In a rural area of northern West Virginia lies a small hidden gem that will enamor the waterfall enthusiast, fans of rock formations and those who love hiking for an afternoon of beauty and splendor.
Barbour County is home to a multitude of unique towns, the largest of which is Phillippi. Just a few miles to the southwest of this town is a small state park nestled on the county border with Upshur County.
Audra State Park is relatively small compared to other state parks in the state at 355 acres, but it is packed with beautiful scenery and a lovely river that will make for a great afternoon outside. The park is named after the small town nearby, Audra. According to West Virginia State Parks, the area was the site of a logging operation that was owned by the B&O Railroad but was later turned into Barbour County’s 4-H Club camp. The park became open to the public in 1950. Additional land was purchased in 1960 for the park.
The river is a beauty! In fact, there are MANY whitewater rapids on it, particularly on from Audra State Park and downstream:
To access Audra State Park, I turned off of US-33 and turned onto Mount Nebo Road. Drive that road for 0.6 miles and then turn left again for Handy Camp/Mount Nebo Road in a quarter of a mile.
Once you make that turn, you’ll stay on Handy Camp Road for a mile before turning left on Route 10. You’ll stay on Route 10, which turns into Route 3. The road is nice and smooth but it does narrow a bit right before you get to the entrance for Audra State Park via Audra Park Road off the right. Once you cross that bridge, you’re at the park!
I saw some photos from last fall of some beautiful short cascades along the Middle Fork River that bisects the park, as well as images of interesting rock formations. These photos inspired me and my good pal, Hal, to see what the park had to offer.
The park is located around a couple of nooks of the Middle Fork River. This 35-mile long river begins in Randolph County as the confluence of Birch Fork and Kittle Creek in Randolph County. The river flows north, a rarity, and empties into the Tygart Valley River in Barbour County just downstream from Audra State Park.
There is one large trail that covers the majority of the park and another much smaller one by the camping area. The main trail is known as the Alum Cave Trail and is a nearly 3 mile loop that follows the Middle Fork River for a little over a mile before jutting uphill to the mountain above. The Rock Cliff Trail is a much smaller trail that is located just west of the Camping Area.
I took a hike on the Alum Cave Trail, which has some nice scenic views of the Middle Fork River! Though there are no official waterfalls along this stretch of the river, there are several nice small drops that could easily be classified as one, such as the images below.
Less than a half mile up the Alum Cave Trail, the trail splits briefly. If you keep on the high side, you’ll hike above the river level for a bit, while the low end stays by the river. This split is less than a quarter of a mile – but it’s important: you’ll want to do the lower split!
The reason for this split is that the lower end takes you along and under a huge rock face that faces the Middle Fork River, while the upper end keeps you above the rock race.
A beautiful boardwalk has been built so that you can get up and close to the rock face. It is pet friendly, so you can bring the furry companions along with you, too!
There are a couple of really nice features of this trail and the park, in general. First, the trails are well-kept in my opinion. They are kid and pet friendly and though the back side of the Alum Cave Trail juts uphill about 300 feet, it is doable for anyone who is not in poor health.
Secondly, the Middle Fork River is gorgeous! According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, about 94 percent of the river’s watershed is forested and only about 4 percent is used for agriculture – it is a VERY clean watershed.
This time of the year, the water is clear with a blue shimmer. You can really see the beauty of this watershed and there are small footpaths that hang off of the Alum Cave Trail that allow you to go right to river level for a nice lunch view.
Once you’re about 1.5 miles out on the trail, it will make an abrupt right – this is when you leave the river and head uphill. The trail will climb about 300 feet over the next mile and you’ll get a nice sweat but it’s not exhausting. The trail will come out at a picnic area along a paved circle parking lot. Walk to the right and the pavement will come out back on Audra Park Road. Head to the right again and after about a 1/4 mile, you’ll be right back where you parked!
Enjoy this wonderful park that West Virginia has to offer. There is nothing superbly flashy about this small state park but it is beautiful and will certainly allow you to relax while getting out and enjoying the outdoors.
There are certain times of the year when some waterfalls in West Virginia are a little better for viewing than others. For example, during periods of drought, it’s better to often check out waterfalls that are located in streams that have consistent flow year-round, such as Dunloup Creek in Fayette County. The same type of thought can be applied during periods of heavy rain – some waterfalls that don’t really pop can come alive with a little bit of rain, and that certainly is the case with Fern Creek in Fayette County.
If you look closely from the New River Gorge driving northbound, you can see the largest waterfall on Fern Creek when the water flow is good. This was the origin of my interest in this watershed. Then, I began reading from a couple of folks who had made the bushwhack to check it out, including Ed Rehbein and immediately knew I had to check it out for myself.
A quick word of caution before proceeding: this is NOT an easy hike. In fact, the first time I attempted this hike, I failed! I’ve knocked it out a few times now and know it well – and if this article leaves you with any additional questions, please contact me! I’d be happy to help. If you’ve never taken on this hike before, I’d recommend going on with a friend. I’ve both soloed the hike and trekked the excursion with a companion. On this most recent journey up Fern Creek this March, I went with my close friend Hal, who had never seen it before.
There are two ways to access Fern Creek. For me, the easiest way is climbing up the mountain versus climbing down to begin with, as you’ll see in the descriptions below. How you decide to begin your journey is up to you, but here are the two methods:
Drive down Fayette Station Road off of US-19, turn right at a VERY sharp turn that you cannot miss, and then watch for a pull-off spot in the next series of turns. This is how you will access Fern Creek from the high side. From there, you will walk along and under the Endless Wall rock faces that makes the gorge in this area so beautiful. You’ll encounter a trail that is used by rock climbers. Then, once you hear the falls (if the water is clear, you will certainly hear them), you’ll angle your way down the canyon slowly. Ed Rehbein has a post online detailing a rock he has marked off to guide you down the canyon, but I did not see this when I attempted this method of accessing Fern Creek.
Drive farther down Fayette Station Road to the last turn before crossing the bridge that crosses the New River at Fayette Station. There is a couple of spots where you can park – if it’s not taken, I usually park right before the turn on the left (there’s room for one car to park). Once you park, you’ll walk alongside the railroad tracks for about 1/3 of a mile until you encounter a trestle bridge where Fern Creek empties into the New River. A small makeshift trail, along with a rock cairn will lead up the mountain initially and this is where you will begin your journey up into the creek.
The two routes are similar, but the first route essentially takes you to the highest part of your trek where you will hike down, while the second route will take you to the lowest part of your trek where you will hike up. I prefer to hike up because it was easier for me to find my way back down. Both options will take you down Fayette Station Road off of US-19 just north of the New River Gorge Bridge (click on image below to zoom).
One note about the first option. I find this way to be the easier of the two, however, keep in mind that you’ll be walking along an active rail line for around a quarter of a mile. I’ve been near this railroad track when a train has gone by before – be alert! (click on image below to zoom again).
Again, this is not an easy hike in the least bit. There are boulders the size of houses, the threat for rotten ground is viable (it would be good to bring a trekking pole), and you’re on the side of the canyon, so the trek is very steep! If you hike during the spring or summer, it’s a good bet you may encounter snakes around rocks – be warned!
The entire voyage heading up and down Fern Creek took me about 4 hours to complete. This does include plenty of time for capturing photographs and videos. It’s several hundred feet in vertical elevation change, so again, be prepared – I bring water and light snacks in a backpack (leave no trace of course!).
There are nearly a dozen falls on Fern Creek and I have them divided as follows from top to bottom. Four of those waterfalls are very large, one of which is over 60 feet! The list of all the waterfalls on this stretch is shown below:
Name of Waterfall
Upper Fern Creek Falls (#1)
About 50 feet tall, water shoots over crevice.
Fern Creek Falls #2
Small fall – a few inches tall
Fern Creek Falls #3
Nice waterfall a couple feet high
Fern Creek Falls #4
A series of rapids leading to a crevice
Fern Creek Falls #5
Waterfall confined mainly to a crevice
Fern Creek Falls #6
A flat-topped waterfall with a gentle drop
Middle Fern Creek Falls (#7)
A massive 60 feet tall waterfall!
Flatback Falls (#8)
A large vertical waterfall that looks like a curtain!
Fern Creek Falls #9
A series of cris-crossing cascades
Lower Fern Creek Falls (#10)
A monsterous 45 feet tall waterfall – the last big drop!
The Final Plunge (#11)
The final plunge before dropping into the New River
Walking from the parking area from location #2 on the map, you’ll walk along the railroad tracks for about 1/3 of a mile. The key to this trip heading up the mountain is to stay to the LEFT of Fern Creek. If you decided to start at location #1 on the map above, you’ll want Fern Creek to remain to your right.
During this course upstream, you’ll pass a couple of light streams on your left. Don’t head up those streams, as Fern Creek is much larger. The railroad is straight for awhile and then curves to the right. Once it curves to the right, you’ll see an old metal Blaw Knox steel structure to your left. Then, you’ll encounter a trestle bridge. The trestle bridge is where Fern Creek empties into the New River. Right before you cross the trestle bridge, there will be a trail that juts up the hollow to the left. Your trek begins here!
There are 11 waterfalls during this trek. Each will be briefly described as you head up the mountain, but there are four main waterfalls: Lower Fern Creek Falls, Flatback Falls, Middle Fern Creek Falls and Matteus Falls.
Lower Fern Creek Falls (#10)
As you first head up the mountain off of the railroad tracks, there is a series of rapids that usher down the creek. I refer to this as ‘The Final Plunge” and is waterfall #11. It is the first waterfall heading up the mountain and one of the smallest.
Just above it is the first real large waterfall of the trip. Lower Fern Creek Falls will be heard from ‘The Final Plunge’ and will emerge quickly once you head up the mountain slightly more. These first two waterfalls are very close to the railroad tracks – and there is a makeshift trail that allows you to remain on course.
Lower Fern Creek Falls is an absolute monster, dropping about 45 feet. I really enjoy this waterfall because there are so many angle opportunities. My favorite is probably the most popular shot – from below, the water drops off at an angle that cuts to the left before cutting back to the right in front of you.
Once you have soaked in the view from this angle, you can meander yourself up the mountain to a nice rock that juts out below the waterfall. Be careful as it is slick on the rock and you will get wet, but you are able to soak up the view literally as the behemoth stands nearly directly above you! I find this spot to be good for taking a quick break before the voyage begins to Middle Fern Creek, but there’s a couple of other waterfalls on the way up before then.
Flatback Falls (#8)
You’ll hike roughly the same distance between the railroad tracks and Lower Fern Creek Falls as Lower Fern Creek Falls and the next waterfall, which is a small criss-crossing waterfall. This waterfall is only a few feet tall, but it’s quite beautiful. You will also be able to see Flatback Falls directly above it. Continue up the mountain slightly on the makeshift trail and you will see a pathway that cuts straight out to the creek. This will take you directly in front of Flatback Falls.
I’ve dubbed Fern Creek #8 as Flatback Falls because the waterfall is very vertical – it looks like a curtain to me. Interestingly, this might be the loudest waterfall even though it’s not the highest. I suppose this may be to the geography in that area – there are a lot of house-sized boulders in this area.
Flatback Falls is no slouch – it’s at least 25 feet, perhaps as tall as 30 feet. The water shoots over a vertical rock face that makes for a very loud scene! Once again, there’s a good chance that with good flow you might get wet at this spot, as the waterfall roars right in front of you! The spray mist is cold but feels good considering you’ve already climbed a couple hundred feet vertically.
Once you’ve enjoyed that spot, you’ll be able to vaguely see the largest waterfall in the waterway above – Middle Fern Creek Falls.
Middle Fern Creek Falls (#7)
You’ve got a decent hike ahead to Middle Fern Creek Falls. It’s also a bit treacherous, with many house-sized boulders. The key with the boulders is to move around them and not try to hop over them. This is especially key on the way back down. The roar of this waterfall and visually being able to spot it in the distance will inspire you to weather the hike up, as it is brutal at times.
Middle Fern Creek Falls is great in that you once again get an up-close view of the waterfall. This behemoth stands at around 60 feet – absolutely massive! It is a silky smooth drop, as the narrow creek falls and expands over a vertical drop and crashes on the rocks below. There are a couple of decent angles for this waterfall as well, however Lower Fern Creek Falls is definitely the best waterfall for playing with angles.
One neat viewing from Middle Fern Creek Falls is the New River Gorge. This is the waterfall you can see heading northbound. Looking from the gorge, it is located under Diamond Point and when the water is flowing great, it’s easy to spot. When you’re at the base of Middle Fern Creek Falls, you can see the New River Gorge out in the distance when the leaves are not on the trees. For me, it is great to think about where I saw this waterfall on my drive and then knowing the work I put into hiking to the location to view it up close!
I cannot underestimate to you how steep this trek is, but being able to enjoy these humongous waterfalls as such close range makes it so worth it. This is also not a heavily-trafficked area at all – so there’s no trash. It really is a wonderful part of the New River gorge area.
Once you have enjoyed your views at Middle Fern Creek Falls, you have a decision to make. At this point, you’ve climbed a couple hundred feet vertically – a good challenge but not awful. However, the last large waterfall is all the way at the top of the mountain just under the Endless Wall – this is about 550 feet higher in elevation than Middle Fern Creek Falls. In my March trip, we decided to head back downhill due to time constraints, but if you’re feeling adventurous, you should absolutely check out perhaps one of the most serene waterfalls in the state: Matteus Falls.
Matteus Falls (Upper Fern Creek Falls #1)
Between Middle Fern Creek Falls and Matteus Falls are several smaller waterfalls.
These waterfalls are a few feet high each, so they’re not anything extravagant but they are places you can sit down and catch your breath as you continue up the mountain.
You will encounter five small waterfalls during this trek uphill between the two large waterfalls. Once you get past the fourth of these waterfalls (Fern Creek Falls #3), you will be able to see the bottom of the Endless Wall come into view. This is great news for you, as you’re almost done hiking uphill! Keep hiking until you reach the base of the Endless Wall and then turn right toward Fern Creek once again.
Quickly, you will be able to hear Matteus Falls. It is named after Ed Rehbein, who named it after his son. I had the same expression he described in his book ‘The Wilds of West Virginia’ – absolute awe.
Matteus Falls is quite a bit more sensitive to being dependent on having a good flow of water than the other waterfalls on Fern Creek. The reason is because during the majority of the year, the waterfall remains hidden in a crevice in a giant boulder. However, after a good rain, the waterfall pops out of the crevice and comes to life and produces one of the most tranquil and beautiful waterfalls in the state.
The gargantuan waterfall stands vertically at fifty feet, where the water crashes through and over a crevice and onto a pile of smaller rocks below. You can walk right up to this waterfall if you don’t mind getting your feet wet. When I finally was able to grab this waterfall, I probably sat here for a half hour just enjoying how beautiful and magnificent it truly is.
That concludes your trip of 11 waterfalls along Fern Creek. Now, you’ll have the task of heading back down the mountain. It does not take long at all! If you don’t spend time at the waterfalls on the way down, you can easily be back at the railroad tracks in a half hour to 45 minutes. Just take it slow and easy and remember to walk AROUND the house-sized boulders and not go on top. If you do, you’ll face rock ledges several feet high that are virtually impossible to jump without injuring yourself.
Elevations of Largest Waterfalls on Fern Creek:
Lower Fern Creek Falls
Middle Fern Creek Falls
I hope that you enjoy this fantastic challenge as much as I do! If you’re a fan of waterfalls, it is worth all of the sweat you will pour for these can’t miss spectacles!