“Almost heaven, West Virginia. Blue Ridge Mountains. Shenandoah River. Life is old here, older than the trees. Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.”
The song is beautiful, and one I can’t stop singing as my father and I criss-cross this state. The mountains loom over us, wisps of clouds hovering around the tops, trees covering them, the colors just starting to change. The air here is fresh, the threat of rain looming despite the blue skies.
The beginning of the fall colors in West Virginia
For me, like so many others from California, West Virginia has been something of a mystery. We know the song – John Denver truly did this state an amazing service – and we know a little about the politics of coal miners. But coming here, spending time to explore the natural beauty of the place, was eye-opening. “Almost heaven” seems almost appropriate. West Virginia is beautiful.
Most of the scenic places you’ll want to see in West Virginia are in the southern and eastern portions of the state, where ridges of the Appalachian Mountains rise from the Allegheny Plateau and river systems flow to feed both the Ohio in the northwest and the Potomac in the northeast.
This entire portion of the state is lovely, and even driving down the interstate will lead to beautiful mountain vistas. However, there are a few especially beautiful places in West Virginia that are worth going out of your way to see.
New River Gorge National River is a rough name, but an incredible place to see. Located less than two hours southeast of Charleston, it is also easy to get to. The National River, run by the National Parks System, stretches over 53 miles of the New River, itself one of the geologically oldest rivers in North America – the river turns into the Kanawha River as it continues to flow through West Virginia and into the Ohio. All of the gorge is beautiful, steep tree-covered mountains rising up from a slow-moving river. However, the best place to really see it is where US Highway 19 crosses via the New River Gorge Bridge, itself an engineering wonder and one of the most photographed spots in the state.
The New River Gorge Bridge as seen from the viewpoint near the Visitors Center.
Built in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was, for many years, the world’s longest single-span arch bridge (it is now fourth). It lowered the time to cross the river from 45 minutes via a winding road down the gorge and across an old wooden bridge at river-level, to 45 seconds. There are great views of the bridge all along the old road, which is now one-way crossing the river from northeast to southwest, and it is worth the time to take that drive.
Standing on the old bridge with an amazing view of the New River Gorge Bridge, and the gorge itself
For another great view of the gorge outside of the National River area, the scenic US Highway 60 runs past Hawk’s Nest State Park. A couple of easy viewpoints are right off the highway.
The view from Hawk’s Nest State Park
Blackwater Falls State Park is probably the Crown jewel of the West Virginia state parks system, and for good reason. Here, in the northeastern part of the state, the Blackwater River flows over a thundering waterfall. Reaching the bottom requires close to 100 stairs, but there are viewpoints along the way.
Notice the color of the water. Not black, it gets is darkness from tannins in the bark and roots of trees growing alongside the river. Those tannins leech into the water, giving it a unique color and texture.
In the far eastern portion of the state along US Highway 33 just before entering Virginia, visitors will find the Seneca Rocks, prominent crags of Tuscarora quartzite popular with rock climbers and photographers alike. Some hiking opportunities also exist, though the outcropping themselves are really only accessible by technical climb. This is West Virginia’s mountains at their absolute best!
Seneca Rocks and the speck of a hawk flying above them
West Virginia’s scenic beauty is incredible and diverse. The state, from this standpoint, really may be almost heaven. Don’t miss visiting!
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