I knew from some short visits from my home in D.C. that West Virginia is a state of immense natural beauty—with more parks than I could keep straight (including the country’s newest national park, New River Gorge). It’s also a state of contradictions—of coal mines and verdant parks, of massive infrastructures and wide-open spaces.
After three days of road tripping along the state’s famous country roads in April, I felt like I was in on its secrets. Here’s how to take a road trip through West Virginia, centered around three natural landmarks of interest: Blackwater Falls in the north, Seneca Rocks midstate, and New River Gorge in the south. It’s a trip you’ll want to do again—once you recover from the windy roads.
Day 1: Blackwater Falls State Park
Drive time from Washington, D.C. to Blackwater Falls State Park: just over three hours
Blackwater Falls State Park, in the north of West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, is a scenic example of the state’s rich but underrated outdoor offerings. It’s quiet here—very much so—despite the fact that the 57-foot cascade, for which the park is named, is one of the most photographed spots in the state. As soon as you see the falls, you’ll understand why Blackwater Falls has its name: The water is dyed a blackish-amber tint from the tannic acid in the needles of hemlock and red spruce that drop into the flow. The park also has a small network of trails as well as the longest sledding route on the East Coast. Don’t miss the short, but steep, climb down to the falls where you can take in the views from well-maintained observation decks.
Tip: The weather here, as elsewhere in the state’s mountains, can be unpredictable. My April trip came just as the snow melted.
Drive time from Blackwater Falls State Park: five minutes
After stretching your legs in the park, head a few minutes back to the towns of Thomas and Davis. Often mentioned in one breath, as if two brothers in a family, the postage stamp–size towns are about three miles from each other and just north of Blackwater Falls State Park. Davis is the smaller of the two, with a main street offering posthike bites at Hellbender Burritos (which might surprise you with vegetarian offerings like the Goofy Foot, a burrito stuffed with soy sauce–grilled tofu with assorted veggies). Enjoy craft brews at Stumptown Ales, a local spot that welcomes guests under a rainbow pride flag.
Drive time from Davis: five minutes
Hop back in your car and drive on to Thomas. Once a melting pot mining town (with an Italian language newspaper to boot), Thomas is now an eclectic, artistic enclave that draws city dwellers for its music and proximity to Blackwater Falls. Thomas features a lively mix of pottery studios, galleries, a vintage store, and an outpost of the state’s best coffee shop, TipTop. But the real draw here is the Purple Fiddle, a legendary honky-tonk music venue. On most nights of the week, the Purple Fiddle hosts a range of country, folk, and bluegrass acts. Tickets range from free to $30 depending on who’s playing.
Where to stay: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge
- Book now: Blackwater Falls State Park Lodge
Blackwater Falls State Park’s midcentury lodge finished top-to-bottom renovations in 2022 and offers cozy, upgraded rooms with sweeping views of the park. With just 54 rooms, the lodge feels as close to nature as you can get from the comfort of a real bed. Its location makes for immersive stargazing and—if you wake up early enough—for watching the sun rise over the falls.
Day 2: Seneca Rocks
Drive time from Blackwater Falls to Seneca Rocks: 45 minutes
After a night toe tapping at the Purple Fiddle, settle in for a down-home breakfast at the lodge’s Smokehouse Restaurant or get coffee and a pastry to go at TipTop before driving south to Seneca Rocks. This dramatic outcropping is popular with boulderers, and the North Fork River below the 900-foot-high rock formation is well-known to fly-fishers and photographers.
The 45-minute drive grows increasingly curvy as you wind south (it’s worth taking slowly). Its unobstructed vistas accompany numerous Christian churches around every bend. Park at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, which, like other visitor centers in the state, is state of the art and staffed by knowledgeable and friendly rangers (one lent me some of her sunscreen).
The Discovery Center supplies one of the best views of the rocks, so stop in for a quick photo and obtain a map while there. For an excellent afternoon climb, a 3.6-mile out and back hike features a swift ascent up, but you’ll be rewarded with a view of Pendleton County’s valleys and the surrounding Monongahela National Forest.
Culinary offerings around Seneca Rocks are scarce, so if you’re hungry after your hike, take a 10-minute drive south to American restaurant Asbury’s for fare that includes bison burgers and beet and goat cheese salads.
Drive time from Seneca Rocks to Lewisburg: 2.5 hours
From Asbury’s it’s back in the car and a nearly two-and-a-half-hour drive south to Lewisburg. Choose the smaller and windier Route 219 (scenery along the route deserves plenty of pull-over moments). If you have the car radio on, or if you’re relying on your cell phone for navigation, you will probably notice when you drive through the town of Green Bank. The nearby Allegheny Mountains are home to the world’s largest radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. The massive white structure, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is unavoidable from the road. Since 1958, Green Bank has maintained strict “quiet zone” regulations, banning cell phones, radios, and even microwaves in order to avoid disturbing the telescope’s sensitivities.
About 45 minutes before Lewisburg (and after you get cell service back), you might see a stately white home set back from the road. Turn in the driveway at what is the unexpected homestead where Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Pearl S. Buck was born. Although she only lived in the Hillsboro, West Virginia, home for a few months, the property is preserved and proudly cared for by a docent who will be glad to give you a tour.
Continue on the road to Lewisburg, a genteel town with a pleasant main street of antiques stores and cafés. Lewisburg’s Stardust Cafe serves farm-to-table foods in sandwiches and salads with organic meats and vegetables. The movement’s reverberations are felt throughout the town with some excellent dining options; most notable is the French Goat, where upmarket French cuisine is served at white tablecloth-covered tables in a historic home.
Where to stay: The General Lewis Inn
- Book now: The General Lewis Inn
The crowning jewel of Lewisburg, the General Lewis Inn is a destination in itself. The inn has been in continuous operation since 1929 and was renovated in 2009 by new owners, a husband-and-wife team with deep local roots. The General Lewis retains its historic charm while being thoroughly modern with rooms mixing antiques and contemporary pieces, plus flowers picked from the garden. Don’t miss its swanky cocktail bar and restaurant that serves creative spins on southern favorites like hush puppies, fried okra, and cornbread biscuits served in miniature cast iron skillets. You’ll want to enjoy dinner—or at least a drink—on the porch.
Day 3: New River Gorge
Drive time from Lewisburg to New River Gorge: about 70 minutes
After breakfast at the inn or in town at the Wild Bean or Corn + Flour, bid farewell to Lewisburg and set your sights south on New River Gorge. The newest national park, New River Gorge is accessible by a major highway. But opt for the country roads and drive south along Route 60. Possibly the most beautiful drive in West Virginia—and one that definitely lives up to the “Almost Heaven” tagline John Denver gave the state, the route cuts through a landscape that looks virtually untouched minus the occasional mine or wind turbine. Hairpin turns abound but the scenery is worth the drops in your stomach.
Stop at the park’s Canyon Rim Visitor Center, which offers a thorough overview on the New River landscape and the people who have called it home. A rich collection of photographs and oral histories gives a sense of the area when mining was booming and the New River Valley was bustling with communities that relied on the gorge, mines, and the C&O railroad that once barreled through the valley.
Although New River Gorge became a national park in 2020, the river itself is one of the oldest in North America. Today the park spans 70,000 acres and is popular with hikers, white-water rafters, and photographers looking for the perfect shot of New River Gorge Bridge, a dramatic engineering feat that is the longest steel span bridge in the Western Hemisphere
From the visitor center, drive along the steep, curvy one-way Fayette Station Road to the base of the Gorge. Continue the drive until you reach the town of Thurmond. Once a busy mining and railway town with dry-goods stores, saloons, hotels, and a jeweler, Thurmond is now a ghost town steeped in history. A self-guided walking tour will lead you past remnants of the once-lively center.
Where to stay: Adventures on the Gorge
- Book now: Adventures on the Gorge
Despite its beauty and wealth of offerings, the New River Gorge area mostly lacks places to stay outside of rental homes and guest houses. Adventures on the Gorge, which also hosts white-water rafting excursions at the Gorge, has cabin rentals as well as campsites. Most of the cabins are fairly rustic and simple, but some come with an outdoor hot tub (an ideal way to end a day of hiking and driving). A stay here is for the pure, woodsy air and premium stargazing, rather than luxe bedding. Enjoy a sundowner at one of their on-site restaurants, or head into nearby Fayetteville (a five minute drive away) for dinner.