Legend has it that Canaan Valley gets its name from an early fur trader who arrived in the valley in the 1700s and declared “Behold, the land of Canaan”, comparing the area to the biblical promised land. Many early visitors had the opposite opinion, however, in 1853, Harper’s Monthly Magazine described the area as “filled with bears, panthers, impassible laurel brakes and dangerous precipices”.
Despite the foreboding descriptions of its wildness, the timber industry took off in the valley in the 1800s. The town of Davis served as the hub for the timber industry, with sawmills, pulp mills and tanneries. By 1917 railroad tracks linked Canaan Valley to the outside world, but before that logs had to be hauled by horses or floated on the Blackwater River to reach the rail line at Davis. Between 1887 and 1924 over a billion board feet of wood was processed in Davis, and much of that came from Canaan Valley.
Forest fires followed the timber boom and caused more damage to the valley, but by the 1930s the worst was over and the land began recovering. In 1957, Maude Kemmering, a descendant of one of the major timber families in the area, donated 3,135 acres to the state of West Virginia. That donation got the park started, although the state would continue to acquire land for years afterward, until the park reached its current size of 6,014 acres. The ski area opened in 1971 and the lodge was completed in 1977.
Canaan Valley is one of just two West Virginia state parks that use a public-private partnership to operate facilities – the lodge is run by a private operator, but other services are provided by park staff. Recreation options continue to expand, and in 2016, the park became home to the first certified paragliding launch site in West Virginia. In 2015, Canaan Valley State Park had an economic significance of $14,031,995.