The Bluestone Turnpike is one of the best-kept secrets in West Virginia.
The 10-mile trail follows the Bluestone National Scenic River in a 1,000-foot-deep gorge between Pipestem Resort State Park and Bluestone State Park in the southern part of the state.
The two main points to access the riverside trail are at the southern terminus at Pipestem State Park near Pipestem and at the northern terminus at Bluestone State Park near Hinton.
There is also a dirt road where the hamlet of Lilly once stood, where the Little Bluestone River meets the main stem of the river in the heart of the gorge.
At Pipestem, you can, in season, ride an aerial tram down to the Bluestone River from the park's Canyon Rim Center. Or you can descend via the River Trail that begins at the McKeever Lodge. It is 5.25 miles on the orange-blazed trail and requires wading across the river. The River and the Farley Loop trails intersect with the Bluestone Turnpike.
You can enjoy a little luxury by staying in the Mountain Creek Lodge at the bottom of the gorge in Pipestem.
At Bluestone, the Bluestone Turnpike Trail begins behind a gate at the end of the road that leads to the Meadow Campground.
The Bluestone River and the trail are tucked into a picturesque narrow wooded canyon with steep walls of shale and sandstone in Mercer and Summers counties. The sometimes rugged trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers, horses and, in season, hunters and anglers. Two miles at the north end wind away from the river, but then return to its banks.
Some sources say the trail is eight or nine miles long, but the National Park Service generally uses a 10-mile length.
Canoeists and kayakers may paddle the stream in spring and early summer when water levels are higher. The Bluestone is a gurgling stream in the spring when water is high and a gentle, slow-moving stream with riffles and pools when the water is low in late summer.
The trail is mostly flat and generally follows the river, although there are a few hills. It can be muddy and overgrown, and there were few signs of people on my visit last spring. The trail is known for its stellar spring wildflowers.
When you are by the river, you are a long way from anywhere else, in the heart of a very pretty canyon.
The trail follows an old riverside road, the Bluestone Turnpike. It was used by troops during the Civil War and was used into the 1940s by local residents. Earlier, an Indian path followed the Bluestone.
American Indians called the Bluestone River "Momongosenka" or Big Stone River, supposedly for the rocks in the boulder-strewn lower gorge.
The stream got its name from the bluish limestone bed in its upper reaches. It originates at an elevation of 3,500 feet near Bluefield and flows 77 miles north to Bluestone Lake, a reservoir created on the New River near Hinton.
The stream joined the federal wild and scenic river system in late 1988. The designation covers 10.5 miles of the stream plus about 4,300 acres of surrounding land.
About 1,300 acres of that land lie within Pipestem State Park. The rest, about 3,000 acres between the two state parks, is federally owned and is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the state.
The ghosts of Lilly
One of the big attractions along the Bluestone Turnpike Trail is the ghost town of Lilly. It was one of the first Appalachian settlements in what is now West Virginia in the 1700s, according to the National Park Service.
The onetime village sits at the junction of the Bluestone River and the Little Bluestone River that comes in from the west.
It was settled by Robert and Frances Lilly, along with Josiah Meadow and Drewry Farley and their families. They came from Pulaski County, Va., and survived by subsistence farming and logging.
In time, Lilly was home to more than 30 families with schools, churches, stores and cemeteries. It was still in existence when work began in the 1940s on the Bluestone Dam on the New River.
Construction calculations indicated that Lilly would be under water behind the dam, so Lilly's residents were forced to move. Buildings, churches, stores and homes were razed or moved, and 149 bodies were exhumed and moved to new locations.
Today visitors will find the remains of old foundations and items that were once used by Lilly's residents.
You can access Lilly via the Bluestone Turnpike Trail or by back roads. Head west from Hinton on state Route 3. At Nimitz, head south on Ellison Ridge Road. Follow it for 1.6 miles until the road splits. Stay on Ellison Ridge Road for an additional 2.4 miles. Turn left onto gravel Little Bluestone Road. Travel 100 yards and turn left. Go to the bottom of the mountain. This road takes you to the Lilly Trailhead parking lot.
The concrete Bluestone dam costing $30 million was completed in 1952 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It created a reservoir of 2,040 acres that extends 10.5 miles back along the New River. It is the third-largest reservoir in West Virginia and controls flooding on the New, Kanawha and Ohio rivers.
Dam tours are at 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. They begin at the dam's visitor center, Memorial Day to Labor Day.