Into the wild at the Bluestone
Remote, Peaceful Beauty
There is a lot to be said for simple tranquility. While the New and Gauley Rivers soak up the spotlight with world-renowned recreation, the Bluestone National Scenic River is sometimes overlooked. But that is exactly what makes it special.
The Bluestone has quietly gained the reputation as a place of solitude, where you can truly connect with the natural surroundings. The river originates in Tazewell County, Virginia, weaving through the Appalachian Mountains for 77 miles, eventually emptying into the New River by way of Bluestone Lake, just outside of Hinton. The final 10.5 miles were designated a National Scenic River in 1988 by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Not only is the Bluestone a National Scenic River, but it is also a part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, a distinction that protects it as one of the few rivers in the country that is “free-flowing and possesses outstandingly remarkable scenic, natural, cultural, geological and recreational values.”
Flanked by Bluestone and Pipestem Resort State Parks, the Bluestone National Scenic River’s status as a sanctuary is cemented by its rugged surroundings. Even the recreational opportunities are serene: fishing, hiking, horseback riding and bird watching are some of the popular activities in the area, all of which require a specific calm, peaceful mindset to create that authentic experience.
Jim Phillips, a retired Park Naturalist with Pipestem, said one of the main attractions these days is trying to catch a glimpse of a long-endangered resident.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years, bald eagles have moved into the gorge,” Phillips said. Phillips has worked with Three Rivers Avian Center (TRAC) in nearby Brooks since his retirement. TRAC is a non-profit specializing in rehabilitation. They focus on raptors that have been sick, injured or orphaned. They try to nurse them back to health and return them to the wild.
Though the goal is to eventually return all raptors to their natural habitat, some are not able because of to disabilities like missing wings. These birds then become part of the education program, displaying their regal beauty at events throughout the state.
In January and March of each year, Phillips assists with TRAC’s annual eagle survey in the Bluestone and surrounding areas.
“The January count for last year was 56 individuals in the area,” he said. “We have quite the population here between the Bluestone, New, and another tributary, Indian Creek.”
Since access to the gorge is limited, bald eagles are still very much elusive, with Sycamore and Birch trees creating the perfect camouflage.
“It is an unfragmented Appalachian forest, river to rim.”
However, this thick forest growth once served a different purpose. The ancient canyon was originally home to Native American tribes, who favored the abundance of natural resources and used the region as a hunting ground. By the 1700s European settlers staked their claim. Several communities formed in the area as settlers built lives off of subsistence farming and logging.
Mark Bollinger, Education Coordinator and Visitors Services with the National Park Service, is well-versed in the history of the Bluestone and emphasizes how this scenic river gorge has been reclaimed by nature since the days of early settler timbering.
“It’s unbroken forest habitat,” Bollinger said. “It hasn’t been logged in 80 years or more, so it is an unfragmented Appalachian forest, river to rim.”
Timbering came to an end once the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on Bluestone Dam in the 1940s, creating Bluestone Lake and leaving only the rugged, final miles of the river available for settlement. Rather than fight this terrain, those communities moved to more ideal locations nearby.
The most notable of these early settlers was the Lilly family. In fact, they even had a town named after them at the confluence of the Bluestone and Little Bluestone Rivers.
“They moved the town of Lilly out of there, and all of its residents,” Bollinger said. “There are lots of Lilly’s in the area, and that’s where they originated from.”
This once-thriving community was forced to relocate, as the town would be under water once construction of the dam commenced. Homes were destroyed, cemeteries were exhumed and the people built new lives elsewhere.
Though the town of Lilly has been reclaimed by the forest, its legacy lives on. Many relatives still feel a strong connection to the Bluestone area. According to the family’s official website, they even secured “Largest Family Reunion” in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for 2009 with about 2,585 attendees.
Lilly and the rest of Bluestone’s history can still be experienced through the Bluestone Turnpike Trail. The trail follows the scenic river for 9.5 miles from Bluestone State Park to Pipestem State Park. This moderate hike reveals the now-reclaimed culture of early settlers. The occasional foundation can be glimpsed, though it is hard to imagine full-fledged towns in this now serene river gorge. Guided tours are available for anyone interested in the full historical accounts.
With tourism growing, there is an understandable concern from those near-and-dear to the Bluestone that its trademark tranquility could be jeopardized. Will more people harm the ecosystem, or change the experience?
Consider this: the Bluestone National Scenic River and its surroundings appeal to those who value nature’s splendor. They respect history and want to observe a natural habitat. Most of all, they hope to find a piece of themselves— a piece that can only be found journeying through a place steeped in such natural history and mystique.
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