As your friends and neighbors set out for the country’s most popular—and crowded—tourist spots this summer, consider this off-the-beaten-path playground, whose natural, cultural and leisure attractions rival those of its world-renowned counterparts. Picture the grandeur of Yellowstone and Yosemite with a fraction of the maddening crowds—and costs. From its emerald forests, to its raging rivers, to its scenic railways—and even a luxe resort—here are five reasons we’re putting West Virginia on our list of summer escapes.
1. Fresh-Air Adventures
Snowshoe Mountain Bike Park is home to one of the eastern U.S.’s largest trail systems. Mountain biking buffs fly down 40 trails, which span 1,500 feet of vertical descent on novice, intermediate and expert level terrain. Two high-speed quad lifts take you and your bike back up the mountain, leaving you plenty of energy for navigating jump lines, berms, rocks and roots. Sixty miles northeast of Snowshoe, the twin peaks of Seneca Rocks cut a striking design on the side of Route 33, but verdant views from the top—900 feet above the North Fork River—are the true reward for rock climbers and hikers who ascend it. A 20-minute drive northeast and a $15 admission ticket will take you underground into the otherworldly Smoke Hole Caverns, a cave system complete with hulking stalactites and stalagmites and a clear, cold stream. Farther south, views from the famous New River Gorge Bridge (formerly the world’s longest steel single-span bridge) will take your breath—and, possibly, your balance—away, but the best action happens 876 feet below in the raging waters of the New and Gauley rivers. With names like Surprise, Greyhound Bus Stopper, Lost Paddle and Pure Screaming Hell, these rivers’ rapids promise heart-pounding moments aplenty. The family-run New & Gauley River
Adventures takes you on rafting trips tailored to your level of expertise.
2. Hidden Gems
Tucked in the remote hills of Randolph County, the tiny mountain town of Helvetia—its population has yet to reach 100—was founded by Swiss and German settlers in the late 19th century. The town’s lone restaurant, The Hutte, serves 100 percent homemade Alpine cuisine, including the best cheese sandwich this side of Switzerland. Each year on Ash Wednesday, Helvetia is the site of Fasnacht, the pre-Lenten burning of Old Man Winter’s effigy and West Virginia’s answer to Mardi Gras. In the town of Newell, on the banks of the Ohio River at the tip of West Virginia’s northern panhandle, stop in for a tour of The Homer Laughlin China Company, makers of Fiesta Ware, the unmistakable dinnerware that can be found in restaurants, upscale department stores and private kitchens worldwide. Shop for colorful china straight from the source and view pieces that span the company’s 144-year history. In the southeastern part of the state,
science-minded travelers can geek out at Greenbank’s National Radio Astronomy
Observatory and tour the Greenbank Science Center and its monster telescope, a jarring and breathtaking site while driving along bucolic Route 28.
3. Riding the Rails
Photo via Flickr/Mackensen
Scenic railways pay homage to West Virginia’s rich railroad history and take passengers through the state’s beautiful forests and valleys. Trains on the Cass Scenic Railroad chug along the same route built in 1901 to transport lumber. Many of its passenger cars are converted logging flat cars, and its still-working Shay locomotives are originals, too. Another line, the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, runs the Durbin Rocket, which is powered by “Old #3”—one of only three operating Climax geared logging locomotives in existence. At the charming and newly restored Elkins Depot, climb aboard the New Tygart Flyer for a four-hour round-trip experience that takes you to the 150-foot-wide High Falls of Cheat. In southern West Virginia, drink in stunning views of the New River Gorge—and snap a pic of the state capitol in Charleston—on a ride with New River Train Excursions, which operates scenic tours through what many have dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
4. First-Class Folk Festival
Throughout the year, West Virginia’s myriad festivals celebrate everything from the state’s natural resources to its cultural heritage. Come summertime, though, one festival outshines the rest. Every August, the three-day Augusta Festival in Elkins brings world-class bluegrass, Creole and banjo music center stage and shines the spotlight on supremely skilled artisans in a juried craft fair featuring all things handmade, from furniture and jewelry to textiles and edibles.
5. Luxury With a Historic Twist
Situated amid the Allegheny Mountains in White Sulphur Springs, The Greenbrier is a world-renowned golf resort with famously quirky interior design by Dorothy Draper and Carleton Varney. If you think that’s unique, what until you see the resort’s now-defunct underground emergency Cold War bomb shelter, nicknamed “The Bunker,” which was commissioned by President Eisenhower in the 1950s for Congress to use in the event of war. It was kept secret from the American public until a Washington Post reporter blew its cover in the 1990s; you can now tour the space. The Bunker isn’t the property’s only throwback feature—afternoon Tea, falconry, archery, and horse-drawn-carriage rides will also take you back in time. Fitting, for a state that woos tech and work weary travelers with its peaceful scenery and simple charms.
Lindsay Lambert Day
is an Atlanta-based freelance travel and lifestyle writer who, as you may have guessed, hails from wild and wonderful West Virginia.