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Morgantown, W.Va., offers mix of metropolitan amenities, outdoor fun

Jun. 18, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Would you believe there is an award-winning city within three hours of the this area that is considered one of the "Best Cities for Working Retirement" as well as one of the "Top Ten College Towns?" This city was also ranked No. 2 for "Milken Institute's Best Performing Cities-Small Metros."

Believe it or not, I am describing Morgantown, W.Va.; and all three of those awards were earned in 2013.

Given the fact that my husband, John, and I are Marshall University fans as well as graduates of Ohio University, we have, quite frankly, considered Morgantown as "enemy territory," never desiring to visit. All of our competitive feelings, however, had to be set aside in April as our daughter was asked to travel there to receive an award.

"Of all the cities they would pick, why Morgantown?" our daughter, Madelyn bemoaned.

Obviously, my husband and I had passed on our bias. No matter what spin we put on it, going to Morgantown was the same as crossing enemy lines as far as our daughter was concerned.

"I'm going to wear my Marshall shirt the entire time I am there," Maddie added.

Fortunately, the event was formal, so a college T-shirt was out of the question.

However, as we drove Interstate 79, we all felt entranced. It was toward the end of April, and blooms abounded around every bend, curve and mountainside. A kaleidoscope of color blurred by our windows as we drove toward the rival town. Then, upon arriving at our destination, the Waterfront Place Hotel and Convention Center, we were stunned by its beautiful setting. Located along the Monongahela River, the hotel stood loftily above the river as the sunlight glinted off the water, creating a glow around the spring tulips. Additionally, we could not help but notice a paved path situated behind the hotel and alongside the river.

In fact, I later learned that this path is part of Rails-to-Trails, miles of paved or crushed lime surface that run alongside both the Monongahela River and Decker's Creek. This newly developed pedestrian and recreational system actually consists of two main trails: the Caperton Trail (named after former Governor of West Virginia, Gaston Caperton) and the Decker's Creek Trail. Additionally, within city limits, is the 91-acre WVU Core Arboretum. Outdoor and fitness enthusiasts alike can enjoy this three-and-a-half mile trail that traverses through densely wooded areas as well as three acres of lawn planted with specimen trees. However, this wealth of easily accessible trails is not the only unique feature of Morgantown, especially for those who love the outdoors.

Chestnut Ridge Park, just 10 miles east of Morgantown, offers two hiking trails: the Great Gorge Trail and the Mile Trail. While at Chestnut, visitors can also take in the sights of Bruceton Mills Dam. Additionally, thrill seekers will find whitewater rafting on the nearby Little Sandy Creek.

Cooper's Rock State Forest, near Morgantown, offers nearly 50 miles of hiking trails for outdoor adventures. Ranging from easy leg-stretchers to daylong hikes certain to test the most experienced, hikers are sure to find the appropriate challenge level. Visitors to this park will want to include making their way out to the 1,200-foot scenic overlook as well as the famous Rock City where 30-foot boulders abound. In fact, these boulders promise climbers an abundance of top rope routes. During the winter months, numerous cross-country skiers enjoy skiing this park's trail system as well.

Also within close proximity of Morgantown is Cathedral State Park. Spanning 133 acres, this park is filled with ancient and majestic hemlocks. Numerous trees tower at 90 feet high and 21 feet in circumference and form cloisters within the park. Additionally, botanist enthusiasts can enjoy more than 170 species of vascular flora and more than 50 species of wildflowers.

Bird and animal lovers will want to take a daytrip to nearby Cranesville Swamp. Patience and binoculars may afford visitors glimpses of more than 100 bird species, including the saw-whet owl, the alder flycatcher, and the Blackburnian warbler. Additionally, lucky visitors may spot the rare northern water shrew or spy a bear rummaging through the shrub thickets surrounding Muddy Creek.

Naturally, one would expect a city that is home to West Virginia University to feature sports. In fact, The Sporting News voted Morgantown as one of the "Best Sporting Cities" in America. In addition to all the sports viewing the university teams afford visitors, Morgantown also offers ways to participate in your favorite sport. In fact, Morgantown boasts over a dozen community parks just within the city limits that are packed with basketball courts, tennis courts, athletic fields and typical playground equipment.

White Park, in particular, consists of 170 acres and includes an indoor ice arena. Families with young, energetic children may want to visit the Tugboat Depot located in Star City, while families with older kiddos may want to journey to Marilla State Park, which features both a skate board park and a BMX bike facility.

If golf is your go-to sport, then Morgantown has you covered. Featuring seven challenging and unique 18-hole golf courses, visitors can golf in Morgantown three seasons a year. Golf Traveler magazine chose Alpine Lake as one of the top 50 "scenic and friendly" golf destinations in the U.S., while Meadow Ponds Golf Course and Mountaineer Golf Course offer stunning mountain views. Meanwhile, Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa overlooks Cheat Lake.

Traveling with your dog to Morgantown? Then you will want to take your canine friend to Stanley's Spot Dog Park. Featuring fenced in areas for large and small dogs, this park can be found along Decker's Creek Trail.

Adventure seekers needing to "soak up" their fun will find plenty of water activities in the greater Morgantown area as well. Cheat River and Cheat Lake offer opportunities for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, jet skiing, motor boating and whitewater rafting. In fact, the Cheat River produces Class III, IV and V rapids. There are several white water rafting companies within the area for scheduling half and full day whitewater trips.

If you are not an outdoor enthusiast, the Morgantown area also offers plenty of historic sites as well as more than a dozen art galleries featuring traditional and contemporary paintings as well as photography, pottery, sculpture and textiles. Galleries reflect not only Appalachian traditions, but also world cultures. Morgantown also features numerous fairs and festivals that highlight art, jazz, bass, bikers, delicious food and drinks, just to name a few.

Despite the fact our family did not have much time to experience all that Morgantown has to offer visitors, we did get to visit the Wharf District, as our hotel was located in this area. Just off the Caperton Trail, what once was an old warehouse district has now been revitalized into a growing commercial and residential center. In fact, we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner in a quaint Italian spot called Oliverio's Ristorante on the Wharf. There are three other restaurants in the wharf area that looked equally charming. In fact, we ate breakfast the following morning in the Regatta Bar and Grille, located within our hotel, and, found numerous locals eating there as well.

Yes, I must confess that our family discovered that visiting Morgantown was not, in fact, crossing into enemy territory. Rather, we found each person we encountered to be friendly and gracious. The Monongahela River area in which we stayed was absolutely picturesque. My family and I wished we had more time to enjoy all the sights and sounds that surrounded us. We will most certainly now put Morgantown near the top of our list of places to visit again.

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and an eighth-grade reading and writing teacher at South Point Middle School. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net.