One word to describe West Virginia’s terrain? Untamed. Anchored by the Appalachians, the Mountain State holds a thrilling trove of wild rivers, deep gorges and thick forests perfectly suited for action-packed adventures, with whitewater rafting and rock climbing at the top of the list.
A good place to start? New River Gorge National Park and Preserve – the newest national park in the country. Inviting small towns dot the mountain foothills, and historic sites spotlight the state's contributions to America's story, from coal production to Cold War secrets to one very famous family feud. Here are some of our favorite adventures in West Virginia.
Celebrate the Bridge
The most iconic landmark in the state, the graceful New River Gorge Bridge is the third highest bridge in the United States and, at 3030ft, one of the longest single-span arch bridges in the world. The 876ft-high span closes to vehicles on the third Saturday in October for Bridge Day, when hundreds of BASE jumpers parachute from its ledge and pedestrians are allowed to stroll from one end of the gorge to the other. The rest of the year, brave travelers can join a Bridgewalk tour, which offers dizzying views of the river from the catwalk beneath the span.
Tour a secret bunker at the Greenbrier
During the height of the Cold War, the US government carved a secret bunker into a mountain behind the posh Greenbrier resort, in White Sulphur Springs – in the event of a nuclear attack, it would've been a fallout shelter for members of Congress. Kept secret for more than 30 years, the bunker is now open for tours. After you explore the vast complex, walk over to Draper’s for a fried green tomato sandwich and some exuberant decor.
Ride a “man car” into a coal mine
The coal-mining industry fueled, quite literally, America’s emergence as a world power, and in the early 1900s, southern West Virginia was an epicenter of coal production. Today veteran miners lead tours deep into a former mine at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine; visitors board a passenger tram – known as a man car – for the family-friendly trip. The Mine Wars Museum in Matewan focuses on the violent confrontations between miners, mining companies and the US government in the early 1920s, while the Coal Heritage Trail, a national scenic byway, swings through 13 counties.
Tip: Many small museums and outdoor guiding companies are only open seasonally, typically April through October, so check their status before visiting.
Pick a side in Hatfield and McCoy country
The most famous family feud in America developed along the banks of the Tug River, in the mountainous terrain of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. It’s a complicated saga, including a post–Civil War land dispute, a stolen pig, an illicit love affair and lots of murders. Museums and visitor centers in the towns of Matewan and Williamson dig into the details, and there's a driving-tour map to key sites. A 1000-mile all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trail system, known collectively as the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, crosses multiple counties and stops by feud-related sites; ATV rentals are available across the region.
Get to know New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
The epicenter of America’s newest national park? Fifty-three wild miles of the New River. This powerhouse of a river – one of the world's oldest – flows down a forested gorge, carving a deep path through the Appalachian Mountains. Whitewater rafters bounce down its rapids while rock climbers tackle 1400-plus routes on the sandstone cliffs that soar above its waters. Waterfalls, wildflowers and views of the New River Gorge Bridge are highlights for hikers, while four riding loops bring mountain bikers to the Arrowhead Trails. Whispers of history drift through the park’s abandoned mining towns, and through sites on its African American Heritage Auto Tour.
Eat fantastic food in Fayetteville
Compact Fayetteville is a convivial basecamp for hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers and rock climbers who are ready to tackle – or recover from – adventures in New River Gorge National Park. It’s also bursting at its polar fleece seams with good restaurants. Sandwiches are slathered in deliciousness at Secret Sandwich Society, while Pies & Pints slings pizzas loaded with crowd-pleasing toppings like Gouda cheese, sriracha shrimp and marinated grilled steak, alongside an extensive selection of craft beer. Coffee and homemade desserts are served under stained-glass windows at Cathedral Cafe, tucked inside a small former church.
Defy gravity at the Mystery Hole
When it comes to kitschy attractions, the Mystery Hole ranks with the kitschiest. Tucked in the basement of a cabin festooned with flags and multicolor wackiness (you’ll know it when you see it), the exhibits here appear to defy gravity – but in a charmingly kooky way. Ten miles northwest of Fayetteville on mountainous US 60, this is roadside America at its finest.
Try rock climbing to hit new heights
The jagged peaks of Seneca Rocks rise 900ft above the North Fork River, striking a now-iconic silhouette. Rock climbers have scaled its sheer sandstone flanks since the mid-1930s. Climbing newbie? Join a class at one of the nearby climbing schools. For hikers, a 1.5-mile trail climbs to an observation platform near the top of the formation. Twelve miles south at family-friendly NROCKS Outdoor Adventures, guides lead fixed-anchor via ferrata climbs up and across a double-fin rock formation. Climbers, who are harnessed to the rock, cling to a trail of steel steps. Be warned – a 150ft-high suspension bridge also awaits!
Devour a pepperoni roll
Baskets of pepperoni rolls – soft bread rolls stuffed with cured meat – are ubiquitous in gas station mini-marts across the Mountain State. According to lore, a 1920s-era Italian miner-turned-baker wanted to create an easy-to-hold meal for miners. After some experimentation, he developed the pepperoni roll, which could be eaten with one hand and stayed edible all day. Selling pepperoni rolls since 1927, Country Club Bakery is the birthplace of this West Virginia delicacy.
Experience whitewater thrills on the Upper Gauley River
Stepping into your raft at the base of the 390ft-high Summersville Dam on a dam-release day is an act of sheer courage. On six fall weekends, water from Summersville Lake roars from the dam through several enormous tunnels, creating wild whitewater on the Upper Gauley River. These Class III to V+ rapids plunge you down roiling chutes for a thrilling ten-mile run, one of the most challenging – and fun – whitewater adventures in the US. Rafting trips on the Lower Gauley and the nearby New River are well-suited for nature lovers and adventurous families. Adventures on the Gorge and other rafting outfitters cluster near Fayetteville.
Step back in time at Harpers Ferry National Park
Time travel is a reality in the lower town of Harpers Ferry, where red-brick buildings and cobblestone streets evoke the hamlet's 19th-century heyday as a hub for trade, industry and transportation. Most notably, it was the site of abolitionist John Brown’s unsuccessful attempt to spark a slave uprising in 1859, and today much of the downtown is an open-air museum run by the national park service. Hugged by the leafy Shenandoah Mountains at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry is also a photogenic launchpad for hiking the Appalachian Trail and biking the C&O Canal towpath.
Hike for miles at Dolly Sods Wilderness
Sprawled across the summit of the high-elevation Allegheny Plateau, the northern reaches of Dolly Sods Wilderness set a stark but striking scene. Red spruce trees pop against the blue skyline, which surrounds a windswept plain dotted with boulders, upland bogs, and grassy balds – alpine terrain that mirrors the landscape of northern Canada. Forty-seven miles of trails crisscross its 17,371 acres, making Dolly Sods a prime spot for day-long or weekend adventures. Build your own loop hike from the Beaver Dam or Bear Rocks trailheads.
Hunt for ghosts at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Easily spooked? Then avoid the evening paranormal tour at this former hospital for the mentally ill, which was in operation from 1864 until 1994. A Gothic-style building constructed of hand-cut sandstone, it stretches nearly a quarter-mile on the outskirts of tiny Weston. Despite the insensitive name of the place (it was later renamed Weston State Hospital), its history tours thoughtfully discuss the inhumane practices that regularly occurred at mental hospitals in the past.
Explore music and mountain culture in Charleston
Settle in for a night of toe-tapping live music from up-and-coming national musicians – folk, blues, indie and world rock – during the two-hour Mountain Stage show produced by NPR. Broadcast on select Sunday nights, shows are often held at Charleston's State Capitol Complex, at the Culture Center Theater at the West Virginia State Museum. Exhibits in this top-notch museum spotlight key events and characters in the Mountain State.
Enjoy big views at state parks
Short trails lead to big views at state parks across West Virginia. At Blackwater Falls State Park in Davis, the 57ft-high falls tumble into an 8-mile gorge hugged by hickory, hemlock and red spruce trees. Perched on a high-elevation ledge, the overlook at Hawks Nest State Park takes in the New River and the mountain slopes that hug it – an especially pretty scene in fall when leaves are ablaze in color. Protected by a wood-and-stone fence, the rocky viewpoint at Coopers Rock State Forest is almost as photogenic as the forested Cheat River Valley far below. The best part? Admission to all state parks is free.
Shop and dine in charming small towns
The best small towns in West Virginia share several traits: top-notch restaurants, historic inns, intriguing ties to the past and walkable Main Streets lined with locally owned shops. Just west of Greenbrier resort, Lewisburg’s historic downtown dates from the 1700s. Visit Carnegie Hall, sample local granola in Bella the Corner Gourmet, then try the Trust Me salad at the Stardust Cafe.
The oldest town in West Virginia, Shepherdstown is a short drive from Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland. Savor New American fare within the upscale confines of Press Room – a romantic spot for date night. George Washington himself once soaked in the hot springs in Berkeley Springs, officially known as Bath.
Have fun year-round at Snowshoe Mountain Resort
The one outdoor sport you can’t do at Snowshoe? Surprisingly enough, it’s snowshoeing! This mountain-top resort, which sits at 4848ft, is named for the all-white snowshoe hare. But no worries, the resort serves up a host of alternative winter adventures, including snowboarding, snowmobiling, snow-tubing, sleigh riding and skiing, which is offered on more than 60 trails. In summer, mountain bikers hurtle down Snowshoe Bike Park, which has nearly 40 trails; the largest bike park in the region, it regularly hosts the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
Catch live music at the Purple Fiddle
An oasis of fun in the far northern reaches of the Monongahela National Forest, the Purple Fiddle is a small music venue with a big heart and a bigger reputation. Anchoring the tiny town of Thomas and its sidekick Davis, this former country store now shines as an artsy music hall. With nightly live shows, the Fiddle welcomes road-trippers from up and down the east coast for its eclectic, mostly acoustic performances – look for nationally known bands playing old-time music, rock and roll, reggae, Cajun and funk. It serves beer and great sandwiches too.
Stroll the Cranberry Glades Boardwalk Trail
The four peat bogs at the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area are remote, eerie and unlike any landscape you’d expect to see in West Virginia. More typical of Canada, the acidic wetlands here are a remnant of the Ice Age – a spongy carpet of decaying plant material, where orchids and carnivorous plants have managed to stake a claim. A half-mile boardwalk cuts a meandering path through two of the fragile bogs, which are located an hour north of Lewisburg.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during COVID-19.
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