Dirt Road Hills, West Virginia © Mike Norton
As the only state contained entirely within the Appalachian Mountain range, West Virginia is as beautiful as it is secluded. Its solitary rivers, steep wooded mountains, hidden valleys, and tucked-away towns can transform a scenic drive into a balm for the soul. In the past, this rugged terrain tended to isolate West Virginians, who were forced to rely on small subsistence farms and cottage industries. Aspects of this lifestyle have been exaggerated in pop culture, and West Virginia is often the subject of jokes involving moonshine and backwoodsmen. In actuality, however, the West Virginian way of life has produced countless cultural gems, including a mastery of Appalachian folk music, particularly bluegrass; unparalleled craftsmanship in furniture making, quilting, and glass-blowing; and inventive culinary treats like the famous West Virginia sausage roll. These features, combined with its slower pace of life and small-town hospitality, make the Mountain State an inviting and restorative getaway.
West Virginia's Hatfield-and-McCoy (two feuding clans intrinsic to American folklore) stereotype has not deterred wealthy urban professionals from buying up property in resort areas like Canaan Valley. But this ski destination, along with others like Snowshoe Mountain and Timberline, has not undergone a glitzy transformation with increased tourism. On the contrary, visitors to West Virginia tend to be those in search of escape and simplicity, who are content with evenings in front of fireplaces, performing arts in restored country playhouses, and shopping at local farmers' markets. It is a haven for outdoorsmen, who often head straight for the Potomac Highlands in the east, which are covered by the Monongahela National Forest and popular with skiers, hikers, hunters, and mountain bikers. In the south, the New and Gauley Rivers offer unmatched white-water rafting, and the area's extensive cave system attracts the most intrepid spelunkers. Geocaching, an adventure sport in which GPS users hunt down hidden caches, is increasingly popular.
In this region, the profound impact of the state's controversial coal mining industry, on both West Virginia's heritage and its environment, is evident. Visitors might tour coal mines with former miners, and witness the effects of mountaintop removal, a method of mining in which hundreds of vertical feet are literally blasted away. Fortunately, West Virginia's natural beauty seems incapable of being quashed, as illustrated by the serenity of the central mountain lakes region and the rolling country of the eastern panhandle.
For those visitors who might grow weary of one scenic vista after another, West Virginia does have its busier spots, including the state capital of Charleston in the south, a heavily industrialized city, which also hosts the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. But the best of West Virginia's 'cosmopolitan' life lies in the many unique towns found throughout its mountains. There is Berkeley Springs, with its calming mineral baths and rows of antique shops; funky Shepherdstown, with its university scene and creative buzz; Hinton, a quintessential rail town with a collection of historic buildings; and Harpers Ferry, a must for history buffs. Situated along the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry, which played a pivotal role during the Civil War, is the most visited tourist destination in West Virginia.
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