Why You Need to Visit 'Wild, Wonderful' West Virginia
"Wild, wonderful." That's what you'll see on the West Virginia license plates zooming southeast down U.S. 60 from Charleston. The farther you go, the thicker the Appalachian forest grows. Train cars filled with chunks of ebony coal chug on weathered tracks that run along the highway. Winding country roads tightly hug steep canyon walls. The landscape ahead begins to clear. Turn right onto U.S. 19, and a green sign introduces the "Western Hemisphere's Longest Arch Bridge." The wooded walls drop suddenly to reveal a deep, wide canyon beneath, an ancient river running down below. Grip the steering wheel, with your head on a swivel, and marvel at a landscape that was millions of years in the making.
The New River is one of the oldest on the continent. In the southwestern corner of West Virginia, where mining towns once flourished, this waterway is now a prime destination for outdoor adventurers. The New River Gorge National River was named a national park in 1978 and includes 53 miles of the river and 70,000 acres of surrounding wilderness. It sliced through the Appalachian Mountains, carving the range's deepest and longest gorge (which is even taller than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis).
As the river slithered through the mountains, it exposed coal-bearing rocks, leading to a mining boom in the late 19th century. The completion of the West Virginia section of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1873 revealed this undisturbed pocket of nature to the rest of the country, and it didn't take long for outsiders to realize it offered more than just fossil fuels. The same torrent that sculpted a trail of coal mines also created a nature-lover's dream with some of the best rock climbing and white-water rafting in the entire country.
Driving across the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and third-highest bridge in the U.S., you'll begin to understand how massive this "wild, wonderful" West Virginia wilderness is, as the lush forests and rushing water stretch endlessly to the horizon. Extending 3,030 feet across and elevated 876 feet over the New River, the bridge was completed in 1977, turning a 40-minute crisscross along mountain roads into a one-minute drive to the other side.
The imposing steel structure beckons dare-devils on the third Saturday of October, when professional jumpers take the nearly 900-foot leap and parachute to the New River below. This festival is held one day a year, but Bridge Walk leads bravehearted visitors on guided catwalk tours beneath the structure year-round.
Travelers who fear heights can still enjoy an up-close look at the bridge. The Canyon Rim Visitor Center offers unobstructed views from its tree house-like boardwalk, nestled in the woods on the wall of the gorge.
Whether you're hiking or biking, explore the scenic paths along the river. The Endless Wall Trail winds through a shady forest, across a rocky creek, and between wild rhododendron bushes. When you reach a spot called Diamond Point, stop and take it all in—a panoramic vista almost 1,000 feet above the river. Or take the Long Point Trail to snap the ultimate photo of the New River Gorge Bridge.
If you'd prefer to pedal, rent a bicycle from one of the local outfitters—New River Bikes or Arrowhead Bike Farm—and hit the trails around Fayetteville. Head out on the 12.8-mile Arrowhead Trail; its single-track paths weave bikers through Jurassic Park-like terrain, with vibrant green ferns and leafy treetop canopies enclosing the rocky, rolling hills. After your ride, take a break at Arrowhead Bike Farm for beer and bratwurst in the casual backyard biergarten.
Outdoor fun doesn't have to end at sunset. Perched on the rim of the New River, Adventures on the Gorge will bring back memories of childhood summers spent at camp. A village of wooden cabins and pavilions dotting a 1,000-plus-acre property, this resort is just a few minutes from the bridge. Snooze under the stars on the campgrounds, book a budget-friendly bunkhouse, or rent an entire home.
"When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I run a fun factory," says Dave Arnold of Adventures on the Gorge. "Our slogan is, "leading the world outdoors," and that's what we do."
The resort offers its thrill-seeking travelers a range of guided activities—from rafting on world-class white-water courses and aerial adventures on zip lines to rock climbing and mountain biking.
Don't leave without booking a rafting trip on West Virginia's famous brand of white water. Sandwiched between two dams, the 53-mile stretch of the New River is divided into two sections: The upper's tamer Class III rapids are countered by the forceful hydraulics and powerful currents of the lower's Class IV and V. Suit up in a helmet and life jacket, grab a paddle, and have a seat on the edge of the hulking inflatable raft.
As you voyage down the waterway, take in the towering canyon walls surrounding it (you might even spot an overlook from a previous day's hike) and gape at the colossal New River Gorge Bridge as you glide under it. Hang on tight as your raft enters a roiling rapid with waves crashing over the sides of the vessel while soaked passengers paddle frantically through the strong current.
The fleets of rafts cheer each other on as they venture along the course. This convivial spirit surpasses any competition between rival outfitters on the water. Aside from leading safe excursions, the guides work hard to accomplish another goal: sharing their love and knowledge of the New River.
Arnold says, "In 1972, I fell in love." He means with West Virginia. The Cincinnati, Ohio, native moved to the area as a college grad with a premed degree. "After guiding and running the river, I asked myself if I really wanted to spend six to seven years at medical school," he remembers. The answer was no, so Arnold and three partners founded their own white-water rafting company, Class-VI River Runners, that same year. An operation that started out with nothing but six rafts, a truck and trailer to haul them, and an office that was housed in a 1956 Safeway trailer evolved into Adventures on the Gorge. "My wife and I lived in a tent where the pool is located today," he says with a laugh.
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Have dinner on-site at Smokey's Steakhouse. White string lights coil around the rafters of this timber-frame pavilion, which feels like a dressed-up camp dining hall. (Or request a table on the deck to watch a sunset over the gorge.) Open seasonally from mid-May through October, Smokey's serves upscale fare in a casual setting. Order a stick-to-your-ribs entrée like a plate of pit-cooked barbecue or apple-brined boar belly—you'll need to refuel after a long day of play. Then cap off the evening with live music at the open-air Rendezvous Lodge.
Cool Small Town
For a break from the wilderness, drive about 4 miles from the resort, cross over the bridge, and turn left onto South Court Street. A faded green sign reads, "Fayetteville: Recognized as one of the coolest small towns in America." Spend the day in this hip, eclectic Appalachian village to find out how it earned that distinction.
Fayetteville once thrived as a coal-mining hub, but the decline of that industry didn't drag down the town with it. The tight-knit group of locals is made up of lifelong residents as well as transplants who fell in love with the area. To revitalize their community, business owners shifted economic gears to what they know best—the New River and its natural playground—sharing their beloved corner of the state with visitors.
The historic one-stoplight downtown welcomes tourists with distinctive shops, bed-and-breakfasts, and restaurants. Spend a fun afternoon bouncing from one redbrick storefront to another along the main drag. Hit Water Stone Outdoors, a Fayetteville fixture since 1994, selling all the gear you'll need for your trip's itinerary.
Before an afternoon of hiking, stock your backpack with homemade trail mix from the Ben Franklin, a mainstay on East Maple Avenue for over 50 years.
At The Historic Morris Harvey House Bed & Breakfast, innkeeper and Fayette County native Bernie J. Kania Jr. welcomes guests to a 1902 Queen Anne-style home that's walkable to downtown. Sit with him at the dining table over the breakfast he's prepared for a houseful of guests, and listen to a decade's worth of tales about the B&B.
Everyone here has a story about how West Virginia stole their heart. "My fiancé and I fell in love with this place because of the close community and its positive mind-set," says Mariah Ritterbush. "It has the opportunity to grow because the culture is all about a shared passion for adventure and the outdoors."
The town's growth can be seen in its food scene. Word has gotten out about local favorite Secret Sandwich Society. Diners get a kick out of the politically themed menu: Order the meatloaf-based McKinley or exercise freedom of choice with the build-your-own Lincoln. Bands play above the restaurant at The Grove, which feels like a funky greenroom from the seventies.
Kick back at Bridge Brew Works, pouring its namesake Bridge Brew Ale and other selections from an open-air taproom. Try the original Pies & Pints for pizza and beers; Cathedral Café for breakfast, lunch, or dinner beneath the vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows of this former church; and the Southside Junction Tap House for small bites and a slew of local craft brews. Catch the best view of the sunset over tacos at The Burrito Bar at Breeze Hill.
Maybe more than any other place, The Station reflects this little town's community spirit. Area builders helped transform what had been a greenhouse and printing press into an upscale eatery and popular gathering spot. Make a dinner reservation to enjoy farm-to-table fare and craft cocktails showcasing the region's fresh flavors—dishes like pan-seared rainbow trout with vegetables. While you wait for your table, grab a stool at the bar and join locals who are swapping stories about the days' happenings on the river, cliffs, and trails.
Brothers Adam and Nathan Herrold co-own Bridge Brew Works with Ken Linch. Adam is just another Fayetteville native who left town but later heard the New River calling him home. "People may go out West," he says, "but they always seem to find their way back here."