The New River Gorge, Monongahela National Forest and state parks to the east are deservedly known for their world-class whitewater, challenging mountain bike routes and scenic, long-haul backpacking trails.
But Charleston-area outdoor adventure enthusiasts with limited time to spare don’t need to drive for hours to answer the call of the wild. There is plenty of quality hiking, biking and deep-woods solitude to be found in parks within Kanawha County.
Here, you won’t find expanses of wilderness on the scale of a Dolly Sods, clifftop pathways like the New River Gorge’s Endless Wall Trail or paddling challenges like the Upper Gauley River.
But you will find 14.5 square miles of pristine woodland at Kanawha State Forest, and urban oases like South Charleston’s Little Creek Park, where a narrow canyon carved by Trace Fork with towering stands of mature hemlock at its base shade hikers and bikers using its six marked trails.
Paddling access to miles of riffles, shoals and pools is available at two Kanawha County parks — Meadowood near Tornado on the Coal River and Coonskin Park near Charleston on the Elk.
A 1,350-acre stand of old-growth forest dominated by oaks more than 250 years old was certified and dedicated last month in Kanawha State Forest by the Old Growth Forest Network. The Forest’s Wall Fork and Hoffman Hollow trails provide access to the giant trees and the plant and animal communities they support.
Kanawha State Forest’s trail system draws mountain bikers from throughout the region, and its campground attracts a loyal and far-flung contingent of repeat campers.
Meadowood Park serves as the launch site for the annual Tour de Coal float, which brought in nearly 2,000 paddlers and their families this year, and is the starting point for thousands of other kayakers throughout the temperate months.
While parks in the Kanawha Valley are not so much vacation destinations as they are places for area residents to meet their needs for getting outside and getting active, they do bring money to the area. The parks are a selling point for businesses and individuals considering relocating here, as well as for convention planners seeking a well-rounded array of activities for attendees.
“A key selling point we have is that while we are the capital city, visitors can be biking, kayaking or hiking in a matter of minutes,” said Alisa Bailey, president and CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Meeting and event planners are more and more interested in recreational opportunities for their attendees,” Bailey said. “Our recreation assets — three rivers, county and city parks — give Charleston the edge over other competing destinations in the meetings and conventions market, and in the leisure market.”
Access to recreation, regardless of the main purpose of the visit, “is important to all generations of travelers, but is critical to millennials,” according to Bailey. “Millennials have surpassed baby boomers in not only numbers of trips but also in expenditures.”
Kanawha Valley parks providing outdoor recreation in a natural setting include:
Little Creek Park, South Charleston
Nestled in a narrow gorge separating the Shops at Trace Fork shopping center from Little Creek’s busy soccer, baseball and golf complex is an undisturbed forest, a gentle stream and a series of six marked, interlinking trails. The trails zig-zag their way up and down the walls of Trace Fork Canyon and across Trace Fork, giving bikers hours of rugged terrain to ride and hikers the chance to stroll past rock formations like Devils Tea Table, small waterfalls and pools, and the remnants of a long-abandoned sawmill.
“We had a mountain bike race last weekend for high-school and middle-school kids that brought in more than 100 riders,” said Gerald Burgy, director of public works for the City of South Charleston. The first race of the newly formed West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League made use of repeated circuits of a 2-mile loop of Little Creek’s mountain bike trails, he said.
Wallace Hartman Nature Preserve, Charleston
While this 52-acre chunk of unbroken forest is located within Charleston’s city limits, those hiking the preserve’s 1.5-mile trail that follows a meandering creek are treated to a true, if brief, wilderness experience. An old family cemetery, small waterfalls, wild turkeys and the occasional black bear are among sights to see.
This county-managed preserve is situated on a conservation easement acquired by the West Virginia Land Trust. Access is available from a small marked parking pull-off along Hampton Road at the top of the preserve, and a similar parking area off Adrian Road at the preserve’s lower end.
St. Albans City Park, St. Albans
About 5 miles of biking and hiking trails wind through the forested sections of St. Albans City Park, including the Nature Trail — the site of numerous guided wildflower and nature walks, now undergoing a major upgrade. The park, located off Observatory Road, is the site of St. Albans’ annual Christmas lights display.
Coonskin Park, Charleston
For those who enjoy nature-themed recreation, Coonskin Park — the flagship of the Kanawha County Parks system — offers 10 trails winding through more than 1,000 acres of forest containing small creeks, huge rock overhangs and access to the Elk River.
“There’s a small boat launch here, and we’re scheduled to get a significant upgrade from the DNR in a couple of years,” said Kanawha County Parks Director Jeff Hutchinson.
The upgrade will make it much easier for kayakers and canoeists to get on and off the Elk River. Several fishermen’s trails off the park’s Elk River Trail provide access for bank fishing in the Elk.
Forks of Coal Natural Area, Alum Creek
The Little Coal River merges with the Big Coal along the perimeter of this 102-acre tract of woodland, clearings and shoreline located just off the Rocky Branch exit of Corridor G (U.S. 119) south of Charleston. Donated to the state Division of Natural Resources several years ago, and open to the public for a little more than one year, the Forks of Coal Natural Area offers three hiking trails.
The half-mile-long Yellow Circle Trail takes hikers past the site of Camp Round Rock — the first Girl Scout camp in Kanawha County — where its namesake rock formation can be found, along with an old water pump used by the camp. The mile-long Orange Triangle Trail clings to the Little Coal River side of the preserve and ascends a ridge overlooking Corridor G and the Little Coal. Blue Square Trail, 1.5 miles in length, leads hikers to a ridge top overlooking the fork of the two rivers.
Visitors are welcome to bank fish the waters of each stream.
Meadowood Park, Tornado
Paddling access to the Coal River is available at two launch sites in this 900-acre unit of the Kanawha County Parks system. The headquarters and education center of the Coal River Group, a watershed improvement association, are also located in the park, along with a kayak rental shop, and a portage trail around the Coal River’s Upper Falls.
Eight-acre Pettigrew Lake offers year-round fishing for bass, bluegill and catfish, and is stocked with trout during the spring. Bank fishing access to the Coal River is available at numerous sites, along with five gentle walking trails.
Kanawha State Forest, Loudendale
This 9,300-acre expanse of forest is found just 7 miles south of Charleston, making it easy for hikers to find solitude while they reconnect with nature, while mountain bikers can seek thrills on brake-smoking descents on trails loaded with rocks and roots.
Nine trails are designated for mountain bikers, while 14 are reserved for hikers and trail runners, giving each group about 25 miles of trail to enjoy. Single-track rides of 17 miles are possible by linking sections of mountain bike routes.
Kanawha State Forest contains one of the only full-service campgrounds in the county. Its 34 bathhouse-equipped sites range from tent camping with picnic tables and fire grids to camp trailer and small RV sites with power and water hookups. KSF, one of the state’s most popular picnic sites, features log and stone picnic pavilions built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the late 1930s.
Wine Cellar Park, Dunbar
A half-mile trail leading uphill from the 300-acre park’s namesake wine cellar takes visitors to Laura Anderson Lake, where anglers can cast for trout in winter and spring, and fish for bluegill, bass and catfish year-round.
The stone-built wine cellars, constructed at the base of a hill a year or two before the outbreak of the Civil War, once stored and aged casks of wine that were shipped by steamboat to buyers in Cincinnati. Visitors are welcome to walk inside the cellar’s cool, damp interior.
Ridenour Park, Nitro
Ridenour Lake accounts for more than half of Ridenour Park’s 43 acres, making it the largest fishing impoundment in Kanawha County. Twice-annual stockings of trout and year-round fishing for largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish and channel catfish, plus bank fishing accessibility to nearly the entire perimeter of the 27-acre lake make Ridenour one of the most-used fishing sites in the county.
Two trails that ring the lake, including one completed earlier this year, are popular with walkers, joggers and bikers.