We are picnicking in an alpine meadow next to an old cemetery with an iron fence around it. There is the sweet smell of wild-flowers mixed with hay, and then something more earthy -- one of us has stepped in a cow flop. Ah, well, West Virginia is only support to be almost heaven.

A weekend in the Potomac Highlands section of West Virginia -- the area around Canaan Valley -- also lives up to the state's other travel: wild and wonderful. Bent on experiencing it to the fullest, we hike down from the mountain meadow through uncharted terrain in search of a lake one of us remembers seeing on a topographic map.

What didn't show on the map were the acres of leg-scratching nettles we must tromp through, often carrying the youngest of the five children in the party. Hot and tired, we look forward to a cooling dip in a pristine mountain lake -- which turns out to be a swamp beaver pond.

Still hoping for a swim, we hike toward the gurgling sound of a running river. Changing behind some bushes, we wade into the crystalline river, and even find some waist-deep pools. Refreshed enough to brave the nettles, we retrace our steps. But halfway around the beaver pond, we stop dead in our tracks, frozen by an unmistakable rattling sound. The grass beside the pond sways, as the snake slithers away. We've barely recovered from that when we almost stumble across another eastern diamond-back, curled up on the path, asleep in the sun.

"There are a lot of them around," two snake-hunters, equipped with long snake sticks and canvas bags, tell us when we reach the top of the hill. "What do we do with them? Eat them, and some people make belts and things out of the skin."

Only about four hours and 180 miles from Washington, the Potomac Highlands, much of it over 3,000 feet high, is a land of rattle-snake hunters, running rivers, country churches, rolling farmland and dark green forests. It's tempting to spend the whole weekend roaming through waist-deep wild-flowers or sunning yourself on a rock in the middle of a stream, but it may be difficult to resist the urge for more organized exploring.

On the "must-see" list, for example, is Dolly Sods, a primitive wilderness area of swamps, eerie rock formations and wind-swept vegetation. The area was named for the long-gone settlers, a German family named Dohle. You can drive through part of it to a lookout high on a mountain ridge, but we thought it would be more fun to canoe up the Blackwater River as far as possible and then hike through the Sods area.

"There just isn't enough water," said the woman behind the counter at Trans-Montane Outfitters in Davis, where we planned to rent canoes. "Maybe if we get some rain today . . . "

We did, and it came at the perfect time, as we picnicked under an umbrella of giant hemlocks in Cathedral Park, West Virginia's only remaining virgin forest. Sheltered by the trees, we hiked along paths and over log bridges to find the star attraction of the park -- a hemlock that measures 26 feet around. f

After the rain the countryside was even greener and more sparkling than before, but there still wasn't enough water in the rivers for canoeing. Instead, we indulged in another popular West Virginia activity: farm-shopping.

"The house is solid -- it just needs sprucing up," said a would-be-seller, leading us past the farmhouse through the spring house, the barns filled with goats and pigs to the top of the hill to survey the 40-acre property. Another property had about 200 acres, with a roaring river lined with sheep pastures. It also held three houses but even the realtor said that none were habitable.

While you're waiting for your dream farm to come on the marker, there are some highly livable places to stay. Dry Fork Farm, where we stayed, sleeps 12 and has a stream to wade in. It rents for $275 a week or $200 for a three-day weekend, but the prices go up during ski season. Mirror Lake Resort in Canaan Valley features A-frame chalets around a small lake. They rent for $200 a week or $140 for a weekend, until ski season. Both are available through Canaan Realty 304/866-4216.

Blackwater Falls State Park, a 1600-acre wilderness laced with trails, canyons and cascades, contains a state-run lodge and restaurant as well as cabins and campsites. Call 304/259-5216.

Nearby Canaan Valley State Park, which features both snow and grass skiing, has similar facilities. Call 800/624-8632.

For accommodations with adventure included, Trans-Montane Outfitters arrange backpacking trips on foot or cross-country skis through the back country. A two-day trip costs $66 per person including guide, four meals and all equipment except sleeping bag and hiking boots. Discounts are available for groups and families. They also rent canoes and skis and conduct one-day rafting, canoeing and backpacking expeditions. Call 304/259-5117.