Almost Heaven (aka West Virginia) is the Place to Be this Fall

Canaan Valley
Canaan Valley
Aug 1, 2019

No matter where you’re from, you know you’ve belted out Take me Home, Country Roads with such conviction that the casual observer would assume your deepest desire to be a reunion with your mountain mama. And hey, no judgment. From the very first lyrics—“Almost heaven”—the song speaks to that part of everyone that longs to go home to a magical place, where life is older than the trees (even if you’ve never actually been there).

New River Gorge

The good news? This coming fall is the perfect time to see what you’ve been missing in West Virginia: the otherworldly wilderness, the dreamy drives, the neighborly hospitality, the bountiful festivals—and the impossibly bucolic little towns. So let those country roads (or any of a number of direct daily flights) take you home to your mountain mama, whether you’ve ever met her or not. And once you’ve arrived, check out seven of our favorite things to do there. 

Leaf-peeping

Cass Scenic Railroad

You haven’t been to West Virginia until you’ve driven along winding, two-lane roads through the mountains, where brilliant orange, yellow and apple-red leaves surround you like a familiar embrace. Some of the most surreal fall foliage you’ll see is in the high reaches of the Monongahela National Forest, an expanse of more than 900,000 acres that encompasses wooded mountains, valleys and charming towns. Follow Route 150, the Highland Scenic Highway up about 4500 feet, and stop periodically to take in the views and pinch yourself.

Or leave the driving to the professionals and feel the crisp mountain wind in your hair with a trip along the Cass Scenic Railroad. Six days a week, a steam-powered locomotive pulls a line of open-air cars up the mountain from the 100-year-old logging town of Cass to the third highest point in the state (and one of the most 'grammable).  Just be sure to bundle up—you’ll want to be cozy for the 4.5-hour roundtrip.


Market shopping

Orr's Farm Market. Photo by Molly Wolff.

With the highest percentage of family-owned farms in the U.S., West Virginia is the perfect place to experience the autumn harvest. On Saturdays through Nov. 2 (then once a month through April), see why the Morgantown Farmers Market landed on Southern Living magazine’s Best Farmers Markets in the South (the local honey and hand-crafted treats will start to give you an idea). The market hosts more than 40 vendors, all from within a 50-mile radius, to ensure freshness and a small carbon footprint. In-the-know locals don’t leave without hitting up Patty’s Pastries for freshly baked bread, cookies and pepperoni rolls, a local delicacy that’s earned the attention of The New York Times.

If 50 miles is too wide a radius, go straight to the source at Orr’s Farm Market in Martinsburg, which offers hand-picked and locally sourced goods from the area, in addition to pick-your-own fruits from the on-site orchard. The farm specializes in peaches, available into mid-September, and a fall bounty of golden apples, one of the state’s most abundant crops. A pumpkin patch opens Sept. 7 and offers hay rides, a corn maze, apple-cider donuts and rows upon rows of orange jack-o’-lanterns-to-be. For the best selection of prepared foods, head to Taylor’s Farm Market in Inwood, where you can browse wines, jams, jellies and salsas all made in-state, just down a country road or two.


Whitewater rafting

New River Gorge

Each September and October, the waters behind the Summersville Dam rush into the Gauley River in a series of timed releases, making the winding mountain waterway a world-renowned whitewater rollercoaster.   

Adrenaline seekers can strap on a helmet, grab a paddle and hop in a raft to battle more than 100 rapids across two 12-mile stretches of river. The Upper Gauley provides a high-impact challenge for even experienced rafters, but on the Lower Gauley, newbies can still experience the OMG drops, rugged waters and breathtaking views of canyons and brilliant foliage. And with outfitters equipped for any skill level, you’ll be able to find the expedition that’s right for you and your group.


Off-roading

Hatfield-McCoy Trail

With winding mountain paths part of everyday life here, West Virginia’s rep as one of the world’s off-roading capitals doesn't come as a surprise—even if some of those heart-pumping rides do (in a good way). See for yourself on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system, named after the famed feuding families who once settled these parts, and now home to 700 miles of off-road trails.

Each fall, ATV-, UTV- and dirt bike-enthusiasts descend on the town of Gilbert for the National Trailfest (Oct. 10-14) for drags, scavenger hunts and more. In fact, Gilbert is one of several towns in the same area—the others being Man, Matewan, Delbarton and Williamson—that welcome off-road vehicles anywhere within the city limits.

Even if you wouldn’t know an ATV from a Big Wheel, you'll find outfitters that take care of everything for you: vehicle rentals, permits, lodging—the works.


Fly-fishing

Anglers come from all over to get their flies in the mouths of West Virginia’s native brook trout, and many consider fall the best time to fish for these freshwater beauties. The Cranberry River, located in the Cranberry Wilderness area of the Monongahela National Forest, is among the best spots for wild brookies. The river is split into two sections: The backcountry section is not accessible by vehicle but rewards a hike or bike in with bracing solitude. Casual anglers can reach the lower section of the river fairly easily by vehicle.

Not sure how to get started? Harman's Cabins (10 miles south of Petersburg) reels in newbies with luxe log cabins and knowledgeable fly-fishing guides. No gear? No problem: Harman's also rents rods, reels, waders and boots, so all you have to worry about is finding those wily brook trout.


Show-going

FestivALL

Folk music, bluegrass and rock meet and shake hands in West Virginia’s hole-in-the-wall venues and hallowed concert halls. Pickers and crooners should make the Purple Fiddle their home base—it’s a family-friendly music venue, inn and restaurant all rolled into one and situated on Front Street in historic Thomas. You’ll find Appalachian acoustic acts and nationally touring musicians nearly every day at this intimate venue that’s just a short drive from iconic hiking, biking and sightseeing spots (don’t miss a side trip to Blackwater Falls State Park).

For something on a grander scale, check out a live taping of Mountain Stage at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston. For more than 35 years, this two-hour radio show has showcased the intersections of traditional mountain music and contemporary acts with a live recording among the wild, wonderful hills of West Virginia and distributed worldwide by NPR. Upcoming artists include Shawn Colvin (Sept. 15), Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets (Sept. 22) and the Steel Wheels (Sept. 29).

If you’re looking for a more rock-and-roll dive, head to 123 Pleasant Street (the auspicious address doubles as the venue’s name) in the college town of Morgantown to catch the likes of Reverend Horton Heat (Oct. 4) and Southern Culture on the Skids (Oct. 25). Getting a good view of the stage is great and all, but one of the best places to look is up: The venue still has its original, intricate tin ceiling tiles. 


Festival-hopping

New River Gorge

As the fall days cool down, the mountain state’s festival season is just heating up, with dozens of the best local and statewide celebrations on tap. One that’s unquestionably an only-in-WV kind of the thing: the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant on Sept. 21-22. As the legend goes, residents of this town began seeing a winged creature with red, glowing eyes in the months before a bonafide disaster—the collapse of the Silver Bridge in December of 1967. A Mothman sighting at this annual festival is less of an omen than a given, with folks from all over coming to participate in cosplay, check out live music and visit the local Mothman Museum. For prep, throw back to 2002 and watch Richard Gere and Laura Linney in the Mothman Prophecies.

Following close on the Mothman's heels is the Leaf Peepers Festival in Tucker County (Sept. 27-29). For arguably the best vantage point on the festival's namesake leaves, don't miss the chairlift rides at Canaan Valley Resort. A close second? The fall foliage horseback rides—or if you'd rather kick back, the horse-drawn carriage rides. In between, you'll find all manner of local music, art and of course, food. 

If you lean more literary, get to Charleston for the West Virginia Book Festival (Oct. 4-5). This year, the best-selling authors James Patterson (of Alex Cross series fame) and Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”) are among the featured writers who’ll offer readings, talks, workshops and—keepin’ it local—an Appalachian-ghost-story session. 

On Columbus Day weekend, the town of Berkeley Springs lights literal fires under big copper kettles in the town square to begin the eight-hour process of making the Apple Butter Festival’s namesake treat. Bushel upon bushel of apples is slow-simmered in cider, along with sugar, cinnamon and cloves, to create this local delicacy. The mixture must be stirred constantly as it thickens, so the pros are happy to give visitors a turn at the long-handled wooden spoon-bill stirrers. If you don’t feel like lining up to get the hot apple butter straight from the cauldron, vendors sell pre-packaged versions, too.

In fact, whatever interest you have, there’s probably a West Virginia fair for that, whether the Pumpkin Festival (Oct. 3-6) when more than 50,000 visitors turn the small town of Milton into the biggest city in the state for one long weekend; Bridge Day in Fayetteville (Oct. 19), when hundreds of BASE jumpers leap from the New River Gorge Bridge; or the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer (Oct. 11-14), a glorious mish-mash of glass blowing, chainsaw artistry and competitive baking—all dedicated to the fair’s signature nut.


Find your version of fall heaven and grab a travel guide for West Virginia.


This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds

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