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14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in West Virginia
With some of the east coast’s most beautiful and rugged scenery, West Virginia is filled with year-round outdoor adventure opportunities. Its wild mountain country, densely-forested wilderness areas, and fast-running rivers are playgrounds for hiking, camping, caving, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, boating, and fishing. In the winter, ski resorts offer a range of snow sports.
Active travelers will never run out of things to do here. While many tourists come to the state for these outdoor activities and scenic landscapes, West Virginia offers much more in the way of tourist attractions, from the historic sights of Harpers Ferry and the elegant Greenbrier and its legendary golf courses to some very unusual attractions, including a penitentiary to tour. You’ll find plenty of vacation ideas with our list of the top tourist attractions in West Virginia.
1. Harpers Ferry
The Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River at this small West Virginia town, which was the site of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the United States arsenal in 1859, an event that hastened the onset of the Civil War. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has museums, historical exhibits, and programs, plus about 20 miles of hiking trails. You can explore the rocks where the rivers meet and walk up to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and the old cemetery on the hill behind it.
Also in Harpers Ferry is the Appalachian Trail Visitors Center, from which you can take a hike on the Appalachian Trail for views of the town and rivers. Local outfitters offer tubing excursions in the river.
2. New River Gorge National River
New River Gorge National River
Contrary to its name, New River is actually one of the oldest rivers on the continent. As it flows into West Virginia, it cuts through the Appalachian Plateau, forming the New River Gorge and plenty of whitewater for tubing, rafting, and canoeing. Other recreational opportunities are all around it: hiking, ziplining, hunting, fishing, bird-watching, camping, biking, and rock climbing.
One of the state’s most photographed sights is the soaring New River Bridge, the longest steel span in the hemisphere and the nation’s third highest, 876 feet above the canyon floor. The National Park Service maintains 70,000 acres of park lands along the river, and at Hawk’s Nest State Park, you can ride an aerial tramway into the bottom of the New River Gorge, a prime spot for whitewater rafting.
3. Blackwater Falls State Park
Blackwater Falls State Park
Named for the dark waters of the Blackwater River, colored by tannic acid from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles, Blackwater Falls drops 60 feet over sandstone ledges before the river continues to rush through an eight-mile-long gorge. Steps and viewing platforms make the falls accessible year-round.
Also popular places to visit in the park are Elakala Falls, which cascade down the wall of the canyon and can be reached by a short trail, and Pendleton Falls, easily seen from a roadside pull-off. The view into the Blackwater Canyon from Lindy Point, one of the most beautiful places in West Virginia, is another park highlight, as is Pendleton Point Overlook, at the canyon’s deepest point. The park has a boating lake, as well as swimming, fishing, and camping.
4. Whitewater Rafting
It’s no secret that West Virginia is one of the best places to go whitewater rafting. Several rivers offer world-class rapids for experts, and others are well-suited to less experienced and learning rafters. The most famous waters are in the Gauley River, between Summersville and Fayetteville, in the Gauley River National Recreation Area. Here, the 25-mile river flows at high speed through gorges and valleys, providing the thrill of a lifetime to experienced rafters; it’s no wonder the Class V rapids are nicknamed the “Beast of the East.”
Fall is the time to find the most challenging flow, but at any time it’s a good idea to hire an experienced guide who knows the river and its quirks and can help you find the places that are best suited to your own experience level. Although it’s known for its Class V rapids the Gauley has some stretches of Class III that are suitable for intermediate levels.
For those with less experience, the Tygart River, Cheat River, and Potomac River are good options, as is the Upper New River, which has good stretches for beginners. Lower New River has Class IV rapids that offer runs past the New River Gorge Bridge.
5. Seneca Rocks and Monongahela National Forest
Monongahela National Forest
With elevations ranging from around 1,000 feet to 4,863 feet above sea level, the Monongahela National Forest offers beautiful views, wildlife, and the highest point in the state. The variety of terrain and rainfall across its more than 900,000 acres gives it one of the most diverse forest ecosystems in the country, supporting more than 225 bird species; 75 species of trees; and 70 fish species, both game and non-game.
About 100,000 acres of the park are designated as the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, offering some of the best traditional multi-pitch technical climbing on the east coast. Seneca Rocks is a distinctive 250-foot-deep formation of white and gray quartzite that stands almost 900 feet above the North Fork River. Some routes are moderate, but experts are challenged by the exposed summit pinnacle.
This year-round resort is best known for its skiing, with three separate areas to choose from, all with 100 percent snowmaking. With an 800-foot vertical drop, Snowshoe Basin’s 38 trails cover all experience levels, served by seven lifts, including a high-speed detachable quad. Of Silver Creek‘s 18 trails, 12 are open for night skiing. The Western Territory Area’s steep, rugged terrain has 1,500 feet of vertical drop, the most advanced terrain in the region. Steeps on Cupp Run, designed by legendary Olympian Jean-Claude Killy, and Shay’s Revenge reach 52 percent pitch.
In other seasons, activities include mountain biking, scenic chairlift rides, geocaching, horseback riding, Segway tours, ziplining, trampolining, climbing, pedal boats, paddle boarding, canoeing, hiking, fishing, and golf at the Raven Golf Club. Not far away, in Greenbank, is the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
7. The Greenbrier
The Greenbrier has earned its designation as a National Historic Landmark several times over. Located at White Sulphur Springs, which have been in use as a natural spa since the 1700s, the grand hotel has hosted 26 presidents, foreign dignitaries, and royalty, including Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
But however grand and luxurious it is as a resort, it has played other historic roles, too. Early in World War II, it was used as a detention center for German and Japanese diplomats who were in the United States when war was declared. Later in the war, it was commandeered by the U.S. Army to use as a hospital, where nearly 25,000 patients were treated.
During the Cold War, an underground shelter was built to house the entire U.S. Congress in case of nuclear attack. This shelter, given the code name “Project Greek Island,” was decommissioned in 1992 and is open to the public for tours, as is the Presidents’ Cottage Museum, with exhibits about presidential visits and the history of the resort.
More than 50 different activities are available in the resort and in the 5,100-acre Greenbrier State Forest. Along with horseback riding, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, adventure courses, and a 40,000-square-foot spa, the resort has multiple golf courses (even an indoor one for winter) and a distinguished golf history as the venue for numerous championships.
Greenbrier State Forest offers cabins and campsites, swimming, fishing, bike trails and hiking — the 78-mile-long Greenbrier River Trail is a multi-purpose rail trail that is also used for cross-country skiing in the winter. A getaway in one of the centuries-old Legacy Cottages is one of the most romantic things to do in West Virginia.
8. Seneca Caverns
Seneca Caverns | Sonja / photo modified
The formation of Seneca Caverns began 460 million years ago, when the cavern’s limestone bed first formed. The native Seneca people are thought to have used the caves for shelter beginning in the early 1400s. The caverns were later found by a local farmer, Laven Teter, while looking for water for his livestock, and the largest chamber, rising to 60 feet in places, is named Teter Hall in his memory.
You can visit these on one-hour guided tours that descend to 165 feet below the entrance. Pathways are well-lit, and cement steps with handrails help visitors navigate deeper into the caverns. The separate Stratosphere Cave is on the same property.
9. West Virginia Penitentiary
One of the most unlikely places to visit in any state, the West Virginia Penitentiary welcomes guests from April through November to tour the grim prison that sometimes held more than 1,000 prisoners at a time. The forbidding Gothic fortress opened in 1876, and the last prisoner left in 1995. Between those dates it was the scene of fires, escapes, prison riots, and almost 100 executions.
Visitors can tour the building and its claustrophobia-inducing five-foot by seven-foot cells during the day, or explore the reportedly haunted location at night. The penitentiary is a popular place for paranormal researchers looking for evidence of spectral phenomena.
10. Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum | Mike / photo modified
As unconventional a tourist attraction as the West Virginia Penitentiary, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is a landmark in the history of treatment for the mentally ill. Constructed between 1858 and 1881, the asylum is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the hemisphere, and in the world it is exceeded only by the Kremlin in Moscow. It was designed by the architect Richard Andrews, who arranged the long rambling wings in a staggered formation, so that each of the connecting structures received as much therapeutic sunlight and fresh air as possible.
Tours highlight a number of historical themes, including architecture, Civil War raids, treatment of the mentally ill, even the facility’s agricultural history and place in the local community. Like the West Virginia Penitentiary, the asylum has also been a research location for paranormal investigators.
11. West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center
Among the free things to do in West Virginia is touring the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston to learn about the state’s culture, history, art, paleontology, archaeology, and geology. One of the most popular of its 60,000 artifacts is a pair of dressed fleas from a 19th-century flea circus. Well-designed exhibits of a more serious nature literally follow a path through the state’s history, beginning with stone and dirt and ending in a paved highway. As visitors progress from room to room through the centuries, audio features augment exhibits and films.
Artifacts include everyday implements and items such as a telescope that George Washington used to survey land in West Virginia. In one section, you’ll learn more about John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, and elsewhere is an original settler’s cabin reconstructed in the museum.
12. Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
At the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, you can relive the Golden Age of Steam on a line built in 1901 to haul lumber from the forest to the mill, riding in refurbished logging flat-cars pulled by an original Shay steam locomotive. The full 4.5-hour trip includes switchbacks that allow the train to climb grades as high as 11 percent to reach Bald Knob. At an altitude of 4,700 feet, this is West Virginia’s third highest point, overlooking spectacular views.
At Whittaker Station, a 1940s logging camp has been recreated, with the living quarters and the equipment. At the base, you can tour a museum and the depot and see restored company houses that can be rented for overnight stays. On the train ride, be prepared for noise, black smoke, and chilly temperatures at Bald Knob.
13. Adena Burial Mounds
One of the free things to do in West Virginia, and one of its secret places, is also one of the most intriguing, a glimpse into a culture that thrived here 2,000 years ago. Grave Creek Archaeological Complex centers on the largest known burial mounds of the Adena people, built about 250-150 BC. These mounds, as high as 69 feet and nearly 300 feet at the base, required moving more than 60,000 tons of earth, creating the largest conical type structure of any of the mound-building cultures.
14. West Virginia State Capitol
Five feet higher than the dome of the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the 293-foot golden dome at the State Capitol in Charleston reflects Greek and Roman architectural influences. It was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York City, the world’s tallest building when it was constructed. During the building process, from 1924 to 1932, more than 700 train carloads of Indiana limestone were used. White marble from Vermont and Italian travertine sheath much of its interior, which you can tour daily.
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More on West Virginia: For a luxurious and relaxing vacation, consider staying at one of the top-rated resorts in West Virginia. If you have time to tack on one more stop during your trip, consider visiting the attractions of Charleston, West Virginia.