West Virginia is landlocked—but don’t tell the folks in the state’s biggest beach town.
Grab your good camera before you start up the 122 spiral steps of Steve Keblesh’s lighthouse. The observation deck at the top of this gleaming white tower provides some Instagram-worthy vistas all year long. But in the summertime, you’ll want a zoom lens to get the full picture.
Focus in on the water. Notice the families hanging out on big houseboats, pontoon boats, speed boats, and just about any other kind of craft you can imagine. There might be jet skis or kayaks or those new stand-up paddleboards. Zoom in more. Along the shores you’ll see swimmers practicing their strokes, sunbathers warming themselves like lizards on the rocks, anglers drowning some worms, and goggled scuba divers bobbing among their red-and-white signal flags.
You’re not at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, or the banks of the Great Lakes—although you’d be forgiven for the mistake. No, the setting for this summertime scene is Summersville Lake, landlocked West Virginia’s largest, deepest body of water and one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Each year, somewhere around 1 million people flock to the lake to boat, camp, swim, fish, climb, dive, or just kick back.
The lake is such a popular part of life in the New River Gorge, it’s amazing to think that, not even a lifetime ago, the whole thing was just a deep valley with a river running through it.
Float Your Boat
The U.S. Congress approved the Summersville Dam project with the Flood Control Act of 1936, part of a raft of legislation meant to revive the nation’s economy during the depths of the Great Depression. It would be nearly two decades before construction began, however—the government first had to acquire all the necessary property for the project, including the entire communities of Gad and Sparks.
Construction started in 1960 and lasted for six years, culminating in a high-profile ribbon cutting in 1966 featuring then-President and First Lady Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson. The boaters showed up not long afterward, motoring around the lake’s 2,800 acres and dropping anchor in its tree-shaded coves. The place got even more popular as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened campgrounds and a beach along the shores.
Today, the Summersville Lake Marina is run by brothers Mark and Eric Allen. Slip spaces are a coveted commodity here, with a long waiting list for spots. But anyone can back their boat into the water using one of the marina’s easy-to-access ramps. The marina also has several watercraft available for rent, including paddleboards, kayaks, and pontoon boats.
The Allen brothers also run Sarge’s Dive Shop, located at the marina, where generations of adventurers have been introduced to a different side of Summersville Lake—the underwater side. “Summersville lake is the cleanest, clearest lake east of the Mississippi River,” Mark Allen says. That’s why a diving magazine long ago dubbed Summersville “the Little Bahamas of the East.”
The rocky shoreline keeps the water clear, since waves don’t kick up mud or sand. On good days, divers can see anywhere from 18 to 25 feet. On really good days that visibility can go up to 40 feet. Mark has even seen as far as 80 feet.
The lake is the perfect place for divers of all skill levels, with different areas suited to shallow and deep dives. And there’s plenty to see down there. The rock cliffs that jut above the lake continue below the water’s surface, some to depths of 100 feet. There are rock structures bigger than houses, giant boulders, and swim-throughs.
The Allens, who took over Sarge’s in 1990 from the original owner, have by now dived every inch of the lake. They know all the best spots and, if you book a trip on their new custom-built dive boat, they’ll be happy to share that knowledge. The boat will be used for non-divers this season, too. Sarge’s is kicking off a series of two-hour evening cruises with catered meals. Guests will be able to “just sit back, see the scenery, take pictures, and eat some really good food,” Mark says. “I think it will be a big hit.” 1706 Airport Road, Summersville, 304.872.1782
Set Up Camp
The Mountain Lake Campground—located on the property next door to the marina—is also a family operation. The campground has been around since the early 1970s, but Susan James’s family took over 12 years ago from the previous operators.
Now Susan, her husband Shawn, and their two children work hard to make the place feel like home. “We take pride in what we do. My family lives here and we want you to be part of our family,” she says.
The campground features 250 campsites, primitive sites as well as spots with hookups for motorhomes and campers. Guests can also choose from four two-bedroom cabins, five “cozy cabins” that sleep six each, or one of the three yurts on the property. “I wanted something that not everybody has,” James says. The circular huts feature hardwood floors, two queen beds with twin bunks, a television, a bathroom, and an efficiency kitchen. Outside, each yurt has a grill, a fire pit, and a wooded view of the lake.
But the campground isn’t just a place to sleep. There’s a campers-only private beach, plus playgrounds, basketball courts, and a jumping pillow. “It’s like a big trampoline in the ground,” Susan says. “Adults love it as well as the kids.” And, new for 2017, Mountain Lakes Campground will soon unveil its revamped miniature golf course.
Mountain Lakes also holds special events throughout the year. Water Wars Weekend kicks off on June 23, offering a variety of aquatic activities for the little water dogs in your family. One highlight: campground staffers pull kids around in wagons while they throw balloons and shoot water guns at their parents. “Anything you don’t want your kids to do at home, we let them do it here,” James says. For more information about special events, visit the campground’s website. 1898 Airport Road, Summersville, 877.686.6222
Fill Your Belly
There’s nothing quite like a day on the water to stir up the appetite, and Summersville has plenty of dining options no matter what you’re craving. One of the newest restaurants in town is Craft Kings, located just south of Summersville in Mt. Nebo. Owner Clint Jones has a fierce commitment to supporting local suppliers. That extends from the fresh meats and vegetables on his plates to the draft beer menu. “I’ll never have anything on my six taps that isn’t made in West Virginia,” he says. The menu is a mix of delectable salads and sandwiches, along with dinner entrees of steak, chicken, and seafood. 26 Bounds Lane, Mt. Nebo, 304.872.9782, “Craft Kings” on Facebook
Drive up a winding road in one of Summersville’s residential areas, and you’ll come upon a white stucco building with a blue roof. Although the outside looks more like a Greek villa than a restaurant, the appropriately named Cafe Acropolis serves up Greek specialties including moussaka, souvlaki, gyros, and tzatziki, along with Italian favorites like lasagna, manicotti, and pizza. It might be difficult, but try to save room for a piece of baklava. 331 McMillion Drive, Summersville, 304.872.0254, “Cafe Acropolis” on Facebook
Fran’s Family Restaurant & Coffee House is a cozy local favorite for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Start the day with a hot cup of coffee and some pancakes, waffles, or a breakfast sandwich on made-from-scratch biscuits. Fran’s, located in downtown Summersville, also has a full menu of soups, sandwiches, and salads, dinner entrees, and daily dinner specials. 607 North Main Street, Summersville, 304.872.6184, “Fran’s Family Restaurant” on Facebook
Any visit to Summersville would not be complete without a stop at Fat Eddie’s. This roadside joint, located just up the road from the dam, is the place to stop for hot dogs, cheeseburgers, or any other fast-food favorite. But Eddie’s is just as famous for its dessert menu of ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, and “storms,” a cup filled with crushed-up candy and soft serve that bears a striking resemblance to another meteorologically inspired ice cream treat. 2243 Summersville Lake Rd, Mt. Nebo, 304.872.0788, “Fat Eddie’s” on Facebook
Light on a Hill
Now, about that lighthouse.
“It started as a joke,” says Keblesh. “But it grew legs and took on a life of its own.” He opened the Summersville Lake Retreat in 2000, building the property from a few primitive camping sites to a facility that now includes motorhome hookups, cabins, a playground for kids, boat rentals, and a gift shop. But there was a problem, early on.
“For the first dozen years we were open, people didn’t know we were here,” Keblesh says. He’d decided to make some extra money off a large field near the campground’s entrance by allowing people to store their campers and boats. “What I didn’t anticipate, it effectively camouflaged our campground.” People drove past, not realizing what sat behind all those dry-docked boats and campers.
The lighthouse changed all that. Years ago, an engineer from Canada came to stay at the campground while he worked on a wind farm in Greenbrier County. Keblesh joked that, if the engineer could score any leftover parts, he’d be happy to disguise them as a lighthouse. As it turns out, a few weeks later, the top section of a windmill was damaged just enough to make it unusable.
Keblesh bought the slightly-damaged section and spent the next several years working with technical schools in Nicholas and Fayette counties to design and build the spiral staircase inside and the octagonal gazebo that sits on top. The work was finally completed in October 2012, but Keblesh held a dedication ceremony the following June to commemorate West Virginia’s sesquicentennial.
It is now the state’s only functioning lighthouse, the only West Virginia entry listed in the University of North Carolina’s extensive Lighthouse Directory. Although it’s not really used for maritime navigation, the beacon is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and used as a landmark for passing aircraft. And it draws crowds that, in years past, might’ve driven past without a second thought.
Summersville Lake Retreat stays busy all summer long, but the campground is open the rest of the year, too. In the fall, snowbirds from as far away as Canada stop by on their way south. They stop again when they’re headed north in the spring. “It’s neat. We feel like the stagecoach operator when these cowboys come to town. We water their horses and we listen to their stories,” Keblesh says. 278 Summersville Lake Road, Mt. Nebo, 304.872.5975, summersvillelakeretreat.com
Photographed by Nikki Bowman