Why Almost Heaven is One of the Season’s Hottest Destinations
With an impressive run in the spotlight around the new year—when, in rapid succession, West Virginia debuted the United States’ newest national park and most-heralded vaccine rollout—Almost Heaven (cue the chorus) was starting to seem uniquely suited to the moment.
Think about it: After our collective cooping-up, who hadn’t craved boundless, beautiful room to roam safely, plus a nostalgia-laden return to the Before Times? And where better to address both needs than a place that’s famously older than the trees—where country roads take you home whether or not you’ve ever actually set foot there?
But now that the proverbial Mountain Momma is coming into her full seasonal glory—(think leafy forest canopies, kaleidoscopic wildflowers, thawed waterfalls and all)—that pull is even stronger, perhaps nowhere more so than in Southern West Virginia. This one region, after all, combines the raw wilderness of the Allegheny Ridge, the adventure ops of the Bluestone, Gauley and New Rivers and the deep-seated heritage of the southern mountains. And that’s just the short list.
For a deeper look into the lures of Southern West Virginia, read on. You’ll find three favorite summer escapes—or if you’ve got some extra time off, one mega-getaway.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
To lean into those Before Times cravings, go way, way back—at least 3 million years but possibly 300+ million—to the ironically named New River. It is, according to many, the planet’s second oldest river, and North America’s oldest. And even those who dispute those exact rankings would still say it’s among the most ancient in existence. Point is, the river is the embodiment of primordial beauty—and the centerpiece of West Virginia’s brand-new national park.
Even before these 70,000 or so acres of lush, green, Appalachian wilderness were designated official national parkland in December 2020, they had attracted rafters, hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and, for the better part of the last half century, bridge enthusiasts: In 1977, The New River Gorge Bridge famously became the world’s longest steel arch. To this day, it remains the longest (and third highest) in the U.S. — and a major attraction. Though plenty of people have visited just to lay eyes on this engineering milestone (doesn’t hurt that it makes for an amazing photo backdrop), if you’d rather get up close and personal with it, consider an overview of the gorge from the underside of the bridge. Yes, you can venture out onto the catwalk (thanks to Bridge Walks’ guided trips), and take in more than a mile’s worth of stunning vistas, and colorful history lessons all the while.
The Bridge Walk is just one of a number of out-of-body outings to be had here, all of which become extra-accessible if you’re staying at a resort in the heart of the park. Adventures on the Gorge offers not only an array of lodging options (from campgrounds to glamping tents to deluxe cabins) but also a host of onsite ziplines and canopy tours, equipment rental, staff guides and instructors—plus just-outside-your-door access to various whitewater rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddling, hiking, climbing, rappelling and biking adventures, to name a few.
Almost as notable as the adventures themselves is fueling up for them over an alfresco breakfast at Smokey’s (one of a few on-site restaurants), as fog rises from the river up to the nature-shrouded wooden dining terrace . Of course, some would argue that the dinner BBQ at Smokey’s is an even more transcendental experience, so you’ll want to conduct your own, multi-course research to be sure.
For the full breadth of local vistas, however, don’t leave the area without visiting the aptly named Grandview, where, on a clear day from 1,400 feet up, you’ll be able to see seven miles of the New River, the historic town of Quinnimont and from May-July, eye-popping Catawba rhododendron displays (first purple, then white).
You’ll also find hiking trails, ranger-led walks and plenty of stunning picnic spots. And performing arts fans, take note: You’ll want to check the local calendar for Theatre West Virginia’s outdoor summer series here, too.
For artistic expression of a different kind, don’t miss another Raleigh County standout, not quite 20 miles from Grandview: Tamarack. At this extraordinary multi-use space (think gallery meets craft market meets unique cafe meets performance venue) for West Virginia's artists, artisans and food producers, everything you’ll find speaks to the rich local heritage and traditional skills. Any item you shop for—whether a bracelet or a sculpture or a textile—has been jury- selected, and is authentically local as you can get.
For a more literal take on soaking up West Virginia’s beauty, head to a region long known for mineral springs: The Greenbrier Valley. In fact, the local sulfur springs are so renowned, they gave rise to an entire resort almost 250 years ago, when outsiders began flocking to the region to bathe in the healing mineral water. And that same mountain hideaway—aptly named The Greenbrier—is still a big draw, as is its spa full of natural spring treatments.
Book a visit, and you’ll be adding your name to a guest roster that includes more than half the U.S. presidents plus all manner of royalty—both Hollywood and real-world. And though you could spend an entire vacation hiding out among the 11,000 acres that make up this stunning National Historic Landmark (check out, among other singular features, the formerly top-secret Cold War-era fallout shelter and Congressional relocation facility), the Greenbrier Valley is also home to several other must-sees.
Topping the list is Lewisburg—not even 10 miles away from the resort, but also a world apart for all the buzzing energy of the historic downtown. A longtime haven for artists, musicians and other creatives, the county seat feels as vibrant as it does old-timey, with modern galleries, restaurants, performance spaces and boutiques housed in 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century structures.
Though you’d be hard pressed to miss much of anything given the town’s intimate scale, the site that arguably puts Lewisburg on the global culture map is none other than Carnegie Hall—one of four continually operating (minus the pandemic) music halls worldwide funded by Andrew Carnegie. Also check out the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, once a tented summer repertory—now a state-of-the-art producer of everything from opera to poetry readings. Productions are projected to resume in June; check here for updates.
Fans of rails-to-trails should also note that there’s a great one nearby: Once a C&O line, the Greenbrier River Trail is named for and paralleled by one of the longest remaining free-flowing rivers in the nation. The woodsy, riverine terrain makes for easy—and remarkably scenic—biking, hiking and horseback riding.
Though rivers tend to take center stage in this part of the state—and rightly so—don’t overlook the lake that is not only West Virginia’s largest, but also one of the nation’s most special. Granted, with 2,800 or so surface acres of water and 60 miles of shoreline, Summersville Lake could get by on grandeur alone: There’s more than enough room here for swimmers, sunbathers, boaters and trekkers to spread out.
But here’s the thing: This stunning cliff-lined reservoir boasts water so preternaturally clear, the spot has come to be known among divers as the "Little Bahamas of the East," with the scuba scene to match. Put otherwise: Some of the coolest diving you’ll ever do may well be in the middle of West Virginia (or more accurately, in the south of West Virginia). Yes, you’ll find a dive shop, rental gear, instructors and a multitude of dive sites—some with huge rock overhangs, some with sheer vertical drop-offs, some with swim-throughs, and some with a combination thereof. There’s even a cave dive (which, though not technically a cave, comes close enough that people love the experience).
In keeping with the theme of things you might not expect to experience in a landlocked state, book a tour of the lake’s lighthouse (and the state’s only working lighthouse). What was born out of a local inside joke turned into one of the area’s most privileged vantage points: Climb the 122 steps, and—just below the working vintage Westinghouse rotational beacon—you’ll find a wraparound observation deck with woods and water views for days.
And if you’re looking for an appropriately distinctive way to toast to your local experiences check out the Kirkwood Winery & Isaiah Morgan Distillery, specialists in whiskey and sweet wines—and reportedly the smallest licensed distillery in the U.S. In fact, distinctive is clearly the through-line throughout Southern West Virginia: Whether you're gaping at one of the world's oldest rivers from the catwalk record-setting bridge, listening to live music at the Carnegie Hall of the South or swimming in some of the clearest imaginable waters, you'll find—time and again—that Almost Heaven is singularly suited to this summer.