West Virginia: Hard to Define, Easy to Visit
West Virginia may not immediately come to mind as a traditional summer vacation spot since there are no sandy shores, ocean waves or big cities. But this state of small towns, craggy mountains, verdant valleys, rushing rivers — and yes, country roads — is perfect for a summer road trip, as there is always something to stop and see. Not to mention, you can leave the interstate behind and instead hop on a scenic byway that's full of interesting spots, rather than race from one spot to another with nothing in between. With 75% of the U.S. population living within a day's drive of the state, West Virginia is also easy to get to.
We asked Louisville-based travel photographer Tyler Glass (@tylerwayneglass) to explore the state -- including the country's newest national park. Tyler's Instagram feed is full of incredible images from around the world, but he told us that he always loves to shoot in West Virginia. "West Virginia is not hard to photograph, as long as you have the right itinerary, " he said. "In the fall, it's one of the best spots in the country as everything is so bright and vibrant. In the spring, too, it's beautiful. West Virginia is full of water; there are a lot of creeks, rivers and waterfalls."
Follow along on Tyler's road trip, and make plans of your own to visit the state this summer.
Tyler and his wife began their adventure in Charleston, the state’s capital and largest city (and one of 22 Charlestons in the United States). The city is full of history, tracing its roots back to 1788 -- even folk hero Daniel Boone was once a resident here. These days, Charleston is full of flavorful restaurants and small shops, as Tyler found out during his afternoon there. His first stop was Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. “It’s an interesting concept with lots of Mexican food, but in a brewery,” Tyler said. He fueled up on an “Appetizer Threesome” featuring fresh guacamole, queso dip, salsa and fried tortilla chips as well as a breakfast burrito (chorizo, scrambled egg, fried potatoes, lime sriracha, black bean and corn salsa and jack cheese).
For dessert, he took a stroll over to the (aptly named) Capitol Street for Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream. Joining the long list of visitors, he chose an espresso vanilla milkshake. While Ellen’s has weekly specials, 14 classic flavors like raspberry chocolate chip, coffee, chocolate and mocha almond are always available. Tyler then hopped across the street to poke his nose into Taylor Books, drawn to its vibe. “It was like the ‘You’ve Got Mail’ movie bookstore on the corner,” he said.
A visit to Charleston wouldn’t be complete without checking out the West Virginia State Capitol Complex, which includes government buildings and war memorials. “It was probably the prettiest capitol building I’ve ever seen,” he said, noting the tree-covered grounds.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Tyler drove along the Midland Trail National Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 60), a 180-mile road that winds through 41 towns and communities in West Virginia's midsection. Not only are there places to stop at along the way, there are also natural wonders, like the two waterfalls Tyler checked out. One was Kanawha Falls, which spans the entire width of the Kanawha River, a measurement he likened to two or three football fields, yet only falls about 15 feet.
The other was Cathedral Falls, one of the highest in West Virginia at over 60 feet, and which falls into a natural amphitheatre.
He also made sure to stop at Hawks Nest State Park, a 270-acre recreational area known for its scenic overlook, which provides a bird’s eye view of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve below. Formerly known as New River Gorge National River, Congress designated it a national park and preserve (our 63rd) in January of this year. The second oldest river in the world, the New River is a rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons and the park encompasses over 70,000 acres of land alongside it.
Tyler’s home that night was at ACE Adventure Resort, which is a 1,500-acre complex in Oak Hill that’s part waterpark, part whitewater rafting, part zipline tours through the air and part land-based sports like rock climbing. In short, it truly does live up to its name. “Someday when [my wife and I] have kids, we want to go back in the summertime,” he said. “With inflatable structures in the pond, it looks like crazy fun in the summer with kids.” After dining at the resort’s restaurant, Lost Paddle, he retreated to his cabin for the night, noting that it felt very private, with lots of trees around each accommodation.
The next morning, it was time to hike inside the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, so Tyler started with Bridge Buttress, one of the most popular climbing areas in the park. “You come onto a flat surface and it’s the best view of the New River Gorge,” he said, noting that some parts can be a challenging climb around rocks, which can be slippery when wet, so it’s not a hike for everyone.
The 2.3-mile Endless Wall Trail, however, he recommends for any skill level and says that Diamond Point is the best lookout on the trail.
Jumping on US Route 19, the road that goes over the New River Gorge Bridge, Tyler drove about 10 miles north to Fayetteville, stopping for a breakfast sandwich at Cathedral Café. It’s a former church converted into an artsy café and bookstore, which Tyler found to be “a cute little spot.”
He continued southeast along the aforementioned Midland Trail National Scenic Byway to a town called Lewisburg, which Budget Travel once voted “coolest small town in America." Not only does this bohemian town of approximately 4,000 people have a vibrant downtown full of artisanal food and drink – like Hill & Holler pizza -- it is also home to one of only three Carnegie Halls in the country. “I would go back to Lewisburg, at least for a night,” Tyler said, due to the town’s inviting nature. “It seemed like a very cool East Coast town, trapped in the mountains kind of vibe.”
Tyler ventured into the rolling hills just outside the downtown area to check out Hawk Knob Cidery, the first cidery in West Virginia. He spoke with the staff, who said that ciders are not traditionally sweet, but most brands today overload it with sugar. At Hawk Knob, they ferment and age the cider in used whiskey and bourbon barrels, which was music to Tyler’s ear. “I’m from Kentucky and I’m a huge bourbon guy,” he said, encouraging them to expand their footprint to his home state. Tyler sampled a number of the ciders during his visit, and his favorite was the elderberry infused one.
White Sulphur Springs
As it was time to head to his home for the night, Tyler drove along the Midland Trail about 15 minutes east to White Sulphur Springs and The Greenbrier Resort. While Tyler's usual accommodations when visiting West Virginia are cabins and campgrounds, he was excited to spend his last night in the state in such a historic setting.
Set on 11,000 acres in the Allegheny Mountains, the resort was founded in 1778 — it's even trademarked as America's Resort — and today is a lauded 5-star property, playing host to 26 presidents, celebrities, as well as NFL teams who use the no-phones-allowed bunker to focus during pre-season training. It's home to three championship golf courses as well as a spa that takes advantage of the healing spring waters of the area.
“The hotel staff was incredibly friendly,” he said. “The best part of my trip was the Greenbrier, hands down. The place is just fantastic."
After three days exploring the state, Tyler came away with a ton of incredible photos and more reasons to visit. “Every person was super sweet and talkative,” he said, feeling that Southern hospitality throughout his adventure. "I do have a new appreciation for the state, which is hard to do in the first place, because I am passionate about the East Coast already. We would love to come back and visit some of the places that we didn't get to see enough of, like Lewisburg, and venture to other spots in West Virginia that we haven't seen yet!"