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Rappelling at North Bend State Park
A Unique Way of Viewing the Rocks of Ritchie County, WV

By Rochelle Caviness - May 31, 2017

Let's face it, the surface rocks in Ritchie County, West Virginia, are unlikely to make an avid rockhound drool. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), most of the surface rocks in the county consist of sandstone and siltstone that were not laid down due to marine sequences. Consequently, you will not find the abundance of marine fossils that you find in much of the sandstone located the eastern part of the state. However, while they might be hard to find, there are fossils to be found in Ritchie County. For example, a footprint of a Dimetrodon was found near Berea, along the South Fork Hughes River. (Dimetrodons were pelycosaurian reptiles that are considered to have been pre-dinosaurs or as some might put-it, they were non-dinosaur dinosaurs.)

The rocks in the Ritchie county belong primarily to the MonongahelaGroup, and in addition to sandstone and siltstone, you'll also find some outcroppings of limestone, coal, and shale. You'll also find small amounts of surface rocks belonging to other geologicunits such as the AlleghenyFormation, DunkardGroup, and PottsvilleGroup, but as with the Monongahela Groups, these units consist primarily of sandstone, limestone, and coal. So unless you can get access to a mine, or find a handy cave to explore, your rock hunting adventures in Ritchie County will most likely be limited to simply looking at sandstone. But then again, you never know when you might stumble upon something exiting - which is, after all, most of the fun in rock hunting.

However, what Ritchie County does have, is a unique way of viewing these surface rocks. At the North Bend State Park, near Cairo, West Virginia, and located along the North Fork Hughes River, you can take a rappelling course that lets you rappel down several different rock faces. This course lets you look at these rocks, up close and personal, while dangling over a 40-60 foot mini-cliff. I recently took a half-day, introduction to rappelling course at the Park. Not only did I have a fantastic time learning something new, but I also discovered an invigorating way to examine some of the sandstone rock faces that dot the park.

This introductory rappelling course is offered by the North Bend Climbing Guides. The primary instructor for the course is John Starkweather, who I found to be a patient and diligent instructor. No prior experience is required and the North Bend Climbing Guides provide all the necessary equipment and safety gear. Most important, John shows you everything you need to know to have a safe and fun day rappelling down the sandstone rock faces that are a prominent feature at the North Bend State Park. The drops are between about 40 and 60 feet, so be prepared to do a little bit of hiking as you need to hike up to the top of the rocks before you can rappel down them! Rappelling trips can be organized for half a day, or for a full day, and can be tailored to your level of experience, or lack thereof. (If you have any questions about your ability to do the trip or what rappelling entails, just contact John. I found him very willing to answer questions and to give you a feel for what the course is like before deciding if it is right for you.) In addition, if you don't want to rappel down the rocks, John also offers courses where you climb up the face of the rocks! You can learn more about these various courses, and see some awesome photos of people climbing and rappelling up and down these rock faces, at both the North Bend Climbing Guides's website and on their Facebook page.

While the rappelling was a great thrill, the best part for a rockhound is the opportunity to get your eyeballs on some rocks that you might not otherwise get a chance to view without the aid of a pair of binoculars. Best of all, especially for a novice, rappelling at North Bend is a great way to learn the fundamentals of rappelling before tackling much bigger drops, and to start getting a feel for how to stop yourself so that you can pause to examine any particular rock that happens to catch your fancy, and perhaps do a little collecting on your way down.

The rappelling course offered by the North Bend Climbing Guides, starts you out on a forty-foot drop, and then when you get comfortable doing this drop, you move on to more challenging drops that are in the sixty-foot range. The two pictures on this page where take by John Starkweather, and they feature two of the sixty-foot mini-cliffs that you will find in the North Bend State Park.

A quick word about the North Bend State Park - this park is an ideal staging ground for rock hunting expeditions to Ritchie County. The North Bend Rail Trail intersects the park, and there are several hiking and biking trails in the area. In addition, the North Fork Hughes River runs along three sides of the park's boundaries, so you might be able to find some rocks that were transported in from areas farther afield. The park has a lodge (with a dining room), several cabins, and various camping options, so you will be able to find accommodations to suit your mood. There are also some hotels not too far from the park, but from what I can tell, they are a bit on the pricey side. The park also has a pool, and in 2003 a dam was built on the river, forming a lake within the park boundaries, which covers more than 300 acres - so there are also boating and fishing opportunities if you get tired of rock hunting...

Related Reviews:

Fossils of West Virginia, by Dr. Hassan Amjad
A two-volume set that details the fossil history of West Virginia. Enhanced by more than 1,000 illustrations, this set provides a visual record of the fossils most commonly found throughout the state. In addition, it provides a concise overview of the geological and fossil history of West Virginia, and related topics.

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