Years ago, singer John Denver serenaded the state of West Virginia: its misty mountains, green river valleys, and winding country roads. Things haven’t changed in the Mountain State. West Virginia is still a heavenly getaway of breathtaking views, outdoor adventure, and down-home comforts. Before long, you’ll be humming it, too: “Almost heaven, West Virginia!”If you asked for a hundred people’s favorite vacation moment in West Virginia, you would get a hundred different answers. They’ll all praise the breathtaking miles of green-carpeted Appalachian highland views. Some will animatedly describe an unforgettable white-water rafting trip. A few will sigh about that peaceful cabin retreat. But no two answers will be the same.
That’s because there’s something new to explore around every bend—and West Virginia has a lot of bends! Tucked in the folds of rippling mountain ridges and mist-cloaked highways are adventures to suit every taste.
So grab your binoculars and a comfortable pair of shoes and head for the Mountain State. Just inland of Virginia, it’s an easy drive for Easterners—and worth the trip for anyone else.
West Virginia is the only state entirely blanketed by the ridges and folds of the Appalachians, some of the oldest surface rock in the United States. There are literally millions of acres of highland peaks and plateaus. These mountains aren’t like the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. The rounded mossy ridges and narrow river valleys are the hunched and worn remnants of ancient giants.
What the Alleghenies, Blue Ridge, Cheat, and other West Virginia mountain ranges lack in altitude, they make up for in attitude. These hills are anything but tame. Bears roam their forests. Class V rapids tumble through wild ravines. Upheaved layers of rock dangle over hazy valleys.
All this wildness beckons millions of outdoor enthusiasts each year to places like the stunning Monongahela National Forest (just call it “the Mon” like the locals do). If West Virginia is an outdoor playground, the Mon is the biggest jungle gym on it. Even the government recognizes that: the Mon contains the first-ever designated National Recreation Area.
This area, the Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, comprises 100,000 acres of unspoiled natural splendor. The highest point in the state, Spruce Knob (4863 feet), offers spectacular views from a 360 degree observation tower. Seneca Rocks’ 900-foot sandstone tower challenges experienced climbers from around the world. The remaining 900,000 acres in the Mon offer plenty of sport: hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, horseback riding, and canoeing.
Why go anywhere but the Mon to play outside in West Virginia? Because top-notch sporting can be found at equally gorgeous, less-discovered destinations across the state.
You can also enjoy the gorgeous scenery without even breaking a sweat. National and state scenic byways twist through narrow valleys and tiptoe along razor-thin ridgetops. Leave yourself plenty of time to drive them; you’ll want to stop and enjoy the view several times along the way.
West Virginia is famous for its friendly locals and unique culture. Coal, steel, and logging industries of earlier days attracted immigrants that left lasting, diverse heritages. They all helped to forge a local culture and arts that are charming, unpretentious, and expertly crafted.
West Virginia Tells Its Story
Every state tells its own story in a particular way. West Virginia shares its colorful history with hands-on historical fun at attractions around the state. Relive military history at frontier forts and battle reenactments; enjoy re-created Appalachian communities; even get a little grubby learning about bygone industries.
At Fort Prickett, it’s easy to imagine the sweat and tension of colonial-era settlers defending the 1774 stronghold from Native Americans. You can peer into tiny buildings and stroll through the 100 by 100 foot enclosure where up to 80 families would have crowded. You might hear the report of 18th century-style firearms—built on-site while you watch—or rub freshly spun wool fibers between your fingers.
The Civil War Discovery Trail boasts 16 stops in West Virginia—which is fitting, since the state was born in the war’s aftermath. At the Droop Mountain Battlefield, you can see the original Confederate earthworks and—every other October (next in 2010)—a re-creation of the entire battle.
Industries like coal mining, logging, and steel working shaped earlier West Virginians with a rough hand. Today you can ride a coal car through a damp, dark mine shaft at the Beckley Exhibition Mine while a retired miner in a hard hat tells tales and demonstrates mining techniques. Or, you can stroll through a preserved section of Cass, an old company logging town, and hitch a ride from an old steam locomotive to a re-created logging camp in a spectacular mountaintop meadow.
If you visit West Virginia in the summer, you’ll miss the annual RoadKill Cook-off near Snowshoe Mountain (held in September). Maybe you’ll be a little relieved, unless your palate is adventurous enough to try squirrel gravy or teriyaki-marinated bear. But warm weather brings with it plenty of other cultural attractions worth experiencing.
The food of West Virginia is as comfortable, casual, and delightful as its people (squirrel gravy notwithstanding). Sample some of its tastiest foods at summer festivals like the Fire on the Mountain Chili Cook-off (also near Snowshoe), or Ice Mountain Day at North River Mills, where you can help gather ice from mountain fissures to make fresh homemade ice cream.
At most food festivals you’ll also be treated to toe-tapping bluegrass by musicians with dexterous fingers and light hearts. Appalachian or “mountain” music carries on fiddling traditions brought by Scots-Irish immigrants years ago. Dance along (or just listen) at the annual Appalachian String Band Music Festival, held each summer, or at smaller music festivals around the state.
Appalachian crafts at their best reflect West Virginia’s practical sense of beauty and ingenuity. Observe artisans at work in their own studios and shops around the state, like the Cabin Creek Quilts in Malden, the Blenko Glass factory in Milton, or Brown’s Creations in Clay in Morgantown. At some studios, you can even learn from the masters.
If you won’t be touring each little town, browse one of the shops that proudly sell West-Virginia-made creations. Tamarack in Beckley features artisan demonstrations and the gourmet A Taste of West Virginia eatery. MountainMade (with locations in Thomas and Roanoke) sells expertly tooled woodworking, textiles, pottery, and other beautiful crafts. After watching these artisans at work, you’ll want to take their handiwork home with you!
The Best Things in West Virginia
Though you could easily drop a lot of money in West Virginia at an exclusive resort, golf club, or outfitter, most adventures here are easy on the wallet. The best attraction, those gorgeous Appalachian highlands, is free to all comers. You’ll make plenty of lasting memories without spending much money. So if you haven’t already grabbed those binoculars, gear up. There’s a bend in the backcountry just waiting for you.