By Dave Payne Sr.
West Virginia’s Elk River is a priceless treasure. From its headwaters of frigid, ground-fed springs in Pocahontas County, to its mouth at Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, the Elk transforms itself several times.
At 180 miles long, the Elk is the longest river flowing entirely within West Virginia’s borders. For boaters, the first few dozen miles of the river and hundreds of miles of tributaries are full of challenging waters, rapids ranging anywhere from Class II to Class IV, then it becomes a lake for larger recreational craft and then flows to the state capital, Charleston, calmly enough for a family float trip in a johnboat.
The Elk River begins near Slatyfork at the confluence of Old Field and Big Spring Forks. For the next 80 miles, the Elk is a world-class trout stream with sizeable populations of native brook trout, rainbow trout and brown trout. All three of these species are able to reproduce in the river. From Slatyfork to the Randolph county line, the river is only accessible by walking an abandoned portion of the Western Maryland Railway, which once hauled timber out of the area.
A few miles downstream from its source, the river appears to dry up. Its water is actually seeping through the gravel into a labyrinth of underground caverns the river has been carving for millennia. The epochs-old riverbed is still there, small channels and puddles cut from solid rock by a trickle of mountain runoff. This section, known as the “dries,” continues for a few miles, then the river seeps back up from the ground, picking up momentum as tributaries join and the river continues its path of runs, riffles and falls.
At the confluence of Valley Fork, the river turns abruptly southeast and will continue in this direction for the rest of its course. This portion of the Elk and some of its tributaries are popular with kayakers as the streams boast thrilling rapids, many of which are rated Class IV. Popular with sightseers and fishermen alike is Whittaker Falls, a 16-foot horseshoe-shaped waterfall. On the south bank of the river is the 3 million-acre Monongahela National Forest, full of rough, craggy forests.
Near Webster Springs, the Back Fork of the Elk, also popular whitewater for its Class IV rapids, flows into the Elk. Growing along the Back Fork is a sycamore tree, which is reported by government officials to be the largest sycamore tree in the world.
Sutton Lake in Braxton County is a temporary rest stop for the Elk. From there, it ceases to be a tumbling coldwater fishery and becomes a 14-mile long, 1,500-acre lake, deep enough to accommodate large pleasure craft. The lake was completed in 1961 at a cost of $35 million and built primarily to control flooding. Surrounding Sutton Lake is the 18,225 acre Elk River Wildlife Management Area, with good squirrel and turkey hunting in mature hardwood forests and excellent deer and grouse hunting in brush lands. There are three campgrounds with boat ramps on the lake as well as a marina. The area has two shooting ranges and several camping areas along the lake’s 40 miles of shoreline.
Once the river flows through the Sutton dam, it is again transformed. The scenic, violently churning elk becomes a lazy, meandering warmwater stream. This section of the river is also more easily accessed. State Route 4 winds along its banks to Clendenin, where US Route 119 continues on to Charleston. The waters here aren’t quite so dangerous for boaters and most of the river is suitable for family float trips during normal flow.
There’s good reason that the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources ranked the Elk River as one of the state’s best smallmouth bass, trout, muskellunge and walleye streams. Downriver from Sutton, the river is an excellent warmwater fishery. A state record eel was caught on the Elk in 1983, and a Clay County fishermen caught a record 52.5-inch muskellunge in 1955 that still stands a half-century later.
The mountains along the edges of the narrow Elk Valley are tall and steep, with picturesque streams tumbling down the mountainsides. The pools are longer. The shoals are more timid. The river frequently forks into several channels to flow around groups of islands, some large, some small. Most of the rocky islands are simply beds of grasses, left dry in the summer months. Others are dry during all but the heaviest of flows and support stands of hardwoods.
Some of these island groups offer literally dozens of channels. Those in the middle tend to be less challenging, although slamming against a few submerged rocks and portaging boats occasionally is to be expected when taking these channels. Channels on the sides are usually narrow, twisting with swift currents. When attempting to navigate these side channels, boaters should keep in mind that these channels often “dead end” with a fallen tree and be prepared to duck quickly under low hanging limbs.
While on dry land, people should be especially careful of where they walk as large populations of poisonous vipers and stinging insects are present all along the river, especially along the more remote sections. During summer months especially, the excellent floodplain soil nurtures thick weeds which makes seeing snakes and yellow jacket nests difficult. Ticks are also very thick along some sections of the river.
While there are many communities along the lower Elk, the river feels, surprisingly remote all the way to Charleston. Forests border the river along nearly all its length. The Elk from Sutton to Charleston is unique in that the Elk River Scenic Highway runs all along the river, providing miles of breathtaking views of the milky green river.
Near the Kanawha-Clay County line on Route 4, where the river itself zips in and out of the two counties for several miles, is the King Shoals boat ramp. This is an excellent place for launching a small boat for a weekend-long float trip to Charleston. Nearby, King Shoals Run flows into the Elk. Along King Shoals Run is a little-known portion of the Wallback Wildlife Management Area. The public hunting area is usually thought of as being along the Wallback exit of I-79, some 45 minutes away by car, but it actually extends from Wallback all the way to the Elk River, some 10 miles or so away.
Just upriver from King Shoals, Laurel Creek, a put-and-take trout stream, tumbles down the mountainside. A few miles downriver is Queen Shoals, which is easily identified by boaters because of a modern steel bridge which spans the river there. A few miles from the left bank was where one of the world’s most popular apples, the Golden Delicious, was developed.
A lower-Elk float trip from the King Shoals boat ramp at the Kanawha-Clay County line to the Coonskin Park boat ramp in Charleston takes about two or three days of paddling. One doesn’t necessarily have to pack three days worth of gear, however. Boaters on the lower Elk can come ashore for refreshments or to resupply in Clendenin, Elkview and Big Chimney, all of which have stores and restaurants along the river.
In Clendenin, land your boat at the mouth of Big Sandy Creek on the right side. Climb ashore to find convenience and grocery stores, a pizza restaurant and ice cream shop.
In Elkview, go ashore on the right side of the river immediately past the bridge. There is a grocery store there and a pizza parlor at the far end of the strip mall. Big Chimney is situated right beside a labyrinth of island channels, so stay to the right side of the river as you approach and come ashore at the mouth of Cooper’s Creek. Big Chimney has a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant.
While the Elk might be a lovely green color upriver, any sizeable rain turns Big Sandy Creek into a muddy torrent as sediment erodes from haphazard development in southern Roane County. During substantial rains, Big Sandy dumps enough silt to not only turn the Elk from green to a muddy brown, but the Kanawha River, into which the Elk flows, as well. This makes navigating around islands in the Elk especially problematic as large boulders, just below the surface, often can’t be seen, making it more important to study the water’s flow carefully.
Below the Coonskin Park ramp there are no more boat ramps on the Elk River. The river continues on for a few more miles, flowing into downtown Charleston.