One of the USA’s most epic scenic drives swoops across the rugged heart of West Virginia on the Midland Trail National Scenic Byway, also known as Route 60. This roller coaster of a route hugs rivers, climbs mountains and winds past great eats, big views, cool shops and one gravity-defying roadside attraction. A blaze of color is the backdrop in fall.

Kick off this trip in West Virginia’s capital city, Charleston, then roll east to the New River Gorge Bridge and Fayetteville before cruising to the picturesque small communities of Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs.

new river gorge bridge autumn west virginia
At 3030 feet long and 876 feet high, the New River Gorge Bridge is a centerpiece of this West Virginia road trip © William Sherman / Getty Images

Charleston (Mile 56)

While striking, the gold-leafed dome of the West Virginia state capitol seems unnecessary. Who needs gold when you’re nestled below the gorgeous Appalachians and flanked by the scenic Kanawha River? Still, this neo-classical building is an inspiring (and easy to spot) place to start your trip. Next door, exhibits at the West Virginia Culture Center & State Museum spotlight the state’s history and traditions. Most Sunday nights, the museum hosts the popular Mountain Stage, a live NPR radio broadcast showcasing a range of up-and-coming national talent (7pm).

It’s a short drive from the capitol to perennially popular Black Sheep Burrito & Brews, where a Flock of Tacos is the dish to order. Stone-hearth pizzas and craft beer keep the patio festive at Pies & Pints around the block. Grab a bestseller or a regional history book next door at Taylor Books, an exposed-brick gathering spot that’s home to a coffee shop and an art gallery. Settle in for live music on weekends.

Hop in the car for a quick trip to Capitol Market, which may be the liveliest spot downtown. Shelves groan under regional jams and jellies, Holl’s Swiss Chocolates and local produce. Just north of the Elk River, pop into Kin Ship Goods, a hip purveyor of quirky and regionally inspired apparel. We’re looking at you ‘Ten-Four Good Buddy’ t-shirt. A few steps away at the intersection of W Washington St and Tennessee Ave, artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton’s kaleidoscopic West Side Wonder mural celebrates Charleston’s locals.

whimsical colorful mural in Charleston West Virginia
Charleston's West Side Wonder mural is a celebration of the town's spirit © Amy Balfour / Lonely Planet

For a leg-stretching hike, cross the Kanawha River on the South Side Bridge, then turn right into the parking area for the woodsy Sunrise Carriage Trail, a 0.65-mile pedestrian trail that switchbacks to the former hilltop estate of governor William MacCorkle.

Once you’ve enjoyed what Charleston has to offer, follow Route 60 east as it tracks the Kanawha River to . . .

Malden (Mile 64)

This riverside community was once known as Kanawha Salines, named for the briny waters of an ancient underground sea that bubbled to the surface in the Kanawha Valley. In the 1800s, Kanawha County was the largest salt producer in the United States, producing more than 3 million bushels per year. Educator and orator Booker T Washington worked at the salt furnaces as a child soon after the Civil War, and a roadside marker notes his time in the town.

To experience the modern salt industry, pull into JQ Dickinson Salt-Works. Brother-and-sister team Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, who are seventh-generation salt producers, re-opened the family salt works here in 2013. (It had closed in 1945 after mass salt production moved elsewhere.) Today, their small-batch, artisan salt is a favorite of gourmet chefs nationwide. Free tours Tuesday through Saturday.

Exiting Malden, you’ll travel through a series of industrial river towns. The railroad tracks, locks and dams, and chemical and manufacturing plants along this 30-mile stretch are vivid reminders of the commercial impact of the river. You’ll want to make your next stop at . . .

old kanawha post office
The old Kanawha Post Office still stands © Amy Balfour / Lonely Planet

Kanawha Falls (Mile 93)

Scenic falls tumble over a sandstone shelf that stretches across the river in Glen Ferris. Fishermen take note: fish are abundant, we hear, and species include muskie, walleye and bass. Once you’ve taken your photo, motor two miles down to . . .

Gauley Bridge (Mile 95)

The tiny town of Gauley Bridge sits at the confluence of the New and Gauley Rivers, which join to form the Kanawha River. Pull over to see the original piers of a wooden bridge that was burned here during the Civil War.

Over the next few miles, look left for cliffside waterfalls, then hold tight for a twisty climb up Gauley Mountain. Stop for local crafts and old-time candy at the Chimney Corner Country Store at the junction of Route 60 and Hwy 16 before you reach . . .

sign for mystery hole in west virginia
What is the Mystery Hole? You'll have to stop and find out. © Amy Balfour / Lonely Planet

Mystery Hole (Mile 100)

Well, of course you’re stopping at the Mystery Hole. Offbeat attractions are what road-tripping is all about. We’d tell you more about what goes on inside, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s just say gravity acts mighty weird during the 15-minute tour. Hours vary seasonally.

If your equilibrium is off after your Mystery Hole visit, never fear: The next stop will help you recalibrate . . .

scenic overlook onto the New River Gorge
The Cliffside Trail leads to this astonishing view of the New River © William Sherman / Getty Images

Hawks Nest State Park (Mile 102)

Don’t miss the Cliffside Trail at this stunning state park. The lofty scenic overlook here packs a visual punch: a panoramic view of Hawks Nest Lake, a dammed section of the New River flanked by forested slopes. Route 60 and the Cliffside Trail both lead to the park’s lodge and aerial tram, which are fun spots to explore before you move on to . . .

New River Gorge Bridge & Fayetteville (Mile 110)

At US 19, detour south to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, part of the federally run New River Gorge National River. A trail behind the visitor center leads to a tree-framed view of the 876ft-high New River Gorge Bridge, the third highest steel span bridge in the world. During the Bridge Day Festival on the third Saturday in October, BASE-jumpers are allowed to leap from the bridge.

A BASE-jumper leaps from the New River Gorge Bridge on Bridge Day in 2016 © neiu20001 / Getty Images
A BASE-jumper leaps from the New River Gorge Bridge on Bridge Day in 2016 © neiu20001 / Getty Images

The New River and nearby Gauley are known for high-octane whitewater rafting. Trips during the Gauley’s fall dam releases in September and October are particularly wild. Check with Adventures on the Gorge or Ace for raft trips and lodging.

Nearby Fayetteville may be the perfect mountain town. Buy last-minute outdoor gear at Water Stone Outdoors, then savor a turkey sandwich slathered with peach jam, blue cheese and fried onions at Secret Sandwich Society. For coffee, hit the ivy-covered Cathedral Café, a former church. Views of the gorge and the bridge are your reward after hiking the Long Point Trail (3.2 miles round-trip). The trailhead is two miles south of the café, just off Route 9.  

Good thing you’ve stretched those legs because your next stop is 50 miles away, across mountains, forest and farmland  . . .

Lewisburg (Mile 162)

Flower baskets and American flags line Washington Street in downtown Lewisburg, an easy-to-stroll neighborhood packed tight with indie shops and welcoming restaurants. The granola is the bomb at Bella the Corner Gourmet, where you’ll also find housewares, cheese, wine and easy Southern hospitality. Sprawling Patina sells an eye-catching mix of local crafts, bath and body products and vintage décor. We like those antique skis!

If you crave caffeine and pastries, try scruffy-but-inviting Wild Bean. For heartier fare, walk over to the Stardust Café, a sandwich shop by day that gets a little fancy at night, and dive into the Trust Me Salad – greens with avocado, granola and goat cheese, topped with a chicken breast. Later in the evening, the gin goes down easy at Smooth Ambler Spirits, a small-batch distillery north of town.

trust me salad stardust cafe west virginia
The Trust Me Salad at the Stardust Cafe manages to be both healthy and hearty © Amy Balfour / Lonely Planet

For a hike or a bike ride, hop onto the 78-mile Greenbrier River Trail.

Back behind the wheel, stately homes, rippling creeks and thick forests form the backdrop for the last 10 miles of your trip, as you roll into . . .

White Sulphur Springs (Mile 172)

Fans of the movie Hidden Figures may remember White Sulphur Springs as the childhood home of Katherine Johnson, the hard-working human ‘computer’ at NASA during the Space Race.

The city is also known for its mineral springs, which have attracted travelers since the 1770s. The striking Greenbrier Resort, which anchors the community, has impressed presidents and celebrities since the 1830s. The splashy interior is worth a stroll, but the prime recent to visit – if you’re not staying here – is the Bunker Tour, which explores a nuclear war hideaway built for Congress during the Cold War.

Make it happen

Fall foliage season runs from late September through late October, but peak color varies based on elevation and summer weather. Call West Virginia Tourism at 1-800-Call-WVA (225-5982) to connect to the forestry report. Be sure to confirm opening hours if you're traveling fall through spring. Some attractions and outdoor outfitters reduce their hours in fall and spring, and close in winter.

Dedicated leaf-peepers can drive 75 miles north from Lewisburg to Cass Scenic Railroad, which runs steam locomotives up to 4,842ft-high Bald Knob. The Greenbrier Trail also links Lewisburg with Cass.

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