into a kaleidoscope of color. But spring is also a popular time to see the mountain laurel in bloom, and the summer heat attracts monarch butterflies to the mountains thick with milkweed. Lost River isn’t the easiest place to find, but those who have discovered it keep coming back.
Lost River State Park’s lands were once home to the Conai Indians. Queen Elizabeth I granted the land to Sir Walter Raleigh, then it passed through Lord Thomas Culpeper and Lord Fairfax. In 1796, Fairfax’s heirs deeded it to Henry Lee, also known as Light Horse Harry — and the father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee. The elder Lee had hopes of developing the land and its lush sulphur springs. But Lee’s debts landed him in prison. Before Lee was taken away, however, he managed to transfer the property to his four sons.
Robert was an infant then, but his older brother, Charles, was able to turn the property into a resort with a hotel. The Lee family owned it until 1879, when another developer bought it, enlarged the hotel and added a bowling alley. In 1923, a fire destroyed the grand hotel. A decade later, West Virginia acquired it, and the CCC began building the cabins. The masterful construction remains on view today in the 15 standard cabins that are still in use, as well as the park’s pool and its administration building.
According to the park’s history, Robert E. Lee once visited for tea fresh from the spring, and George Washington surveyed the land in 1748.
Visitors to Lost River can tour the Lee House. The Lost River Museum, near the park along WV Route 259, is open on weekends to detail the history of the area.
Many visitors come to the park for the horseback riding at Hidden Trails Stables, which is within the park about a mile from the cabins. Visitors can choose between a half-hour, hour or two-hour ride along flat or mountain trails. The riding style is western, and the instructors are friendly and knowledgeable. We chose a two-hour ride up Miller’s Rock Trail to the Cranny Crow Overlook. Along the way, we spotted milkweed plants and some late-blooming wildflowers. The path was shady, and a pleasant breeze accompanied us up the mountain.
Visitors who want to ride should call in advance (304-897-5621) to make a reservation. The stables offer some smaller horses and will lend riders helmets. The two-hour ride costs $40, the one-hour is $23 and the half-hour is $17.
In the summer, naturalist Nick Korolev runs programs on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He takes families out on trails and runs scavenger hunts and history tours. The programs meet at the recreation building, which also includes the nature center.
Cabin prices range from $76 a night for a two-person log cabin in the off-season to $198 a night for a four-bedroom, handicap-accessible modern cabin in season. They sleep anywhere from two to eight people. The standard cabins are furnished and include dishes, linens, extra blankets and a coffee maker. There is wood for a fire, as the cabins have no indoor heating or cooling. There is also a store, Misty Valley, four miles down the road in Mathias for visitors who forget essentials. It also sells gas. The modern cabins include televisions, heating and air conditioning.
There is no cell phone service at the park. While some of the Washingtonians we met liked the idea of their offices not being able to reach them, it can be a bit frustrating to be incommunicado. There is a pay phone at the administration building and park office, which is the one location in the park with a wireless connection.
Lost River offers nearly two dozen hiking trials. A few welcome horses; some of the stable rides head through those, and visitors can bring their own horses to ride in the evening. One, the Red Fox Trail, allows mountain biking. Most of the others are less than five miles there and back, with a few less than one mile.
Many visitors like Howard’s Lick Run, which follows a stream for its 1.25-mile run. The Lighthorse Harry Lee Trail is great for beginners; it’s a well-trod former horse trail. Mountain laurel is thick on the Loblolly Trail in June.
There’s probably a state park closer to your home than Lost River. On our drive, we passed several — as well as two national parks and one national forest. It’s 136 miles from Washington, 166 from Baltimore, 160 from Richmond and 172 from Harrisburg. Getting there requires hairpin turns and steep descents into hollows and valleys, not to mention the traffic on I-66 or I-81.
But the affordable cabins, majestic horses, easy-to-use trails and rich history keep people returning to Lost River. Now that we’ve found it, we’ll be back, too.
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