A small historic logging town sits in the Valley of the Appalachian Mountains. Smoke billows from the stacks of 100-year-old trains. Miles of breathtaking views climbing to 4700 feet. There is no better way to spend a Fall Day in West Virginia. So, grab those tickets and, “All Aboard!”
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park is an 11-mile heritage railroad and historical lumber town. Hosting the world’s largest collection of Shay Locomotives makes Cass a rarity among State Parks. Its collection consists of not only the largest but also longest operating Shay Engine in the world. Engine #5 had her debut at Cass in 1905 pulling logs to the Cass Mill. Today she is still working hard pulling and pushing visitors from around the world.
During the Fall Foliage Season tickets sell out quickly. Wanting a guaranteed spot, we purchased e-tickets. Obtaining our tickets was simple, we bought our tickets from their website where we choose our Rail Adventure. Once finished, e-tickets were E-mailed and a PDF was available to print. Tickets are also available for purchase at the Cass Depot. (E-Tickets Available Here)
Driving through the Monongahela National Forest was a peaceful experience. The fog rising from the valley floor hid the walls of the Allegheny Mountains. Occasional glimpses of gold, red, yellow, and orange leaves could be seen as the sun ripped through the morning fog. Dropping into the valley and passing the company housing, we knew we had arrived.
Arriving at Cass
On our arrival at Cass, the Whittaker Excursion train was starting to leave the station. The steam and smoke rising from its stacks built excitement within us. Seeing these historic pieces of human engineering at work brought pure amazement to us all. We had 45 minutes before “All Aboard!” Making a quick run through of the General Store we realized we needed more time to explore. With our train arriving at the station, it was time to round everyone up and get onboard. It only took about 15 minutes to get everyone down to the station and seated. Hopefully, the General Store will still be open once we return.
The train cars are like converted flatcars. Wooden benches run back to back from rear to front of each car and a restroom located on one. Seat locations are available during the ordering process. With bench seating, the majority of people grab seats near their family and friends. This practice made seat assignment irrelevant, but most people understood making it acceptable. A few minutes pass after the Director yells out, “All Aboard.” Once the ladders were lifted into the car, the excursion began.
As the train leaves the station, the steam builds for the climb up the mountain. Passing the old lumber and paper mill, one can see how this was the livelihood of the area. Other Shay Engines and Passenger Cars are on display as we pass the maintenance build and train yard. As the Director explains the history of the area and the trains, we arrive at our first switchback.
The oldest two boys have settled in for the train ride. Cellphones in hand and playing offline games. Cellphone service is restricted in and around Cass due to its proximity to the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. To provide the minimum amount of interference to the Green Bank Observatory, this Zone restricts the production of radio frequencies. Watching the ground through the slits in the floor, Leo has found his newest interest. Leo’s Mamaw is relaxing on her cushion while taking in the beauty of this scenic adventure. Mom & Dad relaxing hand in hand as we make the climb toward Bald Knob.
Whittaker to Salamander Junction
Passing the Whittaker Excursion at a switchback, we travel past the Whittaker Station. Whittaker is a logging camp showing old equipment and a fire tower. Located at the station are restrooms and a snack bar. At this time Leo has lost all patience and is ready to get off the train and explore the area. The Bald Knob Excursion does not stop at Whittaker on the way up. Its first stop is at the Junction of the Elkins to Cass, Salamander Excursion, another 30 minutes away. At our arrival, there was no train present at the junction.
Salamander Passengers are permitted to leave the train and wait for the arrival of their connecting train. All other passengers are requested to wait aboard until the passenger exchange occurs. Keeping a baby who was wanting to explore 30 minutes ago seated for another 30 minutes was impossible. Luckily for us, other families with small children were in our car. No one seemed bothered, but more so relieved that they were not the only family with young children aboard.
After leaving the junction, food was provided to the passengers, and the train stopped to refill its water tank. The Steam Engine uses 6000 gallons of water for the round trip, by the junction, 4000 gallons was used. Using the steam engine to create a vacuum gives the locomotive the ability to pull water from a well. This process allows it to refill the tanks without the need for a traditional water tower.
The train leaves on a 9% grade toward the overlook at Bald Knob. Passing the earlier Bald Knob Excursion at a Y junction, we hit the steepest climb of the track, 12%. With smoke pouring from the stacks, the Shay Engine finished her push to the elevation of 4700 feet.
Coming to a stop at the Bald Knob Overlook, we are allotted 20 minutes off the train. During this time we were to sightsee and take a bathroom break. Leo fell asleep on the last section of track making it a little more difficult with our time frame. But, we were successfully able to keep him asleep and enjoy the view. From atop the overlook, you can see the tip of the Green Bank Telescope. The telescope looked minuscule to its actual size.
Check out our recent visit to the Green Bank Observatory,
“Green Bank Observatory – A tour of telescopes and so much more!“
With the sound of the whistle and the “All Aboard.” It was time to head down the mountain to Cass. By this period the older two boys went from playing their games to taking photos of nature. Halfway down the mountain, pure excitement erupted. Yelling, “Fire, Fire, we set it a Fire.” a staff member ran to the back of the train. The train came to a sudden halt and back up the mountain we went.
Once positioned safely from the fire, set by the engine, staff members jumped from the train. Using water from the steam engine, staff members doused the flames and ambers. During Fire Season the train has an assigned crew that follows behind to extinguish any flames. However, it is not Fire Season. Luckily there were Fire Spotters aboard. As lovers of our State, we are grateful for their ability to spot and extinguish the blaze quickly.
Coming down past Whittaker Station, the train would usually stop for a quick visit at the logging camp. However, with fighting fires and late arrivals, we passed Whittaker to hopefully return to the station on time.
Once returning to Cass, we explored the museum and gift shop more thoroughly. We purchased a few souvenirs and decide to grab dinner. Conveniently located beside the gift shop is the Last Run Restaurant. We were greeted at the door and told, “Sorry! We closed after the last run and are no longer open”. Guess the name is literal, the “Last Run” is the “Last Call.”
Marlinton and Home
On a previous visit to Watoga State Park, we explored the small town of Marlinton along the Greenbrier River Trail. Suggesting to our hungry crew to wait for about 30 miles we could eat at the Greenbrier Grill and Lodge. There, they can feed the ducks, relax by the Greenbrier River, and enjoy a good meal. Everyone was game.
Check out our, “Father’s Day Weekend at Watoga State Park” where we visited Marlinton for the first time.
Sitting on the deck of the restaurant, the sunset reflecting off the water of the Greenbrier River, the kids fed corn to the ducks as we waited for our food. After finishing our dinner, we drove across the Highland Scenic Highway bringing an end to our Cass Adventure.
It was an enjoyable and memorable day. Mamaw was able to experience an adventure she had dreamed of her whole life. The oldest two were able to enjoy the experience of Cass’ history, timbering, and the marvels of the Shay Engine. Leo took his first train ride, sleep, run, climb, scream, and cry, ride. We all had an excellent dinner in Marlinton and learned a few things for our next Cass Excursion.
On our excursion we discovered the best side of the train for viewing was the right side; it provided us with beautiful overlooks of the valleys below. Past the Salamander Junction, the left side of the train holds the best viewing. We recommend sitting on the right side on the way up. If possible, switch to the left side on the way down. Currently, in the works, we are planning on a Parental Escape Castaway Caboose Overnight Stay at Bald Knob. We can not wait to partake in this new and unique adventure at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.