Riding the Rails in Nature’s Mountain Playground

Mike Moore

I’ve held the opinion for awhile now that there’s nothing quite like traveling by train.  Admittedly, I’m not the most seasoned of train riders (my last trip was the Polar Express train ride a couple winters ago), but it doesn’t take multiple, cross-country excursions by rail to get a feel for the allure of train travel – you either like it or you don’t.  Usually, a short trip by train is all you need to determine if train travel is for you.  And if you’re looking for a train ride in West Virginia, it’s hard to find any better than the train rides in Nature’s Mountain Playground.  So, step aboard as we explore beautiful mountain terrain and some of the best scenic spots in West Virginia to be experienced by rail and let’s see if train travel is for you. 

When we’re talking about trains in West Virginia in general, and trains in Pocahontas County in particular, there’s no debate, you’ve got to plan a visit to Cass, West Virginia.  First, let’s start with a little history of Cass, West Virginia.  Founded in 1901 by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, the town of Cass was originally built as a company town for the men logging the rugged mountains of the region.  1901 would also see the beginning construction of a railroad track used to transport lumber to the mill at Cass.  As operations grew, the rail line was lengthened to eventually reach the peak of Bald Knob, West Virginia’s third highest mountain.  The Cass operation changed ownership over the years until, in the summer of 1960, the mill and railroad were shut down.  But 1961 would see Cass brought into the West Virginia State Parks system with the company town following by 1977.  Today, the railroad and town has become one of the top tourist attractions in Pocahontas County. 

When it comes to riding the rail at Cass, you have two scenic excursions to choose from – Whittaker Station and Bald Knob Overlook.  The Whittaker Station excursion is a two hour, eight-mile round trip outing up the lower slopes of Cheat Mountain.  As your train works its way up the mountain, you’ll experience two switchbacks as the engines alternate between pushing and pulling the passenger cars up the steep grade.  Once you’ve reached your destination of Whittaker Station, you’ll have a 30-minute layover to enjoy a shady picnic grove and picturesque views of the surrounding country meadows. 

Now, if you’re looking for a long run on the rails of Cass, you’ve got to book The Bald Knob Overlook excursion.  Enjoy the rugged mountain views of this 22-mile round trip, four-and-a-half-hour excursion as you climb nearly 2,400 feet in elevation.  Once your destination of Bald Knob is reached, you’ll be witness to a panoramic view of pristine, mountain wilderness – truly one of the most scenic spots in West Virginia.  As you take in the view, be sure to keep an eye out for the Green Bank Observatory’s telescope.  Imagine looking down on the world’s largest steerable radio telescope.  We promise this will be one of the most unique views of the telescope you’ll find anywhere.

A new departure this year from Cass is The Greenbrier Express.  This 30-mile round trip, five hour run, sets you along an upstream course following the Greenbrier River as it flows through a pristine range of the Monongahela National Forest.  Your journey from Cass takes you along a reconstructed portion of what was once a 95-mile-long rail originally built in 1902 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.  Your destination is the town of Durbin, where upon arrival, you’ll be served lunch either on the train, in the depot, or at one of the restaurants on Main Street.  The Greenbrier Express is our latest edition to our line of train adventures in Nature’s Mountain Playground and we’re expecting tickets to go fast, so be sure to book early.

Well, we have one last train adventure to mention but, as of this writing, this comes with a caveat.  And while this adventure does in fact include some time riding a train, it’s really more about staying overnight on a train.  The Castaway Caboose is the ultimate getaway for train aficionados.  Your adventure begins in Durbin as you board one of two original Wabash Railroad cabooses which have been converted to efficiency suites on rails.  Once aboard, your private car will travel several miles along the banks of the Greenbrier River where you will be “cast away” as your car is decoupled from the engine.  Your Wabash caboose provides all the amenities and creature comforts of home as you settle in for a remote getaway along the Greenbrier River.  At the end of your stay an engine returns to bring you back to civilization.  So, what’s the caveat?  As of this writing the Castaway Caboose is booked for 2023.  But fear not!  There is always the possibility of a cancellation that a savvy traveler like yourself could take advantage of.  Go to mountainrailwv.com and click on “Castaway Caboose Overnights” to see their booking calendar for any last-minute openings.  In fact, you can get booking information, departure dates and times, as well as rates on all the above-mentioned train excursions by clicking here.

As I said, for me, there’s something special about traveling by train.  Whether it’s the rhythmic hum of riding the rail, the subtle sway of the cars, or the freedom to take in the scenery while someone else does the driving (maybe it’s all that), all I know is I look forward to my next trip on the rails.  How about you?  Maybe it’s time to park the car and ask yourself, “Are there any train rides near me?”  And if that question causes you to start a quick search of West Virginia train rides, we hope you’ll consider Nature’s Mountain Playground right here in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.