West Virginia is a Southern state that’s part of the Appalachian, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeastern regions of the country. It’s most famous for its landscapes, which include mountains, valleys, and hills, as well as its moonshine distilleries and Country Roads (the hit song by John Denver).
It’s the 10th smallest by area and the 12th least populous with 1,793,716 residents as of 2020. Known as the “Mountain State”, the majority of it, about 80%, has been left untouched, and it is covered by forests.
With gorgeous scenery, tourism in West Virginia is driven by outdoor recreation like hiking, biking, and skiing. It’s a terrific destination all year round whether you want to enjoy the warmth of summer, see the fall colors, plow through the snow, or smell the spring flowers.
West Virginia is also a historic spot with many sites dating back to the days of early colonization and settlers. With a little bit of everything, this green state is a great place to explore if you find yourself wandering near the East Coast of the United States.
Livin’ La Vida West Virginia
Visit West Virginia’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Mountain State”
Once a favored hunting ground for Native Americans, ancient tribes have lived on the land for thousands of years. With a special culture, the early people were known as mound builders.
Their culture still survives today and there are still sites where you can see the burial mounds rise up from the ground. By 10,500 BC, Paleo-Indian culture appeared in West Virginia’s river valleys and watersheds.
The first Europeans to travel to the area were Thomas Batts and Robert Fallum who were sent by the Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony to explore the area. It was during this expedition that the New River and Kanawha Falls.
Most of West Virginia developed because of the rivers, which were used for the transportation of people and goods. There were many trading routes and settlements established on branches of major waterways like the Potomac, Monongahela, and Shenandoah Rivers.
Prior to West Virginia becoming its own state, it was called Trans-Allegheny Virginia. Unlike the eastern region of the territory, Trans-Allegheny Virginia was filled with immigrants from Pennsylvania who had come of German and Protestant Scotch-Irish descent.
Living in such a rugged area, these people had major differences between politics, economics, and culture. Relying not as much on slavery, the state became heavily divided over slavery.
Just days after the start of the American Civil War in April 1861, West Virginia and Virginia separated. However, West Virginia would not officially be accepted to the Union until June 1863. Throughout the Civil War, the region remained heavily split, though in favor of the Union.
Ultimately it’s believed that 32,000 West Virginians fought for the Union while 18,000 fought for the Confederacy.
Capital City of Charleston
Sitting at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers is Charleston, the capital city of West Virginia. Home to 48,864 people as of 2020, it’s also the largest city in the state. Prominent historical industries in the area have been salt, coal, and natural gas.
Today, it has expanded to include government, medicine, utilities, and trade. A major metropolitan area, there are also several higher education institutions in Charleson like the University of Charleston, West Virginia State University, and Marshall University.
Although Charleston is a fairly big city, it still feels quite small and has a tight-knit community. Much less of a cosmopolitan metropolis, it’s a gorgeous capital that sits right on the riverfronts. The old architecture emerges from the hills of the Appalachian Mountains. With dozens of neighborhoods, some of the best are the City Center, East End, West Side, South Hills, and South Charleston.
Major attractions are the State Capitol, West Virginia State Museum, Capitol Street and Market, West Virginia Veterans Memorial, East End Historic District, Governor’s Mansion, Avampato Discovery Museum, and the Haddad Riverfront Park. Not too far from the city limits, people can escape into nature at the Ruffner Cavin and Daniel Boone Park and Kanawha State Forest.
Foodies also head to Charleston to taste some of the classic comfort foods. Common dishes that are served in the local restaurants include venison or any type of wild game, pepperoni rolls, cornbread, beans, and buckwheat pancakes. Moonshine is also very popular and has now been commercialized in distilleries.
Huntington, “The Jewel City”
Home to 359,862 people as of 2020, Huntington is the second-largest city in West Virginia. Relying on the natural-resource industries like coal, oil, steel, and chemicals, the city is emerging as a tourist destination. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and close to the Ohio River, Huntington is a beautiful urban destination.
Most visitors are drawn to the waterfront, but there are also plenty of things to check out in the city center too including parks and museums. Some of the outstanding outdoor areas include Ritter Park, Beech Fork State Park, the Heritage Farm Museum and Village, Pullman Square, Harris Riverfront Park, and Camden Park.
Educational activities include tours of the Huntington Museum of Art, Museum of Radio and Technology, Heritage Station, and the Touma Museum of Medicine. Other things to see are the Memorial Arch and the Huntington Historic District.
Morgantown, home of West Virginia University
Supporting 30,347 residents as of 2020, Morgantown is a small city on the banks of the Monongahela River. Consisting of various neighborhoods, some of the best to visit include the First Ward, Second Ward, Jerome Park, Suncrest, Sunnyside, Woodburn, and Sabraton. The city is most famous for being home to West Virginia University, which was first founded in 1867 and home to the Mountaineers.
Sights in Morgantown include the Art Museum of MVU, the West Virginia Botanic Garden, Earl L. Core Arboretum, Royce J. & Caroline B. Watts Museum, and the Spark! Imagination & Science Center. Other highlights are the Morgantown History Museum, Sunset Beach Marina, and the Morgantown Farmers’ Market. Visitors can also enjoy the local craft breweries, restaurants, and shops.
Harpers Ferry, A Historic Town
One of the most popular places in West Virginia is Harpers Ferry in Jefferson County. The historic town is home to a mere 285 people as of 2020. However, it’s estimated that more than 250,000 people visit Harpers Ferry each year.
In 2021 alone, the number of visitors skyrocketed to 309,901 people. The town is most known for being the site of John Brown’s raid, which occurred in 1859. During this event, John Brown initiated a slave revolt and robbed the Harpers Ferry Armory.
Today, John Brown’s Fort is West Virginia’s most visited historic site. Visitors can learn more about John Brown and the raid by visiting the fort and they can see some of the town’s oldest architecture.
Also close to Harpers Ferry is the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail. For learning about the 19th-century history of West Virginia and seeing stunning landscapes, there is no better place to go than Harpers Ferry.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
One of the oldest rivers on the North American continent, the New River, flows right through West Virginia. Protecting 70,000 acres of land and a portion of the river is the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. A significant site for natural and cultural history, visitors from all over travel to the park to enjoy its scenery and recreational activities.
The 63rd national park in the United States, the New River Gorge is most famous for its whitewater rafting. Often considered to have some of the best whitewater in the country, this park is busiest during the summer months. Rafters head in at Cunard and get out at Fayette Station. Water conditions can get quite rugged with the rapids frequently changing.
Other activities that are fun are hiking and climbing. Trails run all through the park and there are plenty of areas where climbing is permitted. Many consider New River Gorge to also have some of the best climbing on the East Coast. Must-see destinations in the park include the Canyon Rim, Sandstone Falls, Grandview, Fayette Station, and Bluestone.
Blackwater Falls State Park
Featuring the Blackwater Falls, the state park is located in the Allegheny Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. Falling for 57 feet, the waterfalls are known for their unique color, which comes from tannic acid that is found in hemlock and red spruce needles. Given the opportunity, everyone should see this picturesque natural landmark.
However, there are many more places in Blackwater Falls State Park besides the main waterfall. Other worthwhile sites include Elakala Falls, the Pendleton Point Overlook, and Lindy Pont. There is also a network of hiking trails, which showcases about 20 miles of paths where you can meander through the wilderness.
Grave Creek Burial Mound
One of the oldest sites in the state is the Grave Creek Burial Mound. Standing 62 feet tall and 240 feet in diameter, the mound was built by ancient people who were part of the Adena culture. Moving 60,000 tons of earth to make it, it’s believed to date back to about 250-150 BC.
The closest town to it is Moundsville and many people travel to the area to see this historic and cultural site. Most of the artifacts found in the area have been moved to the Delf Norona Museum.
West Virginia is a popular winter destination for skiers and snowboarders. And probably the best resort to go to is Snowshoe. Featuring 244 acres of skiable terrain, the Snowshoe Mountain Resort is actually situated on Cheat Mountain. The resort’s name is simply Snowshoe. Cheat Mountain stands 4,858 feet tall and its high point is called Thorny Flat.
Skiers and snowboarders flock to the area during the winter snows and many are also drawn to the Village at Snowshoe, one of the state’s top ski towns. It’s where the lodgings, dining, and shopping areas are all located, and ironically, are located on top of Cheap Mountain. It’s what you call an upside-down ski area.
It’s not only great for winter; visitors also enjoy the warmer months for mountain biking, golfing, hiking, and special seasonal events.
Monongahela National Forest
Another spot in the Allegheny Mountains is the Monongahela National Forest. Covering around 921,000 acres of federal land, it has portions located within 10 West Virginia counties. It’s here that some of the state’s tallest mountains are found.
This includes Spruce Knob, which is 4,863 feet tall. Living within the forest are 75 different species of trees. Having grown back from heavy harvest during the 20th century, the forests are now healthy. And they grow an abundance of red spruce, balsam fir, and mountain ash.
Fun activities at Monongahela include hiking, camping, and taking scenic drives. Many people walk to the forest’s three waterfalls. Along the way, you may see highland bogs, rivers, and blueberry thickets. For the sporty outdoorsman, people are also permitted to fish within certain areas of the national forest.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
One of the darker and more unique tourist destinations in West Virginia is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Running from 1864 to 1994 and once known as the Weston State Hospital, the asylum is now privately owned and operated. Public tours are available by reservation and there are many special paranormal tours given during the night.
Most of the asylum has been left untouched, but the new owners do have dreams of fully renovating the property. The outside of the asylum is stunning and features hand-cut stone masonry. Protected as a National Historic Landmark since 1990, it’s estimated that a few hundred thousand people visit the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum each year.
Filled with picturesque scenery and mostly rural or remote, West Virginia lets you escape into epic wilderness areas of the American South. Perfect for outdoor lovers, the historic and cultural sites are excellent educational opportunities for all travelers. No matter the time of year, your trip to West Virginia will be magical.
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