In late August, my husband and I took a road trip to beautiful West Virginia for a long weekend. This is something that had been on my wish list for a while.
Our daughter visited the New River Gorge area in Fayetteville, W.V. a few times and knew we would love it, so on her suggestion we decided to go. I was surprised to learn that it’s not that far away – only about a 4-hour drive from our home in North Carolina.
And what a lovely drive it is! We enjoyed the rolling hills that turned into stunning mountain scenery. West Virginia is, in a word, gorgeous.
There are mountains and trees as far as the eye can see. I was amazed. Here in my part of North Carolina, trees and forests are quickly disappearing as construction is booming everywhere around us — it seems they can’t tear down trees and build cookie-cutter housing developments fast enough. Not so in West Virginia, at least the parts that we were in. It was covered in trees and waterways. It felt so unspoiled, and oh-so-beautiful. It was a breath of fresh air in every sense of the word. “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” indeed.
We decided to stay in the pretty little town of Fayetteville in the southern part of the state, which was a good decision. There’s a lot to see and do in the area and within driving distance from there.
We were glad to find that Fayetteville has just the kind of chill, uncrowded, relaxed vibe we were looking for in this getaway. After arriving Wednesday evening, we walked downtown, peered into the shops, and had dinner at Southside Junction Tap House.
Thursday – Exploring Fayetteville and the New River Gorge
The New River Gorge is famous for its bridge, which appears on the state quarter. It’s also one of our country’s newest National Parks.
Crossing the New River Gorge Bridge on the highway is quite an experience in itself. It’s definitely the highest bridge I’ve ever been on! Kind of gives me butterflies in my stomach going across. But it’s worth it — the view is simply stunning.
Despite its name, the New River isn’t new. It’s one of the oldest rivers in the world, and older than the Appalachian Mountains. Our first stop was the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to learn more about the history and features of the area. There’s an overlook that’s accessible from the parking lot via a short boardwalk trail, which provides a great view of the bridge.
From there, the docent at the Visitor Center suggested that we take the nearby Fayette Station Road scenic drive. Full of hairpin turns, this 100-year-old road winds down to the bottom of the gorge, across a narrow bridge, and up the other side. Visible along the way are rocks, rapids, and views of the New River Gorge Bridge from different points. After crossing the Fayette Station Bridge, we stopped at the Fayette Station parking area and got out for a while to sit on the rocks and enjoy the view of the bridge from below and the roaring rapids.
This area is known for whitewater rafting. We didn’t do it this trip, but it’s definitely a must-do for the next one. Meanwhile, it was fun watching kayakers and groups of rafters go by in front of us while we were enjoying our time along the river.
From Fayette Station Road, we continued our drive to the Thurmond Historic District. Thurmond was a railroad boom town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today it’s a ghost town but is open to walk around and explore. There is a visitor center and museum in the restored train depot. We enjoyed walking around and seeing the abandoned buildings and homes, and meandering across the bridge and the lovely waterway.
Back in Fayetteville, hot and tired, we cooled off indoors with a delicious dinner at locally-owned Firecreek BBQ and Steaks.
Friday – A ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad
After missing out on the train ride on our Great Smoky Mountains visit, I wanted to see if anything like that was available here. Then I found out about Cass Scenic Railroad, about a 2.5 hour drive from Fayetteville. We left around 8:30 a.m. to make it in plenty of time for the 12:00 p.m., 4.5 hour train ride. The drive there was through the beautiful mountains and countryside – a delicious treat for the eyes and soul, and well worth it.
The historic Cass Scenic Railroad still runs on West Virginia coal and steam. It is the same line built in 1901 to haul lumber to the mill in Cass. Many of the passenger cars are old logging cars that have been refurbished, and are covered on top and open on the sides. When you smell the coal and hear the steam release and train whistle blow, it feels like you must have stepped back in time. And that is really cool, but I’m glad we were seated in the last car, and not right next to the loud engine. I found that my mask and sunglasses were good protection from any stray soot, so I made sure I had them on when the train was blowing.
A bag lunch is included in your ticket, and you receive this as you board. You’re also welcome to bring your own drinks and snacks.
It’s about a 2-hour ride from the station to the top of Bald Knob. Along the way, the guide relays points of interest over the loudspeaker.
The train climbs from Cass (elevation 2,452 feet) to Bald Knob (4,842 feet) on Back Allegheny Mountain, the second highest point in West Virginia, and the views are spectacular. The train stops at the top for about 30 minutes so passengers can disembark to the overlook. At the top you can see all the way to the Virginia mountains, and you also get a good view of the Green Bank Observatory, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. There is also a restroom at the overlook area (and the train has one, too).
The train stops once on the way up and down to oil parts, and once to refill with water that comes from a mountain spring. The 22-mile round trip is not boring for one minute. You can stand along the side or move around whenever you like.
After leaving Cass, we were getting pretty hungry. On the way back we went a little bit off the beaten path to try Mim’s Kitchen, a family-owned restaurant in Marlinton. Wow, was it ever good – and all homemade by friendly Mim and her small staff. We enjoyed chicken cordon bleu, veggies, strawberry shortcake, salad and yeast rolls with garlic butter, and left happily stuffed. Definitely recommend!
Saturday – More scenic exploring, waterfalls, historic mill, state parks
Saturday we were tired and it was still very hot, but we wanted to do some short hikes, see waterfalls and maybe some historic sites without driving too far. We found plenty to see nearby.
We enjoyed just driving around, winding our way past Kanawha Falls, Gauley Bridge, and Cathedral Falls.
Then we drove to Hawks Nest State Park, had our picnic lunch at one of the tables, and visited the overlook there.
From there we drove to Babcock State Park, home of the Glade Creek Grist Mill — one of the most photographed sites in the state. After touring the mill, we took a nice walk in the park. Our last stop in the park was at the gift shop to buy some cornmeal that was ground in the mill. See this post for my delicious cornbread recipe that was inspired by our visit to the mill.
Then it was back to our rental apartment to cook dinner. After that, we walked downtown in Fayetteville to an ice cream shop. Then, hopped in the truck and drove Fayette Station Road again — this time stopping at the Fayette Station boat access to see the sun setting on the New River Gorge Bridge.
It was hard to leave!
I’ll always remember West Virginia for its wildflowers and butterflies, small towns, roads with twists and turns, waterfalls, creeks and rivers everywhere, mountains and trees as far as you can see, and learning the history of the coal, wood and rail industries.
I couldn’t help but think how incredible West Virginia must be in the Fall!
In addition to the autumn leaves, some other things I’d like to see and do on future visits include: Whitewater rafting, hike Grandview, visit the Bigfoot museum, and explore other parts of the state.
Have you visited West Virginia? What was your favorite part? Let me know!
- Visitor’s Guide: “West Virginia: 50 Years of John Denver’s Country Roads.” This is a beautifully designed and super informative guide that is available as a free download. If you’re fortunate, one of the visitor’s centers might have an extra copy behind the desk if you ask. It features the different regions of the state and scenic things to see and do, and really helped inspire our itinerary.
- West Virginia Tourism site
- Visit Fayetteville
- I also recommend having a paper map as a backup. Our GPS worked for the most part, but in the mountains cell service and data availability can be spotty — especially on our way to Cass. Free maps are available at all the visitor’s centers.