Where the Potomac Eagle Rides the Rails – Romney, West Virginia
By Bob Tagert
To get a jump on the folks seeking fall foliage in October, we hopped on the Potomac Eagle for a leisurely trip through the heart of the West Virginia Potomac Highlands and the South Branch of the Potomac River in Romney. The vintage diesel locomotive took us on a three hour round trip ride through the beautiful mountains and fields that border the South Branch of the Potomac.
The journey begins at Wappocomo Station located next to a charming homestead and a sprawling view of the mountains. Once you get out of the station, the train tracks are about 25 to 50 feet back from the river. The summer foliage that we encountered made for difficult views of the river except when the train came to the occasional clearing and then views of the rapids and kayakers were spectacular. Although the foliage was dense in some spots, by the time this column is read, fall will be upon us and the leaves will have started to turn and begin to fall. Since October and November in the West Virginia Highlands will be colder, the viewing will be much better as well as more colorful.
Soon the fields and pastures began to disappear as the mountains closed in on the river from both sides. We had entered a part of the canyon named The Trough. The Trough is a 6-mile long wooded gorge carved by the river as it continues northwestern course with several bends in the river and large boulders dislocated from the ridges above dotting its shores. The steep slopes of the Trough are forested primarily with oaks, hickories, Virginia pine and large quantities of paw paw; with several rock outcrops visible on both sides. The two wooded ridges that define the Trough make it inaccessible from either side. Entry into the Trough is only by the South Branch Valley Railroad, by boat or on foot. The area is also well known as perfect habitat for Bald Eagles. The rock outcrops as well as tall trees make for perfect, protected nesting for the eagles and the river provides their favorite food…fish.
Soon the train crossed back over the river and came to a stop. Here passengers had a chance to move around and relocate to the open car aka Gondola or the covered open air Observatory Car for better viewing. Once you are on the Gondola you have to remain there until the train stops to change direction. The Observatory is available to come and go from your seat as you please during the duration. There are onboard gift shop and Snack Bar cars that are available the whole time as well. The choice of seating accommodations on the train range from benches and traditional train seats, to dining cars with tables and chairs to the club/lounge car that we sat in. Obviously, the higher the ticket price the cushier the surroundings. The bar car is in the process of being “upticked” to accommodate all that is needed to serve those aforementioned adult beverages.
Each car has a unique history and I wish I had enough room here to tell you about them. Please take the time to log on to their website and read all about their history under the “Equipment” tab.
The entire trip is accompanied by a live narration. Not only is the history interesting but the narrator can point out eagle nests on the other side of the river. Binoculars certainly make for better viewing. On our return trip we had a young bald eagle keep pace with the train as he flew alongside up the river… therefore the name Potomac Eagle.
Potomac Eagle offers 7 different types of trips with pricing at all levels so there is something for every budget. There are dining options that range from the snack bar and a box lunch to a 4 course meal served during the ride. We opted for the Trough Trip with dining at the “Superior” level which meant for an additional $35 each we were seated in the Chesapeake & Ohio Chessie Club Car and served beverages (tea, lemonade, water at this point but they are busy working on getting their adult beverage license in place before the holiday trips roll around) and a 4 course meal. Without regaling you with all of the particulars of the trips available (All Day Trip to Petersburg, Green Spring Special, the Combo Trip and the North Pole Express during the Christmas holiday) since you can read all about them on their website at www.potomaceagle.com – we will tell you about our choice.
As we departed the station and crossed over the Potomac River we were given our beverages and received the first of our 4-course lunch for the trip. The lunch was amazingly good and the courses were spread out so we had ample time to enjoy the sights of the trip both ways. You make your food selections when you make your ticket reservations so there aren’t any surprises. Our lunch consisted of an appetizer of shrimp cocktail followed by a large, crisp wedge salad. Next came my main course of perfectly cooked Salmon and my traveling companion’s eyes about popped out of her head when she saw the size of the Cornish game hen that was on her plate. My dessert was a delicious cheese cake and hers a fresh apple tart. We both ended up getting “to-go” boxes as did everyone else seated in our car. The whole lunch was spread out over 45 minutes. It is very civilized.
I might also add that the entire staff – there are even legitimate Conductors who punch your ticket when you board – on the train were excellent. Very efficient yet fun to interact with as if we had known each other for years.
Getting to Romney West Virginia I took an old tried and true route. I-66 to Route 50, west to Winchester and continuing on 50 to Romney. This route was about 125 miles, however, the traffic signals on Route 50 and traffic through Winchester gets a little tedious. On our return trip we took Route 50 north through Romney, then northwest to Moorefield, picked up Corridor H (Route 48) – a true road across the mountain tops – into Wardensville. Here we stopped for a great homemade lunch at the Kac-ka-pon restaurant. From there we continued on old Route 55 to Strasburg and on to I-66 and the Beltway. The mileage was about 174 miles but we encountered only three traffic lights and two of those were in Romney. If you go out that way when the leaves are changing, take the Moorefield route. The drive is spectacular through the mountains and there is less traffic.
Whichever route you take, it is a good idea to find accommodations for an overnight stay. We stayed at a throwback to the era of the 60’s/70’s motel in Romney…the Koolwink. I can’t say enough about how “cool” the Koolwink Motel is. I think I will let the photos tell the story! Not only is it aesthetically nostalgic, the price is right too! We will stay there again! Actually thinking about heading back there for a ride on the North Pole Express. There is some talk about an “Adults Only” ride during the holidays with a “Nightcap with Santa” theme. Now that is right up our alley.
149 Eagle Drive
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