I’ve done a lot of crazy things to get to a waterfall. Most involved hiking perilously up their rocky flanks. Often they involved falling flat on my kiester or buckling down on my knees, wondering for the millionth time why, oh, why, I didn’t have a rope or a donkey or both. Thankfully in West Virginia there are plenty of trees to grab near waterfalls, or I likely would have certainly plunged into the bottom of one of them.
What I hadn’t done was take a train to a waterfall. How wonderful would that be?
The High Falls of Cheat is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Monongahela National Forest in eastern West Virginia. The name is misleading as it is actually on the Shaver's Fork of the Cheat. It is one of the largest and most lofty waterfalls in West Virginia, located in the Allegheny Mounains at an altitude of more 2,800 feet above sea level. It roars fiercely from the mountainside, dropping over a horseshoe bend of rock 150 feet wide and 18 feet high and empties into a crystal pool before tumbling down the mountain to become the serene and leisurely paced (in spring) Cheat River.
For many years, the High Falls could only be accessed by trail. Maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the path climbs through old-growth forest and groves of towering hemlock as it winds through the saddle on Shavers Mountain.
If hiking is your passion, the trail is ideal. It begins at a pull-out on Beulah Road (Forest Road 44) near Glady in Randolph County. Hikers and backpackers must then climb more than 1,440 feet over 8.2 miles along the stream — a five-hour hike.
An eight-mile hike with that kind of an elevation gain is not something this middle-aged lady is going to attempt. But a ride on a train? Yes!
Chris (now my husband) and I boarded the train that morning for the five-hour round trip at the Elkins Railroad Depot and chose seats near the back of the car so we could easily reach the “balcony.” Like a kid in a candy store, I couldn’t decide where to look first. It was breathtaking. Spectacular scenery, small communities, like Bemis, and the roar of the Shavers Fork greeted us as we climbed mountain grades through an s-curve tunnel and across the pristine fork.
And then — the jewel of the trip! The train stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we disembarked. As I like to introduce myself to new waterfalls with some semblance of restraint, we followed the sign to the view of the upper falls, an overlook just a few feet above the drop. A moment later, I was overlooking a gorgeous, golden falls.
This is a waterfall that invites visitors to get up close and personal. We visited in the spring, when the water was high, but in summer the top of the falls is easily walkable. I feel certain the pool is swimmable in the summer months.
We backtrack to the rocky beach at the base where I feel the spray on my face. I could stay here forever. Finding a perch on a large rock, I let others walk around, chattering, taking photos. I'm communing.
I watch the falls from one side and then the next and find a baby falls within the main horseshoe. On the far left, a rock splits the river slightly, and a small step waterfall revels in its independence.
Chris tells me the 45-minute stop is almost up, so I grab a few small round rocks to add to my collection and say my good-byes. I am the last one to leave the beach, of course. I turn and make my way back to the train. I am sad to go. Barely an hour — not nearly enough time! I hear someone say hikers may take the train up, camp a few nights, and catch a return train. That sounds like an awesome idea — truly one for the bucket list.
The Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad offers a rail excursion to the falls May through October on an historic locomotive. Excursions are offered weekends in May and every Saturday and Sunday until Memorial Day Weekend. After that, the schedule broadens into weekday and special-event excursions. Schedules, videos, and online reservations are available on their website.