A landlocked state consisting almost entirely within the mountains of Appalachia, West Virginia may be small, but it is akin to heaven for outdoor enthusiasts living in the Mid-Atlantic portion of the United States. It was once part of its cousin to the southeast, but as the tensions that led to the Civil War began to boil over, 49 counties in the northwestern portion of Virginia opposed seceding from the Union.
Soon after the state of Virginia joined the Confederacy, these counties held a plebiscite of their own, and in doing so, chose to secede from the Confederacy to rejoin the Union. The new state, formed during the height of the Civil War was conveniently named West Virginia, and once the shooting stopped two years later, the division held, giving America one of its most rural and ruggedly beautiful states.
While historical sites relevant to the Civil War can certainly be found here, many attractions that reveal the area’s earlier history can also be found within the mist-filled mountain valleys that predominate here, making this a place where you can get your nature and history fix all in one fell swoop.
So bring up Country Roads by the late John Denver on your MP3 playlist as you explore the windy rural roads of this state … it will set the mood for a week of amazing explorations and experiences!
What To Do – Culture & History
The event that set the dominoes in motion towards the eventual outbreak of the American Civil War is said to have occurred in one of the valleys of West Virginia. Harper‘s Ferry National Historical Park is where an abolitionist by the name of John Brown made a stand against the United States government in the name of ending slavery.
In the end, he was crushed by the Marines (lead by none other than general Robert Lee, who would later become the lead general for the Confederate Army), but it let the cat out of the bag, and soon enough, the issue of slavery led to the southern states seceding from the United States, triggering the Civil War.
The town changed hands eight times during the War, with one of those transactions coming as a result of the Battle of Harper’s Ferry, where the largest amount of Union soldiers being taken prisoner (12,500) took place.
Apart from the wonderfully preserved fortifications and old town architecture here, the gorge where the Potomac River passes through is one of the more beautiful places on this major river, with steep rocky cliff faces making for numerous excellent photo opportunities.
Those looking for more artifacts of the Civil War should check out Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park, where Union soldiers began the process of clearing out Confederate battle units from the counties of the newly formed free state of West Virginia. A simple museum on site chronicles the details of the battle, while hiking trails outside lead to outstanding views of the Gauley River Canyon.
Before this mountain frontier erupted in a conflict pitting American against American, the land where this future state would one day exist was ground zero in Virginia’s efforts to defend its acquired territory against native raiders. Prickett’s Fort State Park was a defensive position built to keep settlers safe after renegade pioneers in the Ohio River Valley perpetuated a massacre, and thus touched off a war waged against Americans by native tribes from that region.
The fort was made of spiked wooden posts. Inside, interpretative actors bring the living conditions inside the fort during that age to life, from the soldiers that guarded vulnerable civilians, to the blacksmith’s that crafted and fixed metal implements that kept the fort running smoothly.
Well before any European laid their eyes upon the mountainous country that comprises West Virginia, native peoples had inhabited the land. While many tend to think of these societies as nomadic without much in the way of permanent infrastructure, the Grave Creek Mound is proof that the residents of this area had much more of an organized society then originally thought.
This ceremonial burial mound was constructed around the 2nd century BCE, which was around the time when the Roman Empire halfway around the world was just beginning its ascendance to power. A museum on site highlights many of the artifacts that have been dug up by archaeologists, which include ornaments, pottery, jewelry, and a stone tablet inscribed in a language that has yet to be deciphered.
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
Outdoor recreation enthusiasts will find plenty to like about West Virginia. If you count yourself among those that love to camp, hike, or ski, then the Canaan Valley is an excellent destination. This scenic place is the highest valley in the United States east of the Mississippi River, with a base elevation of about 3,000 feet.
Two alpine ski resorts allow for plenty of glade skiing opportunities, while hunters will love the fact that this area is open to hunting, even in the National Wildlife Refuge within the valley in-season.
If you are travelling through West Virginia during the peak of summer, then plan to stop for an afternoon of fun at Summersville Lake. SCUBA divers will love descending to an intentionally sunk boat within this man-made wonder, while those looking to enjoy some party boat action will find plenty of gorgeous bays and coves to throw their anchor down and enjoy the natural splendour of a lake ringed by sheer cliff faces.
One of the most iconic bridges in the United States can be found in West Virginia, as the New River Gorge Bridge was once the longest steel arch bridge in the world. It is 4th in the world today, but you’ll still left staring in awe at the scale of this epic span, as it sits 876 feet above the surface of the New River Gorge below. Daredevil travelers can walk the catwalk beneath the vehicle deck, which is led by a guide and comes with safety rigging (thankfully).
Finally, those with a taste for the macabre will find the West Virginia State Penitentiary a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon, as its Gothic architecture and collection of creepy artifacts will fascinate them.
Walk through cells that once contained the worst criminals in this corner of America, view the electric chair that dispatched inmates straight up to the 1950’s, and if you feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck? It is reputed that this prison is the most haunted correctional facility in the USA, so it could be ghosts … or maybe it’s just the chilly air … maybe.