In a part of the world where the roads move with – and are often stymied by – the notoriously twisted topography, life does not move quickly. Sometimes, in West Virginia, it appears as if things do not move much at all.
A land of brilliant highs and deep lows, the Mountain State is one of those places that's close enough to civilization but just far enough away – and, logistically, just enough of a hassle – to keep crowds not only to a minimum, but in some cases, almost away entirely.
Let them all fight each other for beach parking – within hours of the sweltering coastal plains, you could be hiking at nearly 5,000 blissfully cool feet above sea level in pristine boreal forest, rafting down world-class rapids along a refreshingly chilly river, romping through high-elevation meadows or splashing beneath spectacular waterfalls. All you have to do is take the time to get there. For those smart enough to make the trek, here are six essential stops, guaranteed to leave you wanting more.
Something like Yosemite in miniature, this iconic razorback peak comprised of bright quartzite soars upward from a relatively narrow and scenic valley that's home to the headwaters of the Potomac River. Sound like something worth seeing? Well, you're not alone – the area can draw almost Yosemite-like crowds on peak weekends. At other times, however, it's all but your own private park, maintained for your pleasure by the Forest Service. An easy trail winds its way slowly up to the top, where people used to take pictures of the surrounding scenery but now mostly take risky selfies with the valley as a backdrop. Interested in rock climbing? This is of the most popular places to do so on the East Coast – you've got your pick of outfitters.
A vast, high-elevation wilderness area within a national forest, this boreal wonderland that feels more like Canada than it ought to this far south draws happy outdoorsy types who know of its charms over and over again. The rest of the world, however? Not so much. Not because it's not worth seeing – it definitely is – it's just not all that easy to find. Topping out at about 3,800 feet, you've got nearly 50 miles of hiking trail to explore, once you figure out where you're going (Hint: If you can get yourself to the Canaan Valley, site of a famous ski resort of the same name, you're pretty darn close).
The often extreme temperature drop on a sweaty summer afternoon is alone worth the drive from Washington DC (or wherever you happen to be, down near sea level). On a recent afternoon, nearly triple-digits in Northern Virginia became 65, dry and sunny in the space of just a few easy hours. But Spruce Knob, West Virginia's highest elevation at 4,863 feet, is so much more than just a place to cool off – the elegant uplands, much like at Dolly Sods, aren't just nice for these parts, they're straight up spectacular, whether you hit one of the trails accessible either at the peak or in the saddle en route to Spruce Knob Lake, where even an easy wander around the water's edge offers up countless photo ops. Too lazy to hike? A road – albeit a very narrow one, much of the way – brings you all the way up top.
Known very nearly the world over for its somewhat, er, retro approach to life, West Virginia is less famous for its classically resort-like state parks, taxpayer-funded retreats in the wild where the good citizens of the Mountain State (and whomever) can come and vacation. Year after year, they do, booking cabins, lodge rooms and campsites – among the most popular park is the state's highest, home to a river, a lush, tree-filled canyon and some very photogenic waterfalls, all of the same name. Topped up on nature? The nearby, nearly-twin towns of Davis and Thomas have lured in a mix of artists, retirees and hipster types, creating a happy little vibe in a state where much of the man-made ranks relatively low on a list of must-sees.
Even if you've never been whitewater rafting and never intend to, it's well worth finding your way down to the water's edge, far below the longest steel-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere, to watch as raft after raft of excited paddlers navigates some of the best whitewater, anywhere. Some 70,000 acres along the best bits of the river have been designated as national lands, preserving its banks and rapids for all time – and for good reason, too, as you'll see once you get here. Casual rafters (if there can be such a thing, on these waters) don't have to rush here for spring thaw – there are outfitters that will get you out on the river well into fall. No hurry.
Hours of aimless wandering by car– sometimes paved, sometimes not – is one of the greatest pleasures of a visit to West Virginia, providing you don't mind going without cellphone reception for hours at a time. (No joke, this is one of those places where you kind of need a proper map, or at least a screen grab of one, before you set out, just in case.) Luckily, the Highland Scenic Highway makes for an easy 43-mile loop, so you'll at least be able to find your way back to where you started without too much trouble. The state's highest scenic byway, it brings you up to more than 4,500 feet up, offering– like the Sods or Spruce Knob – a very different kind of landscape than you might be expecting this far south. Can't get enough of the changing leaves? Kick off your fall with a late August visit here – don't be surprised if it feels like you've just jumped ahead a month, maybe more, depending on where you call home.
Ready to make the trip? Here's a look at current finds to Charleston, WV (CRW).