The bar is set undeniably high for any visit to West Virginia. For almost 50 years, the slogan “Wild, Wonderful West Virginia” has appeared on the state’s license plates, as well as government pamphlets, travel guides, and welcome signs, promising would-be visitors an experience both heart-pounding and heartfelt. And for just about as long, a second motto has been emblazoned on T-shirts and trucker hats, billboards and bumper stickers: “Almost Heaven, West Virginia”—drawn from the lyrics of John’s Denver’s 1971 anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Fortunately for travelers along the highways and byways of southern West Virginia, all great expectations will be met. The forested ridges and folds of the Allegheny Mountains, threaded with narrow valleys and winding rivers, offer knockout scenery, particularly in fall. And outdoor activities, such as hiking and whitewater rafting, abound. There’s also a trove of cultural offerings in store, from the anticipated (coal mine tours and mountain crafts) to the unexpected (a Cold War–era bunker and an acclaimed French restaurant).
The Schoolhouse Hotel
As one might guess from the name, this smart boutique hotel in the heart of tiny White Sulphur Springs is situated in the town’s historic high school building. Its 30 spacious guest rooms are named for courses (health, geography, chorus), and common areas are decorated with Green Devils memorabilia, from pennants to letterman sweaters. What may come as a surprise: The transformed 1912 schoolhouse is the world’s first fully accessible hotel, complying in every way with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
This legendary resort has welcomed guests since 1778, among them 28 American presidents. Today, its association with one, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is at the heart of the Greenbrier’s popular Bunker Tour. Go behind the 25-ton blast door and discover the facility constructed beneath the resort’s West Virginia wing between 1958 and 1961 to house the U.S. Congress in the event of a national crisis. See the Senate and House chambers, dormitories, medical clinic, cafeteria, and power plant—all of which were kept in a state of readiness until the facility was declassified in 1992. After your tour, grab lunch at Draper’s. The colorful on-site cafe pays tribute to interior design pioneer Dorothy Draper, who led the midcentury redesign of the Greenbrier.
The darling of media outlets from National Geographic to Vogue, this happening little town has racked up the accolades in recent years, popping up on seemingly everyone’s “best” list. It’s little wonder. In addition to a handful of inviting antique shops, visitors will find plenty of specialty stores. Standouts include Bella, a hopping kitchen and gourmet food shop; A New Chapter bookstore, which maintains a great local interest section; and Plants Etc., a must for West Virginia crafts and collectibles. Plan on dinner at the acclaimed French Goat (start with classics: French onion soup and escargot) and a show at Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the state’s professional theater.
Lost World Caverns
Just outside Lewisburg, journey 12 stories underground on a self-guided tour through a forest of stalactites and stalagmites, including the Bridal Veil, a scintillating column of white calcite, and the Snowy Chandelier, a 30-ton compound stalactite that’s among the largest in the country. Carve out an hour to traverse the winding half-mile trail, and remember to bring a sweater or jacket as the temperature in the cavern is a constant 52 degrees.
Babcock State Park
Though it encompasses 4,000 ruggedly beautiful acres and maintains 20 miles of trails for hikers and bikers alike, this park is best known as the home of the Glade Creek Grist Mill. The weathered mill, which sits alongside a rushing mountain stream, was constructed in 1976 with parts salvaged from defunct mills around the state. A tribute to the hundreds of mills spread across West Virginia in the early 1900s, this patchwork replica is among the most photographed sites in the state. Be sure to pick up a sack of fresh-ground cornmeal in the gift shop.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
Superlatives abound when describing this park. It’s the newest of America’s national parks. The whitewater river that courses through its heart is among the oldest in the world, almost certainly the oldest in North America. And the bridge spanning that river and the 1,000-foot-deep canyon it carved over millennia is the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, extending more than 3,000 feet across the gorge. The park is a magnet for adventurers who come to raft, bike, climb, and even traverse the catwalk beneath the bridge. It also draws history lovers who visit the ghost town of Thurmond and the preserved farmsteads that offer a glimpse into the lives of early pioneers.
This small mountain town, regarded as the gateway to New River Gorge National Park, serves as a base camp for outdoor enthusiasts looking to push the limits in the canyon. Cars laden with kayaks and mountains bikes roll through town, which hums with a vibe decidedly earthy and exuberant. Stop in at Water Stone Outdoors for top-notch gear as well as excellent info and advice from local adventurers. For more intel, sidle up to the bar at Southside Junction Tap House, order a Freefolk Moondog ale, and listen as patrons swap stories and share tips.
Built in 1906 to house the Fayette Bank, the three-story sandstone building in the heart of Fayetteville found new life as a vacation property in 2014. Owners Amy McLaughlin and Shawn Means spent nine months restoring the structure and creating four multiroom guest suites, featuring full kitchens, plush living areas, and expansive bathrooms. Shortly after the opening, the couple founded an artist-in-residence program and began hosting creatives during the slow winter months. Today, the artwork inspired during those stays in the New River Gorge is showcased throughout the impressive property.
Sun pours through the stained-glass windows and ’60s R&B fills the air at this buzzy Fayetteville breakfast and lunch spot in a converted century-old church. The whole-grain pancakes are a must, and like all the breakfast fare—omelets, scrambles, sammies—they’re served all day. The cafe is known for its classic desserts (bread pudding, carrot cake, and cobblers à la mode), which pair perfectly with specialty coffees and teas.
Pies & Pints
Venture beyond the usual pepperoni and pitcher of Bud at this inspired pizza and beer joint, the birthplace and flagship of the rapidly growing eponymous mid-South chain. Begin with a pint or two of West Virginia brews (you can count on drafts from hometown outfits Bridge Brew Works or Freefolk on tap). For the main event, order the signature specialty pie featuring red grapes, gorgonzola, and fresh rosemary, or opt for a pizza inspired by Mexican street corn or Nashville hot chicken.
The iconic red-peaked roofline of this retail center perched alongside Interstate 77 just outside Beckley has come to represent the best in West Virginia arts and crafts—as well as shopping. An emporium of handmade goods—wood bowls, baskets, quilts, soaps, jellies, wine, sculpture—representing hundreds of artists and all 55 counties, Tamarack also includes studios for woodworkers, glassblowers, and potters, who demonstrate their crafts for visitors. A particularly colorful highlight is the Fiestaware section, featuring the popular dinnerware (made in Newell, West Virginia) in a rainbow of vibrant hues.
Exhibition Coal Mine
Veteran miners serve as guides on this enlightening tour of the restored Phillips-Sprague Mine, which operated in Beckley from 1890 to 1910. Visitors travel deep into the mine aboard authentic “man cars” that once transported workers underground, stopping at former work sites to learn about the practice and history of low-seam mining. Upon emerging from the mine, guests can explore the surrounding coal camp’s restored structures, including a 1925 schoolhouse, a 1921 church, and a one-room bachelor’s shanty built in the 1920s.
A century ago, this now-sleepy hamlet along the Bluestone River was among the richest small towns in America, home to 14 millionaires who made their fortunes operating coal mines. What remains today are the extravagant Victorian and Tudor-style homes they built. Pick up a walking-tour map at the restored train depot and spend an hour strolling through town. For a taste of classic Americana, stop into the Bramwell Corner Shop & Soda Fountain, drop a coin in the jukebox, and ask the soda jerk for a float, a milkshake, or a Coke mixed by hand and flavored (or “painted”) with cherry, lime, mint, or even peanut butter.
More to explore:
West Virginia is home to some of the darkest skies in the eastern U.S., which make for exceptional stargazing. Book your trip around a new moon for optimal viewing of glittering night skies.
Save the Date
Join thousands of spectators on the New River Gorge Bridge Saturday, October 21, for Bridge Day, as the intrepid—or insane—BASE jump into the abyss.
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Southbound.