There’s a reason why West Virginia is affectionately known as the Mountain State. The gorgeous Allegheny Mountain Range -- part of the southern Appalachians -- runs through most of the state, making it one of the most stunning spots in the United States to visit.
While West Virginia is absolutely an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, there are terrific things for everyone to see and do in the Alleghenies. Here are a few of our favorite spots in the mountain range.
1. New River Gorge Bridge
To really get a feel for the majesty of this corner of the country, head to the New River Gorge Bridge, just north of Fayetteville, West Virginia. It’s the longest steel span in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest in the United States; it’s so famous that it was chosen to represent West Virginia on its state quarter.
Of course, you’ll want to drive across, but make sure to take time to stop at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center on the north side for some stunning views and terrific photo ops. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area on the third Saturday in October, stop by for Bridge Day, when the famous span is opened to pedestrians and daredevil BASE jumpers. Keep your eyes peeled for the whitewater rafters who often pass on the river below.
2. Hawks Nest State Park
Just a few miles northwest of the New River Gorge Bridge is one of West Virginia’s most beautiful state parks. Hawks Nest State Park is nestled above the river and boasts incredible, rugged landscapes and a scenic overlook of the gorge and Hawks Nest Lake below. There is ample hiking, but if you don’t want to climb all the way to the top, no worries -- there is an aerial tram. There’s also a nature center, a nine-hole golf course, and a 31-room lodge on-site. It makes a great home base from which to explore this portion of the Allegheny Range.
3. Blackwater Falls State Park
Located in Tucker County, about 3 hours due west of Washington, D.C., Blackwater Falls State Park is another stunner. The park is located within the Monongahela National Forest, and its crown jewel is a 60-foot cascade where the Blackwater River enters the canyon of the same name. You’ll notice that the water that flows here isn’t exactly crystal clear; rather, it takes on a faint beige hue due to the high tannic acid content from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles. Blackwater Falls is one of the most photographed sites in the state, and once you see it in person, you’ll understand why.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to hike to reach the site -- there isn’t an option to drive directly to them. Once inside the park, a trail and boardwalk will take you close to the west side of the Falls; there’s an overlook on the opposite side of the gorge.
4. Seneca Caverns
An hour south of Blackwater Falls is an intriguing geological site: Seneca Caverns. The Native Americans who settled in West Virginia traveled to the Alleghenies to trade, and the limestone caverns here provided the Seneca tribe with shelter, storage, and space for ceremonies.
You can’t explore the caverns on your own; you must take one of the guided tours. They take about an hour and have been going on since 1928. You must descend steps to reach the caverns, which are 160 feet below ground, and once you’re there, you’ll walk about a mile. While the paths can be a bit uneven, the trail is wide, and there are handrails to help with your descent.
As you wander through the cave complex, you’ll see many different formations carved out by the water millions of years ago. A trip here is a great way to escape the summer heat, since the caverns stay at a constant 54 degrees. It’s so chilly that you’ll want to consider taking a jacket! Adult admission costs $15.
5. Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
As you explore the West Virginia mountains, you’ll get a sense of how important the railroads were to this part of the country at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Raw materials that needed to be transported across America went via locomotive. Thousands of men carved out the land, blasting tunnels and laying tracks so that the trains could move through.
To learn more about their efforts and the role of the railways in West Virginia history, visit the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The park features an 11-mile heritage railroad that visitors can take to the top of Bald Knob; they can also explore the town of Cass, which was founded by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company in 1901 for the loggers and millworkers who worked on this remote mountain stretch. Renovated “company homes” are available for nightly rentals, the Cass Company Store sells artisan crafts, and you can grab a hearty meal at the Last Run Restaurant before heading back down the mountain.
6. John Henry Historical Park
Building the railroads was backbreaking work. And in the small town of Talcott, West Virginia, during a real-life contest between man and machine, a legend was born. This is the place where steel driver John Henry worked to bore a tunnel into Big Bend Mountain for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. When a steam drill was introduced to speed up the process, John Henry took it as a threat to his job security. He challenged the machine to a contest, won, and became a hero. Today, a statue at the John Henry Historical Park pays tribute to this larger-than-life figure who inspired tall tales, folk songs, and American workers everywhere.
7. West Virginia Penitentiary
In the far northern portion of West Virginia, in the town of Moundsville, sits a Gothic-style building with a dark past. The West Virginia Penitentiary operated from 1876 until 1995, housed some of the state’s most dangerous criminals, and was known as one of the most violent correctional facilities in the United States. Now open for tours, it’s also got a reputation for paranormal activity. Visitors can explore the main level and recreation yards and hear about the history of the prison, including one infamous prisoner who wasn’t permitted in: Charles Manson. Tickets cost $14 for adults.
8. The Greenbrier
After all these activities, perhaps you’re ready for a luxe place to wind down. Fortunately, one of the nation’s poshest resorts is tucked away in West Virginia’s Allegheny Range, and it’s also steeped in history.
The thermal springs around The Greenbrier were what first drew visitors to this mountain spot in the late 1700s. Since then, it’s hosted 27 of America’s 45 presidents. Guests can take part in any number of activities on-site, peruse the boutiques, try their luck at the casino, and take to the waters and receive other relaxing services at the spa. There are several restaurants on-site, and the resort offers packages as well as holiday specials.
One remnant of the Cold War that history buffs will want to check out at The Greenbrier is its vast underground bunker, designed to house the U.S. Congress and keep the government going in case of a nuclear attack. You can book a tour to explore the House and Senate Chambers, dorms, and cafeteria.
The nearby town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is also worth a look; it’s got a charming Main Street district.
If you’d like to get a taste of West Virginia’s Allegheny Range but would prefer to skip the mountain driving, consider a trip aboard the Amtrak Cardinal. It departs three times a week, and from the state capital of Charleston, it’s just a 3-hour trip to White Sulphur Springs. You’ll pass the New River Gorge Bridge and other incredible sights, and the train depot is located just outside The Greenbrier’s front gates.
Want to experience more of what West Virginia has to offer? Here are seven things to do in the state with the whole family.