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. Nicknamed “the Mountain State”, it boasts the longest whitewater rivers and most extensive wilderness in the eastern USA; for these reasons, the state has become a popular destination for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts, the moonshiners of old 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. But mostly the state’s been known for its mining – one of America’s most powerful unions, the United Mine Workers, sprang from here, and the mining companies themselves are responsible for resource extraction despoiling much of the landscape, including the “mountaintop removal” that has rendered much of the majestic scenery a cleaved and scarred wasteland.
The state’s most popular destination, the restored 1850s town of Harpers Ferry, barely in West Virginia at all, stands just across the broad rivers that form its Maryland and Virginia borders. To the west, the Allegheny Mountains stretch for more than 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.
Perhaps West Virginia’s most spectacular river canyon, the NEW RIVER GORGE lies thirty miles west of Lewisburg along I-64. Stretching for more than fifty miles, and protected as a national park, the 1000ft chasm was carved through the limestone mountains by the New River – ironically one of the oldest in North America. There’s no easy access to most of the gorge; to see it in full, you have to get out on the water. Any of the three visitor centres can provide full details on all the cycling, climbing, hiking and rafting options available. The Canyon Rim centre sits near the New River Gorge Bridge, dramatically suspended 900ft above the river.
HINTON, at the southern end of the gorge (and another Amtrak stop), is an almost perfectly preserved company town, beautifully sited, with brick-lined streets angling up from the water, lined by dozens of grand civic buildings as well as rows of old worker housing.