The Bluestone River flows for 10 miles through an especially remote part of southern West Virginia. Here, you’re far from commercial rafting trips, shoulder-to-shoulder fisherman, and hordes of hikers looking for an easy view. The river was also mercifully spared from the effects of mining during the coal boom, and provided its few long-lost inhabitants with a pristine subsistence and homesteading lifestyle. The Bluestone rewards those willing to go the extra mile(s) with the opportunity for a first-rate adventure and plenty of solitude.
The Bluestone National Scenic River is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) from their Glen Jean headquarters as part of the New-Gauley-Bluestone trifecta of southern West Virginia rivers. Two West Virginia state parks cap either end of the federally managed river corridor: Pipestem State Park upstream, and Bluestone State Park downstream at its confluence with the New River. In order to reduce impact to this untrammeled area, the NPS doesn’t allow overnight stays along the Bluestone, so use of these state parks is essential to any multi-day trips on the Bluestone.
The 9.5-mile Bluestone Turnpike, which originally served as a Native American travel and trade route and was later trodden by pioneers and homesteaders, still exists along the banks of the Bluestone and is now maintained by the NPS. Hikers and bikers can use the Bluestone Turnpike to connect Old Mill Campground in Bluestone State Park with the River Trail in Pipestem State Park. Since the Bluestone Turnpike is the only trail in the National Scenic River corridor, options for outings that don’t include an out-and-back or the hassle of a car shuttle from end to end are limited. And without the chance to camp for 10 miles along the Bluestone, you must turn back early in the day or fully commit to pushing through.
So, what’s an adventurer to do? Enter the packraft. Originally designed for remote backcountry travel in Alaska, packrafts have exploded in popularity in the Lower 48. They haven’t quite taken off on the East Coast, where road access is generally easier to come by, but they are ideal for do-it-yourself adventurers everywhere. Packrafts are not to be confused with inflatable kayaks—they are shorter and stubbier, weigh about six pounds, roll up to the size of a tent, and are inflated with an ingenious bag pump. Companies like Alpacka Raft are leading the way with innovations for their boats, including spray skirts and zippers that allow you to store gear dry and safe inside the raft tubes. They are expensive (you can have gear that is cheap, light, and durable, but you can only pick two of the three), but they open up interesting and unique opportunities—opportunities right here in West Virginia like the Bluestone.
To reach the river from the rim of the gorge, you can take the tram down from Pipestem’s Canyon Rim to the Mountain Creek Lodge on the banks of the Bluestone and start your trip there. Or, if you’re stubborn like me, you can save yourself $3.50 and get another mile of easy whitewater by hiking down to the river yourself via the River Trail. The National Scenic River portion of the Bluestone is class I and II whitewater, and was free of woody hazards when we ran it in June. The ‘read and run’ nature of the river made for a fun day just going with the flow. Although the rapids at the start of the run were generally faster and steeper, longer pools further downstream alternated with long, shallow, and splashy rock gardens. Every time I was getting bored of the long pools, or fearing that we had already entered the sluggish tailwaters of Bluestone Lake, there was another series of riffles to speed things up and rocks to dodge to keep it interesting until the takeout.
Most paddling guides recommend a passable river level of 4-7 feet on the Pipestem gauge, but another strength of the packraft is that it excels in shallow water. After watching forecasts nervously for a week, we had 3.8 feet on the gauge and decided to go for it anyway. We certainly scraped and bounced along a few times, but the inflatable crafts are incredibly forgiving and resilient. And in the two instances where I found myself grounded in some shallows, the lightweight of the packraft makes it easy to pick up and move to deeper water.
“We saw more bald eagles than people. And we only saw one bald eagle.”
The few fisherman and hikers we did see were clustered around the Mountain Creek Lodge at Pipestem or fishing near the campground at Bluestone State Park. For the 10 miles in between, it felt as if we had the entire Bluestone Gorge to ourselves. We only had to share the day with a bald eagle, two herons, a couple box turtles, a large flock of ducks, a small family of deer, over a dozen salamanders, and one yellow tagged black beef cow that was probably lost.
Besides the state parks at either end, the only other access to the Bluestone National Scenic River is at the old townsite of Lilly, a ghost town once the subject of a sad story. When Bluestone Lake was planned in the 1940s, the small farming community of Lilly at the confluence of the Bluestone and Little Bluestone rivers was projected to flood. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the site and all townspeople were forced to relocate. Homes and churches were moved or destroyed, and graves were dug up. I’m certainly no engineer and don’t know how much water Bluestone Dam could hold back, but I can say that Lilly seemed plenty high and dry above the backwaters of Bluestone Lake the day we paddled past.
A couple miles past Lilly, we finally floated into Bluestone State Park. We found a campsite along the water in the primitive Old Mill Campground, which is underwater a few times each year depending on the height of Bluestone Lake. During our search for someone to pay for our night’s stay, we found out that the campground registration office is four miles away at the park entrance—apparently not many people find their way to Bluestone State Park as we did. Thankfully, a helpful campground attendant on their rounds helped us get squared away. We unpacked the gear we had stored inside the waterproof tubes of the packrafts, set up camp, and cooked dinner. We tried our hand at fishing with the collapsible pole I usually bring along, but had no luck. The only other occupied site at the Old Mill Campground must have been full of better fisherman than us—our neighbors reeled in a catfish at least two-feet long.
In the morning we loaded up the large backpacks we had carried in the rafts, rolled and strapped the packrafts and paddles onto the packs, and set out on foot to hike the Bluestone Turnpike back upstream toward Pipestem. The trail is mostly flat, but was quite muddy—make sure you bring proper footwear. Vegetation encroaching on the narrow track suggests that the path is lightly travelled. We saw a couple fishermen after we crossed the bridge over the Little Bluestone at Lilly, and crossed paths with a pair of mountain bikers making an out-and-back run from Bluestone to Pipestem. Otherwise, we were left to ourselves to plod along the Bluestone under heavy packs. After all, we had to repay the fun we enjoyed the day before on the water. What easily goes downriver must fight to go back up.
After nearly 10 hard miles, the Mountain Creek Lodge in Pipestem State Park suddenly emerged from the wilderness along the river. This time, I happily forked over my $3.50 for the one-way trip 1,100 feet up the tram to the canyon rim. It was a novel way to end an amazing and unique trip in the beautiful and remote heart of Southern West Virginia, made only sweeter by the ice cream available once we arrived back on top of the Bluestone Gorge.
Matt Kearns is a native West Virginian, Coast Guard veteran, and avid outdoorsman. He lives in South Charleston with his wife, Michelle.
Plan to spend a night at Pipestem (either the lodge or campground) before your trip to give you time for an early start and a full day on the river. Old Mill Campground at Bluestone State Park marks the halfway point of the float-and-hike combo.
Alpacka Rafts is the undisputed king of packrafts, but other companies have followed their lead in recent years.