The state does indeed live up to its official motto: Wild and Wonderful.
West Virginia has long gotten a bad rap that isn’t worth repeating here. What’s lesser known is the fact that the Mountain State absolutely has a lot going for it. Yes, it’s landscape is beautifully rugged country, but, scenery aside, West Virginia offers many unexpected sights and experiences. Here are some of the best that people should be talking about.
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A World-Famous Festival Showcases America’s Newest Plays
Shepherdstown is a cute little college town founded in 1730 on the Potomac River, making it West Virginia’s oldest town. But for more than 25 years, theater-aficionados have swarmed here every July to catch the premieres of six cutting-edge plays at the world-famous Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University. Written by the likes of David Mamet and Sam Shepherd, and featuring veteran actors from New York and Washington, D.C., they all tackle challenging, provocative, and powerful themes that make you think.
INSIDER TIPYou can also partake during the festival in stage readings, breakfasts, lectures, discussions, and behind-the-scene activities with actors.
George Washington Took to the Waters of the Nation’s Oldest Spa Town
You might not guess the Father of our Nation to be a spa kind of guy, but G.W. enjoyed taking to the waters as much as the next guy and gal. An outdoor stone bathtub at Berkeley Springs State Park in Berkeley Springs represents the experience he would have had: an outdoor rock pool beneath the pines. It is, needless to say, the world’s only monument to presidential bathing.
INSIDER TIPConsidered America’s first spa town, Berkeley Springs continues to serve as a spa resort. At the state park, you can soak in 74-degree waters from Cacapon Mountain in a private bath at the 19th-century Roman bathhouse. The town also has more modern venues, including the full-service Atasia Spa.
It Has One of the World’s Wildest, Most Famous Whitewater Rivers
The Gauley nearly always makes the world’s best lists of whitewater-rafting rivers. Why wouldn’t it, with its 25-mile stretch of Class V+ waves and huge drops? It has five legendary rapids—aka the Big Five—the most harrowing of which is Pillow Rock Rapid, plunging 30 feet into the “Toilet Bowl” then rushing around Volkswagen Rock at the bottom. Many agree it’s among the best 10 seconds of whitewater anywhere on Earth.
INSIDER TIPEvery fall, the Summersville dam is released, offering extreme water flow on the Gauley—and the best single-day rafting trip in America—for six weekends straight.
A Luxury Resort Harbors a Nuclear Fallout in Case of Armageddon
The historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs may have a reputation for wining and dining and relaxing the world’s presidents, royalty, celebrities, and industrialists, but it also harbors a Cold War secret. A new wing was added beginning in 1958 in the guise of a conference center, which part of it was used as such. And that’s the oddest part of all this: for 30 years, thousands of people walked in and out of what was essentially a fortified bunker, never noticing the fact that there was an unusually large number of microphones, or a disproportionate number of bathrooms, most of them for men. The fascinating tour, open only to hotel guests, shows you how in the worst-case scenario of a nuclear fallout, Congress Members and their staff would have been rushed to this super secure, fortified hideaway to maintain national power. Thankfully, it was never used.
Amber-Tinted Waters Grace a Mountain Waterfall
You may expect mountain waterfalls to be clear and pure, but the water tumbling over spectacular Blackwater Falls looks more like a frothy cappuccino; pretty in an Italian café sort of way. The unusual color comes from the tannic acid of hemlock and red spruce needles. It’s especially spectacular in winter, when the water freezes, creating dazzling spires of ice.
INSIDER TIPYou’ll have to hike in to see the falls. The Lindy Point trail is the most direct, taking you to a scenic overlook. The most popular is the 10.5-mile Blackwater Canyon Trail, following a converted rail trail.
Its Most Famous Ski Resort Is Upside-Down
At Snowshoe, famed for its 180 inches of annual snowfall, you can roll out of bed and be on the slopes immediately. That’s because the bustling resort sprawls not at the base of Cheat Mountain, but on top, where you sleep, eat, shop, and rent your ski gear (if need be). From there, with 60 trails beckoning, you hit the slopes with little ado and ride the lifts back up the mountain. The best thing? The après-ski sunsets; taking in undulating snowcapped peaks is breathtaking.
INSIDER TIPThere are lots of fun activities at Snowshoe that don’t concern skiing. You can snowmobile and go tubing, and in summer, hike, bike, fly fish, and golf. Though the most magical experience in any season is no doubt taking a Polaris RZR through a mystical spruce forest to a cozy backcountry hut where a gourmet dinner awaits.
The Civil War Kicked Off at Harpers Ferry
John Brown was a fiery abolitionist who schemed many things, the most blatant of which was his attack in October 1859 on the U.S. Armory in Harpers Ferry. His intent? To seize the weapons and use them to liberate enslaved people in the South. The foray resulted in a standoff with the Marines—and his subsequent capture and hanging for treason. The Armory’s fire engine and guard house where he and his cohorts barricaded themselves is now a small museum commemorating Brown’s last stand, while park rangers at the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park offer fascinating dives into the story. Some say John Brown’s raid of 1859 kicked off the Civil War.
INSIDER TIPIf you truly want to see the freakier side of things, stroll past the John Brown Wax Museum on High Street, which has a wide-eyed visage of Brown in the window. Kitschy, life-size dioramas inside retell the John Brown tale.
A Historic Glass Company Is Still Making Glass
Admiring the stained-glass windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC or Reims Cathedral in France, you might be surprised to learn they only were made possible thanks to Blenko Glass Company in Milton, West Virginia—a company that, in a state where hundreds of glass-making companies reigned a century ago, is still making mold-blown glass. The Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado, the Navy Academy Chapel in Annapolis, the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (including the famous “Space” window), and thousands of other public and private institutions around the globe feature Blenko Glass. You can take a tour of the factory and watch glassmakers turn molten glass into gorgeous pitchers, vases, and bowls.
A Trail Is So Steep It Requires Fixed Anchors to Negotiate
Italians invented via ferratas during World War I—you know, those climbing routes up mountains accessed via steel cables, ladders, and anchors. They’ve since become a popular adventure, notably in the Alps…and West Virginia. At Nelson Mountain, a rock feature near Seneca Rocks, you can climb a trail of fixed anchors ascending more than 1,000 feet in one of the world’s most harrowing—and perfectly safe—hikes. Rest assured, you don’t need superhero skills to enjoy the day.
Ice-age Plants Dating Back Thousands of Years Still Thrive in the Wild
If you ever wondered what it was like to live during the Ice Age, all you need to do is wander the boardwalk at Cranberry Glades. Hovering over spongy peat moss extending as far as the eye can see, you’ll enter a realm of unique relict foliage—that is, all that remains from a time when ice sheets covered the region more than 10,000 years ago. A quirky microclimate preserves these cold-climate plants, including two insect-eating plants—sundews and pitcher plants—as well as cranberries, skunk cabbages, and sphagnum mosses. What you won’t find? The mastodons that once wandered here.