My legs tightly straddle a downed hemlock as I inch my way up the trunk. This precarious route has proven to be the only path forward as I push through a swath of forest knocked down the year before by Superstorm Sandy. To my left, a long, cascading waterfall is flush with water from days of relentless rain. Above me, just out of view, a large waterfall flows over a diagonal rockface, plunges off the edge of a cliff, and fans out in a white spray before crashing onto broken rocks at its base. I’m exploring the start of Coal Run, a steep tributary in the Otter Creek Wilderness. This spectacular feature marks the start of one of the highest and longest waterfall series I’ve seen in West Virginia, and it isn’t noted on any maps.
My friend Kevin Williams is behind me, sweaty and grinning in a way that suggests he might be a little annoyed. We’ve been off trail, climbing up and along an impossibly steep creek bed in the rugged wilderness for nearly four hours. Despite the effort, we’ve only covered about a mile of moss-covered slides and small waterfalls. Early on in our trek, we encountered a debris jam blocking our way and had to traverse high above the creek through impenetrable rhododendron thickets, colloquially known as ‘hells’.
This is my fourth trip up Coal Run and Kevin’s first. We’re here thrashing through the thick vegetation because the heavy rains had us dreaming of far-flung waterfalls bulging with whitewater. Kevin had previously climbed a steep tributary of Red Creek with me in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, so was well aware of what he was getting into. Today’s excursion, however, is much harder than we expected due to the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy’s high winds and wet, heavy snow.
The creek and its bank are littered with downed trees, including a large area at around 2,600-feet elevation that looks like it had been stomped down by a giant foot. The final ascent to the amphitheater that contains the largest waterfall remains blocked by this tangle of trees. A steep wall of rock blocks us to the left; a steep incline on the right makes passage all the more difficult.
Reaching the upper waterfall has never been easy—this time it was nearly impossible. Stinging nettle around the base of the falls offered a final bulwark. But we finally make it, taking in an ephemeral waterfall series at its highest flow of my six trips to the area over the past decade.
We’re creekyoneering—our colloquial term describing the experience of bushwhacking and bouldering along the steep mountain creeks of the East. It’s somewhat like canyoneering, a niche sport practiced in Western slot canyons, the European Alps, and elsewhere around the world.
Although the mode of travel through a stream bed is similar, creekyoneering often ends up being quite different from its drier and rockier Western counterpart. Ascending or descending a steep, trail-less stream in Appalachia involves a venerable gladiator course of obstacles, some of which come and go as storms move earth and forest around. Fearless creekyoneers must traverse slick streambeds, thick rhododendron hells, complicated rock formations, knots of downed trees, and deep pools filled with cold water.
This mix of bouldering, wading, and wrestling with thick vegetation—usually with a long trail approach or bushwhack through the woods to reach the creek—demands persistence and a high tolerance for pain. I once broke a rib in a fall on slick rock during a trip on a Blackwater River tributary. On another outing, Clare, my spouse and adventure partner, and I took much longer than planned to climb an Otter Creek tributary and had trouble finding our exit trail. The fumbles put us back at our vehicle well after dark and more than 14 hours after starting. No matter our level of physical fitness, we’re always exhausted after a trip. Several intrepid friends joined us on our excursions, saying afterward that once was enough.
The Canaan Valley region has held a reputation for inhospitable terrain since the 1800s when white settlers reached the region. “There is a tract of country containing from seven to nine hundred square miles, entirely uninhabited, and so inaccessible that it has rarely been penetrated even by the most adventurous,” wrote David Hunter Strother, under the nom de plume Porte Crayon, in A Visit to the Virginian Canaan. According to Strother’s account, “The settlers on its borders speak of it with dread, as an ill-omened region, filled with bears, panthers, impassable laurel-brakes and dangerous precipices.”
The lumber and coal companies of the Industrial Age arrived soon after Porte Crayon’s account, tearing through and forever altering that impenetrable wilderness. The region, however, has since healed considerably. Vast tracts of second-growth forest now belong to all of us as public land, and much of its wildness has returned.
Even with the superb trail and forest access in north-central West Virginia, natural superlatives remain hidden in the deep creases of the mountains. A stream bed can be a pathway—albeit a torturous one—through otherwise inaccessible terrain. The steep creeks that line the region’s major canyons reach seldom-seen waterfalls, small pockets of old-growth trees, and boulder-choked cataracts. These trips taught me to look closely at the Appalachian forest, where myriad flora and fauna thrive.
Chip Chase, owner of White Grass Touring Center, introduced us to creekyoneering on a humid July trip in 2006. We fought our way up Red Run, a pristine tributary to the Dry Fork that drains the western side of Canaan Mountain. The objective was to reach Red Run Falls, a 25-foot sheer drop, and continue upstream as far as daylight allowed.
After reaching the falls, we rock hopped upstream and dipped in Red Run’s cool waters, stained deep-red by tannins from decomposing spruce and hemlock needles in the surrounding soil. We didn’t make it very far before a powerful thunderstorm bore down heavily upon us, forcing a chaotic retreat well short of our planned exit point. We scrambled up the slippery shoulder of the creek’s steep canyon to a parallel forest road, and returned to our vehicles chilled and soaked.
Clare and I were hooked. We schemed with Chip on our next creekyoneering outing. We went deep into the Blackwater River’s canyon downstream from its famous namesake falls, exploring the upper stretch and its many rapids. Blackwater Canyon is one of the state’s undisputable crown jewels, stretching 13 miles as the river carves a 1,300-foot notch through the highlands. Several steep tributaries—some easy to reach and others more remote—provide a high concentration of creekyoneering opportunities. Although we had only been on a few trips, they had an enduring feature: they all took hours longer to complete than planned.
With several successful creekyoneering adventures under our belts, we began dreaming about our next outing. Chip bestowed upon us an invaluable map of the Dolly Sods Wilderness made by Mary Ann Honcharik, a local photographer and explorer. Honcharik had extensively mapped Dolly Sods and the surrounding area, generously sharing special places she discovered on her outings. She used stars to mark numerous waterfalls and cascades in the Sods and nearby Roaring Plains. Dunkenbarger Run, a steep tributary of Big Stonecoal Run, caught our attention because it was packed with stars in a short section that drops more than 300 feet in just a half-mile.
We put a group together, waited for low water, and headed for the stars. But getting to Dunkenbarger Run wasn’t as easy as the topo maps suggested. The first step was to reach the streambed of Big Stonecoal Run, protected by a steep gorge and dense forest with bands of rhododendron. Dunkenbarger Run, shrouded in thick vegetation and mystery, was even steeper.
This was our first mission in nearly vertical terrain; clamoring along the bank was no longer an option. It became quickly apparent that staying in the creekbed was mandatory. This was real creekyoneering, the way canyoneers explore out West. Dunkenbarger Run’s long bedrock slides and tumbled boulder jams effectively hollowed out its path through endless maws of rhododendron hells and under the low canopy of the dense spruce-hardwood forest.
The top of Dunkenbarger’s steep canyon is guarded by a 20-foot, stream-wide waterfall that drops onto jagged rocks. We couldn’t climb the falls without rope. The banks were also choked with vegetation so thick it would have taken hours to move a hundred yards. To one side near the top of the canyon was a large hemlock, whose shade prevented undergrowth and provided partial passage after crawling through a rhododendron hell to reach it.
Dunkenbarger’s upstream stretch lazily meanders along the relatively flat, high plateau of the Allegheny Front. Although the technical creekyoneering portion of the day was done, we still had to wade through the creek’s numerous pools, passing stands of rhody and thick mats of moss, cranberries, and carnivorous sundew. We reached the Dunkenbarger Trail late in the afternoon and, in what is an overarching theme of our misadventures, arrived at our vehicles as the sun went down.
Over the next decade Clare and I explored more of the region’s steep creeks, timing our outings with low water. The geology of the Potomac Highlands region creates a recurring set of features that we witnessed across numerous streams. Near the surface is Pottsville sandstone that creates hard lips where vertical waterfalls form above a softer, more erosive layer of Mauch Chunk shale that is dominated by slides and boulder jams.
We made several climbs up the North Fork of the Blackwater. Its numerous waterfalls punctuate a rugged gorge despite its water being polluted by acid-mine drainage from the closed coal mines of yesteryear in Douglas, Coketon, and Thomas. Pendleton Run and Shays Run, both within the bounds of Blackwater Falls State Park, feature numerous large falls and rough bushwhack routes along their banks frequented by nature photographers and adventurous anglers. One of the most stunning Blackwater creeks is Big Run—a large tributary fed by Big Run Bog, a national natural landmark. Big Run begins its 1,000-foot descent into Blackwater Canyon at a 20-foot waterfall, followed by near-continuous slides, giant boulders, and falls.
The creekyoneering road has been dotted with failure—many streams on our list remain unexplored despite valiant attempts. Coal Run certainly started out that way. We explored it three times in one summer; the first two attempts resulted in bailing before reaching the biggest water features. But we persevered, each time pushing a bit further, finally reaching the spectacular upper waterfall on the third outing.
There’s something about the unmistakable hunch of knowing there are unknown destinations in the far-flung creekside corners of West Virginia that, at the end of the day, might not even be destinations at all. Ultimately, that’s what keeps us crawling back, on hands and knees, through the boulder-clogged and laurel-choked landscapes, places where the ingredients of bedrock, water, and time combine to serve up our beloved creekyoneering routes.
Mark H. Anderson is a journalist, photographer, and multisport traveler. He has a huge crush on the West Virginia highlands.