Mostly poor and rural, WEST VIRGINIA is known for its timber and coal mining industries, which thrive thanks to the state’s rich natural resources. Rightly called “the Mountain State”, it boasts the longest whitewater rivers and most extensive wilderness in the eastern US; for these reasons, the state has become a popular destination for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts, as the moonshiners of old have been replaced by ski instructors and mountain-bike guides.
Back when the state was part of Virginia proper, the small-plot farmers here had little in common with the slave-holding tidewater planters of eastern Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, the area voted to set up a rival Virginia government, loyal to the Union. Statehood was formalized by Congress in 1863, and then eight years later by the Supreme Court. But mostly the state’s been known for its mining, with one of America’s most powerful unions, the United Mine Workers, developing here, and the companies responsible for resource extraction despoiling much of the landscape – the latest depredation being the “mountaintop removal” that has rendered much of the majestic scenery into a cleaved and scarred wasteland.
The state’s most popular destination, the restored 1850s town of Harpers Ferry, is barely in West Virginia at all, standing just across the broad rivers that form its Maryland and Virginia borders. To the west, the Allegheny Mountains stretch for over 150 miles, their million-plus acres of hardwood forest rivalling New England’s for brilliant autumnal colour. West Virginia’s oldest town, Lewisburg, sits just off I-64 at the mountains’ southern foot, while the capital, Charleston, lies in the comparatively flat Ohio River Valley of the west.Read More
The New River Gorge
The New River Gorge
One of West Virginia’s most spectacular river canyons, the NEW RIVER GORGE (24hr; free; w www.nps.gov/neri), lies just thirty miles west of Lewisburg along I-64. Stretching for over fifty miles, and protected as a national park, the thousand-foot chasm was carved through the limestone mountains by the New River – ironically one of the oldest in North America. Apart from one daily Amtrak train, there’s no easy access to most of the gorge; to see it in full, you have to get out on the water. For details on the cycling, climbing, hiking and rafting options available, visit the gorge’s southern Sandstone Visitor Center, located where Hwy-64 crosses the river (daily 9am–5pm; t 304/466-0417), or the Canyon Rim visitor centre, seven miles north of Oak Hill on Hwy-19 (June–Aug 10am–5pm; t 304/574-2115), which sits near the New River Gorge Bridge, dramatically rising 900ft above the river.