Ramble through rugged mountains and historic small towns on a roughly 500-mile scenic loop through some of West Virginia’s wildest terrain. Sample some of the best views, outdoor adventures, homegrown tastes, and live music the Mountain State has to offer.
Home of the West Virginia University Mountaineers, Morgantown is a combo college town and nature activity hub. On campus, tour the free Art Museum of WVU (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and see venerable Woodburn Hall, the university’s redbrick symbol built in 1876. In nearby Coopers Rock State Forest (about 13 miles east of downtown), blow up your Instagram feed with shots of Cheat River Canyon taken from the Raven Rock Trail overlook. End the day listening to live local, regional, and national acts at 123 Pleasant Street, a comfy music venue housed in a restored 1890s row house.
Davis and Thomas
From Morgantown, it’s a scenic 70-mile drive (via WV-92 and US-50) southeast to Davis. The tiny (population 651) river town and its smaller (population 564) neighbor, Thomas, are mountain biking meccas. Rent bikes at Canaan Valley Resort State Park or at Blackwater Bikes. At Blackwater Falls State Park, follow the boardwalk 200 steps down (and 200 back up) for a front row-view of the falls. In Thomas, shop for Appalachian fine art and craft at Buxton & Landstreet Gallery and Studios. Stick around town for the evening show at the Purple Fiddle, where there’s West Virginia beer on tap and, most nights, live music on stage.
Monongahela National Forest Area
Meander south through the wild and spectacularly scenic Monongahela National Forest, widely regarded as one of the most biologically diverse forests of its kind in the United States. For hardcore hiking and sweeping vistas, traverse the high-mountain meadows, heaths, and bogs of the forest’s remote Dolly Sods Wilderness. About 30 miles south in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, climb the observation tower atop the state’s highest peak, 4,863-foot Spruce Knob. In nearby Circleville’s NROCKS, scale new heights on the adrenaline-pumping Via Ferrata, a fixed-anchor, guided rock climbing adventure. (Reservations are highly recommended.)
Continue south into Pocahontas County and the unplugged mountain hamlet of Green Bank. No cell phones, GPS devices, or other electromagnetic wave-transmitting gadgets are allowed in town, part of the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone. Green Bank’s radio-free status supports the work of its star attraction: the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT). Housed at the Green Bank Observatory the nearly 17-million-pound GBT is the world’s biggest fully steerable radio telescope. Take a public tour of the observatory to see the GBT (and the site’s other telescopes) and to explore the out-of-this-world field of radio astronomy.
White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg
Follow WV-92 south through the Allegheny Mountains to historic Greenbrier Valley. In postcard-perfect downtown Lewisburg, browse the locally owned shops and galleries before catching a live performance at Carnegie Hall. Sample Appalachian adult beverages at Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead in Lewisburg and Smooth Ambler Spirits in Maxwelton. Learn about the area’s rich military history at the (declassified) Cold War Bunker at the Greenbrier and at the Confederate Cemetery at Lewisburg. Take a deep dive (120 feet underground) into the valley on a self-guided or Wild Cave tour of Lost World Caverns.
Eat & Stay: The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs
George Washington and Jefferson National Forest
Tucked into the southeastern corner of the state is bucolic Monroe County. Cruise the scenic backroads for a slow-speed tour of rolling farmland, mountain valleys, and a slice of the three-state George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. August through November, watch soaring hawks and other migrating birds of prey from the rustic Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory. To reach the 3,812-foot-high perch, drive to the Allegheny Trail parking lot atop Peters Mountain and hike south for about a mile.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Retrace your route north to Lewisburg and hop on US-60 W, also known as the Midland Trail National Scenic Byway. The historic two-lane road snakes 180 miles west to east across south-central West Virginia from the Ohio/Kentucky border to the Virginia state line. Stop at the Hawks Nest State Park overlook for panoramic views of the New River Gorge National River below. May to October, take the aerial tramway down to the bottom of the gorge and zip across the river on a jetboat. Head south toward historic Fayetteville to drive across the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge. If you can handle dizzying heights (the bridge is 876 feet above the gorge) take a guided Bridge Walk (reservations required) on the catwalk underside.
Take the scenic route (US-60) northwest to Charleston, a riverfront capital city with a friendly, small-town vibe. Shop for locally grown and made products—such as artisanal salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works—at the indoor-outdoor Capitol Market. Tour the free West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center on the grounds of the State Capitol Complex. Buy tickets in advance for a Charleston taping of Mountain Stage, a two-hour music radio show produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. On summer Fridays (May 26 to September 1), catch the free Live on the Levee outdoor concert in Haddad Riverfront Park. Return to Morgantown via I-79 N.
Maryellen Kennedy Duckett lives, writes, and drives the backroads in East Tennessee where she wakes up curious every day. You can follow her on Twitter @mekd.