BUCKHANNON – The Mountain State might be known for its peaks, ridges and stunning vistas that dazzle even the most well-traveled hikers.
However, carving their way through those iconic, ‘almost-heavenly’ hilltops are an abundance of sparkling streams, rippling rivers and clear, tranquil lakes that can lull you into a state of nature-induced relaxation like no other.
In Upshur County and the surrounding area, the Buckhannon and Middle Fork Rivers afford residents, vacationers and day-trippers a slew of pristine, chlorine-free opportunities to swim and bask in the sunshine.
In fact, we talked to residents who know north-central West Virginia and Upshur County like the back of their hands about their favorite swimming spots – some lesser-known, others more popular. In those conversations, we discovered the Sago and Tenmile areas of the Buckhannon River and Audra State Park, situated on the Middle Fork River, rose to the surface time and time again.
Shrouded in lush, green trees and shrubs, you can find the section of the Buckhannon River known simply as ‘Sago’ about three miles out on the Sago Road. You won’t find roaring rapids there – at least not the section where one local elementary school teacher has ventured out to since her high school days.
Sarah Critchfield, who babysits and enjoys going swimming with her friends and their kids, says Sago is an ideal place to take young children swimming, especially when the water isn’t high. There’s a set of concrete stairs that lead swimmers or waders down into the river where they can splash around with carefree-glee.
“The stairs down make it easy if you’re swimming with kids,” Critchfield said. “It’s a nice feature that makes entering the water easier than if you had to carry them over a riverbank.”
‘Sago by the stairs’ is relatively calm, making it a perfect spot for kids and inexperienced swimmers.
“It’s a very friendly area to swim in,” Critchfield said. “It has a deeper area, but also a lot of shallow areas for little kids to explore and splash around in. I went in high school often, but mostly started going back this year with many pools closed down. It’s an easier area to take toddlers than some others, mainly since you don’t have to hike in.”
If you go, follow Route 20 South past Buckhannon-Upshur High School, and turn left on the Sago Road. The swimming area is located about three miles out on the left.
Upshur County native Shane Wamsley spent numerous summers camping on the Buckhannon River in Tenmile, out past Tallmansville.
“My grandmother had a camp in Tenmile, and I spent a lot of summers camping there growing up,” Wamsley said. “It really is beautiful; it’s kind of a hidden gem that most have never seen or heard of.”
To get to Tenmile, head out on the Tallmansville Road for about – you guessed it – 10 miles and turn right on Tenmile Road. Wamsley recommends following the Tenmile Road until you see a left-hand turn over a bridge.
“There are two swimming holes if you go right after the bridge, and even more if you go left, but the road is rough,” he said.
Tenmile features Class III rapids as well as more serene swimming holes, and visitors will find plenty of polished and rougher rocks on which to soak in the Appalachian sunshine. The water is crystal-clear, and cascading whitewater caressing the river’s terrain adds a magical aura to the area.
“The neat part about Tenmile is that there are whitewater and some difficult rapids for kayaking or tubing,” Wamsley said. “From Tenmile to Sago, there are beautiful parts of the river, including a part where the river gets shallow, and the entire riverbed is all smooth rock, and the water has created channels in it. You can lay in the water and slide in them.”
The clear water of the Middle Fork River that churns through Audra State Park, located in southwestern Barbour County and a slice of Upshur County, is both untainted and untamed.
The gleaming river truly offers “something for everyone,” as Kevin Nicholson, a Buckhannon native, likes to tell newcomers to north-central West Virginia.
“The best spots for swimming are directly beside the bridge as you enter. To the left of the bridge is a manmade swimming area that is about five-feet deep,” he said. “This area has a concrete ‘beach’ to suntan on as well as store your belongings. You will want to get there early, as that area fills up quickly. If you are more adventurous, there are several nice places on the river about a mile down the Alum Creek trail.”
Nicholson said he’s been trekking out to Audra in search of adventure since he was a child who went on multiple youth group camping and hiking trips.
What sets Audra above the rest for Nicholson is that it affords visitors the chance to hike, swim, sunbathe or all of the above.
“The Alum Creek trail provides about a three-mile loop that follows the river out and is well-maintained and not technically challenging, although there is some elevation change,” he said. “The most striking feature of the trail is the ‘cave’ which is a boardwalk that goes underneath a rocky outcropping. There are great views of the river throughout the trail and many side trails down to some secluded spots by the river.”
Most locals recommend heading out the Hall Road from Buckhannon, about a 20-minute trip. Signs directing park-goers to Audra State Park can also be spotted along U.S. Route 33 East.
So, fill your bag to the brim with sunscreen, plenty of water, towels and perhaps a snack and let the water wash over you and take your worries with it.
This story produced in partnership with the Upshur County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.