I knew from a few short visits from my home in DC that West Virginia is a state of immense natural beauty – with more parks than I could keep track of (including the country’s newest national park, New River Gorge ). It is also a state of contradictions, of coal mines and green parks, of massive infrastructure and wide open spaces.
After three days of road tripping along the state’s famous country roads in April, I felt like I knew its secrets. Here’s how to take a road trip through West Virginia, centered around three natural landmarks: Blackwater Falls to the north, Seneca Rocks middlestate and New River Gorge to the south. It’s a trip you’ll want to do again, once you’ve recovered from the windy roads.
Day 1: Blackwater Falls State Park
Travel time between Washington, DC and Blackwater Falls State Park: just over three hours
Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia’s northern Allegheny Mountains is a scenic example of the state’s rich but underappreciated outdoor offerings. It’s quiet here, quite, despite the fact that the 57-foot waterfall, which gives the park its name, is one of the most photographed spots in the state. As soon as you see the falls, you will understand why Blackwater Falls bears its name: the water is tinged with a blackish amber tint due to the tannic acid in the hemlock and red spruce needles that fall into the running. The park also has a small network of trails as well as the longest toboggan route on the East Coast. Don’t miss the short but steep descent to the falls where you can take in the views from well-maintained observation decks.
Point: The weather here, as elsewhere in the mountains of the state, can be unpredictable. My April trip came just as the snow was melting.
Travel time from Blackwater Falls State Park: five minutes
After stretching your legs in the park, return for a few minutes to the towns of Thomas and Davis. Often mentioned in a whisper, as if they were two brothers in a family, the postage stamp-sized towns are about three miles apart and just north of the park. of Blackwater Falls. Davis is the smaller of the two, with a main street offering post-hike bites at Hellbender Burritos (which might surprise you with vegetarian offerings like the Goofy Foot, a burrito stuffed with soy sauce and grilled tofu with assorted vegetables) . Sample craft beers at Stumptown Ales, a local spot that welcomes guests under a rainbow flag.
Travel time from Davis: five minutes
Get back in your car and drive to Thomas. Once a hollow mining town (with an Italian-language newspaper to boot), Thomas is now an eclectic, artsy enclave that draws city dwellers for its music and proximity to Blackwater Falls. Thomas offers a bustling mix of pottery studios, galleries, a vintage store, and an outpost of the state’s best cafe, TipTop. But the real draw here is the Purple Fiddle, a legendary honky-tonk music venue. Most nights of the week, the Purple Fiddle hosts a range of country, folk and bluegrass acts. Tickets range from free to $30 depending on who is playing.
Where to stay: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge
Book Now: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge
The mid-century lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park completed top-to-bottom renovations in 2022 and offers comfortable, upgraded rooms with stunning park views. With just 54 rooms, the lodge is as close to nature as you can get from the comfort of a real bed. Its location allows for immersive stargazing and, if you wake up early enough, to watch the sun rise over the falls.
Day 2: Seneca Rocks
Travel time from Blackwater Falls to Seneca Rocks: 45 minutes
After a night of toe tapping at the Purple Fiddle, settle in for a family-friendly breakfast at the lodge’s Smokehouse restaurant or grab a coffee and pastry to go at TipTop before heading south to Seneca Rocks. This dramatic outcrop is popular with boulders, and the North Fork River below the 900-foot-tall rock formation is well known to fly fishers and photographers.
The 45-minute ride gets windier and windier as you head south (worth taking it slow). Its unobstructed views accompany many Christian churches at every turn. Park at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, which, like other visitor centers around the state, is state-of-the-art and staffed by knowledgeable and friendly rangers (one told me loaned some of her sunscreen).
The Discovery Center offers one of the best views of the rocks, so stop for a quick photo and get a map while you’re there. For a great afternoon climb, a 3.6-mile round-trip hike offers a quick climb, but you’ll be rewarded with views of Pendleton County valleys and the surrounding Monongahela National Forest.
Culinary offerings around Seneca Rocks are sparse, so if you’re hungry after your hike, take the 10-minute drive south to Asbury’s American Restaurant for entrees including bison burgers and beet and cheese salads. goat.
Travel time from Seneca Rocks to Lewisburg: 2.5 hours
From Asbury it’s back in the car and nearly two and a half hour drive south to Lewisburg. Take the smaller, windier Route 219 (the scenery along the route is worth plenty of parking time). If you have the car stereo on or rely on your cell phone for navigation, you’ll likely notice this as you drive through the town of Green Bank. The nearby Allegheny Mountains are home to the world’s largest radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. The massive white structure, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is unmissable from the road. Since 1958, Green Bank has maintained strict “quiet zone” regulations, prohibiting cell phones, radios, and even microwaves in order to avoid disturbing the telescope’s sensitivities.
About 45 minutes before Lewisburg (and after picking up cell service) you might see a stately white house set back from the road. Turn down the driveway to what is the unexpected farmhouse where Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Pearl S. Buck was born. Although she only lived a few months in Hillsboro, West Virginia, the property is preserved and proudly maintained by a docent who will be happy to show you around.
Continue on the road to Lewisburg, a distinguished town with a pleasant main street of antique shops and cafes. Lewisburg’s Stardust Cafe serves farm-to-table food in sandwiches and salads with organic meats and vegetables. The repercussions of the movement are felt throughout the city with excellent dining options; the most notable is the French Goat, where upscale French cuisine is served on tables covered with white tablecloths in a historic house.
Where to stay: The General Lewis Inn
Book Now: The General Lewis Inn
The crown jewel of Lewisburg, the General Lewis Inn is a destination unto itself. The Inn has been in continuous operation since 1929 and was renovated in 2009 by new owners, a husband and wife team with deep roots in the region. The General Lewis retains its historic charm while being decidedly modern with rooms mixing antiques and contemporary pieces, as well as flowers picked from the garden. Don’t miss its chic cocktail bar and restaurant that serves creative takes on southern favorites like hush puppies, fried okra and cornbread cookies served in miniature cast-iron skillets. You’ll want to enjoy dinner or at least a drink on the porch.
Day 3: New River Gorges
Travel time from Lewisburg to New River Gorge: approximately 70 minutes
After breakfast at the lodge or in town at Wild Bean or Corn + Flour, bid farewell to Lewisburg and head south on New River Gorge. The newest national park, New River Gorge is accessible by a main highway. But opt for the country roads and drive south along Route 60. Possibly the most beautiful road in West Virginia – and one that lives up to John Denver’s “Almost Paradise” slogan. to the state, the road passes through a landscape that looks virtually untouched minus the mine or the occasional wind turbine. Hairpin bends are not lacking but the landscape is well worth the drops in the belly.
Stop at the park’s Canyon Rim Visitor Center, which offers a comprehensive look at the New River landscape and the people who call it home. A rich collection of photographs and oral histories provide a sense of the area when mining was booming and the New River Valley was teeming with communities that depended on the gorge, the mines, and the C&O Railroad that ran through once the valley.
Although New River Gorge became a national park in 2020, the river itself is one of the oldest in North America. Today the park spans 70,000 acres and is popular with hikers, whitewater rafters and photographers looking for the perfect shot of the New River Gorge Bridge, a spectacular engineering feat that is the longest western hemisphere steel span bridge.
From the visitor center, drive along the steep and winding one-way Fayette Station Road to the base of the gorge. Continue the road until you reach the town of Thurmond. Once a bustling mining and railroad town with dry goods stores, saloons, hotels and a jeweler, Thurmond is now a ghost town steeped in history. A self-guided walking tour will take you through the remains of the once bustling center.
Where to stay: ACE Adventure Resort
Book Now: ACE Adventure Resort
Despite its beauty and wealth of offerings, the New River Gorge area generally lacks places to stay outside of rental homes and guesthouses. ACE Adventure Resort, the leader in white-water rafting tours in the gorge, offers cabin rentals set back in the woods. Most cabins are very rustic and bare-bones, but all come with an outdoor hot tub (a perfect way to end a day of hiking and driving). A stay here is for the clean, woodsy air and premium stargazing, rather than luxury bedding. Dine at Lost Paddle, ACE’s bar and grill serving sandwiches and pizza.