Black Coal may have built these parts, but today it's the Blue rivers that lure the adventurous crowds—and keep them coming back for more.
John Denver immortalized West Virginia's country roads with the song that's become the de facto state anthem, one that even visitors know by heart. My colleague Moira, who's riding shotgun and taking photographs, and I belt out the lyrics repeatedly during the course of our trip. South of Charleston, country roads crisscross raging rivers, bisect towns too small to show up on a map, and roll over the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The triangle between Charleston, Beckley, and Lewisburg is almost heaven (as Denver croons and the state's license plates advertise), and not just because of the pleasant driving. There's also enough history to keep us intrigued, enough adventure to keep us active, and enough kitsch to keep us entertained every mile of the way.
Day 1: Charleston to Beckley
After landing in Charleston midmorning, we head straight for Beckley, home to Tamarack, a 60,000-square-foot circular mall dedicated to West Virginia arts and crafts. Though architecturally bizarre--its roofline resembles the Statue of Liberty's crown, painted fire-engine red--half a million visitors a year come to buy crafts (blown glass, quilts, and wood carvings), listen to musicians, and watch the artists-in-residence work in their glass-walled studios. Our loop through the building ends at the buffet restaurant, where Moira and I fill up on fried-green-tomato sandwiches and pan-seared locally farmed trout before hitting Coal Country.
By the 1880s, the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads had brought thousands of miners to southern West Virginia. Beckley is the gateway to what's now known as the Coal Heritage Trail, a 100-mile stretch of boom-and-bust towns reaching south to the Virginia border. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine museum--a working mine from 1890 to 1910--we hop a battery-powered tram and venture 1,500 dark feet into the mountain, past mossy walls and under a dripping ceiling.
Our guide, Joe Norkevitz, who worked for various local coal companies for 40 years, explains that Beckley miners spent their 16-hour shifts on their knees or backs, as the average coal deposits were only waist high. I start to feel claustrophobic, and it only gets worse as he goes on to explain the dangers of collapses and methane gas explosions. Above ground, a walk through the museum and coal camp provides a look at the stark life miners lived outside of the mountain. A simple stove, desk, and a narrow single bed somehow fit in a tiny shanty, no more than six feet wide by nine feet long. At the Country Inn & Suites nearby, Moira and I have a renewed appreciation for our standard room's size.
- Country Inn & Suites2120 Harper Rd., Beckley, 800/456-4000, countryinns.com, from $75
- Tamarack OneTamarack Place, Beckley, 888/262-7225
- Beckley Coal MineNew River Park, Beckley, 304/256-1747, open April-October, $15
- Southern West VirginiaCVB 221 George St., Beckley, 304/252-2244, visitwv.com
Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg
Today's plan is to take scenic Route 3 toward Lewisburg. At White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays, in Shady Spring, manager Joe Clinebell shows us the proper handling of a 12-gauge shotgun. Shooting clay targets is the fastest growing gun sport in the country, says Clinebell, who describes it as "golf with a shotgun." We walk through the woods from station to station, firing at targets that, depending on how they're launched, simulate the movement of rabbits, ducks, or pheasant. Moira has never picked up a gun before but still manages to hit a few. I don't do much better even though I've shot skeet several times recently. Clinebell suggests that keeping my eyes open as I pull the trigger would help my aim.
Using up our 50 rounds takes about two hours. By then, we're good and ready to move on to Hinton, a railroad town founded in 1873 at the point where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. On the outskirts, we stop for lunch at Kirk's. The restaurant proper isn't much to look at, but the view from the back deck--it juts out over the New River--is spectacular. Ducks float by below us, and the water churns near the rocky shore. I've heard that Kirk's has the best hot dogs around, and I'm not disappointed--the bun is perfectly toasted, and there's a heap of fries on the side. On Temple Street, the Railroad Museum--which displays old signals, pieces of track, and Pullman uniforms--doubles as a vistors center. We pick up a map and explore the many Victorian buildings that have put Hinton on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten miles past Hinton, we drive over the 6,500-foot Big Bend Tunnel, which John Henry helped construct in the early 1870s. There's an eight-foot bronze statue of him--bare-chested, with a steel-driving hammer in hand--at a turnoff just before Route 3 dives into Talcott.
The road continues to meander through the Greenbrier Valley, famous in the early 1900s for its natural mineral springs and exclusive spas. The sulfur-rich water was thought to cure tuberculosis, and trains brought the wealthy and ailing from as far as New York City. We drive past the Pence Springs Resort, formerly the Grand Hotel, which was once one of the area's most luxurious spas. Following the Depression, the place did time as a girls' school and then as a women's prison before reopening in 1987 as a hotel.
We cruise into Lewisburg by late afternoon. During the Civil War, the city was a Confederate stronghold until Union forces defeated the Confederate Army here in 1862. A walking tour of the historic district leads us from the Confederate Cemetery to the boutiques and antiques shops on Washington Street. That night, a well-known Lewisburg band called the Manhattan Jazz Quartet is playing at the Sweet Shoppe, a bar where the beer is cheap and there's never a cover. Moira and I listen to the final set before we call it a night at the Hampton Inn.
- Hampton Inn30 Coleman Dr., Lewisburg, 800/426-7866, hamptoninn.com, from $84
- Kirk's Family RestaurantRte. 3, Hinton, 304/466-4600, hot dog $1.75
- Sweet Shoppe125 W. Washington St., Lewisburg, 304/645-3214, beer $2
- White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays2350 Hinton Rd. (Rte. 3), Shady Spring, 304/763-5266, $50 for gun rental and 50 target rounds
- Hinton Railroad Museum206 Temple St., Hinton, 304/466-5420, summerscvb.com, free
- Greenbrier CountyCVB 540 N. Jefferson St., Lewisburg, 800/833-2068, greenbrierwv.com
Day 3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville
We're on the road early because we have to get to Class VI River Runners by 10 a.m. First-timers probably aren't inclined to choose a run that includes Class V rapids, but Moira and I have only one shot at the New River so we decide to make the most of it. (Actually, I insist we make the most of it.) An old school bus takes us the 15 miles to the put-in. As we switchback down a sickeningly steep mountainside to the river's edge, trip leader Eric Cormack goes over his safety spiel. I feel Moira's increasingly nervous glare burning a hole into the side of my face. "If you fall out of the raft, and some of you will," Eric warns, "don't panic, remember to face downriver, and keep your feet up." There are thousands of submerged boulders (the very things that create the white water). "You don't want to get stuck up under there," Eric says succinctly.
As it turns out, the bus ride is the scariest part of the day. Our five-hour run along 13 miles of river includes stops for swimming and a picnic lunch. The rapids--with names like Surprise, Pinball, and (ahem) Bloody Nose--are exhilarating, but there's plenty of gentle drifting, too. Just before the pick-up spot, we pass underneath the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's second-longest single-span steel arch.
Back at Class VI headquarters, everyone goes to Chetty's Pub to watch the video footage from our trip. (A videographer paddled alongside us in a kayak, taping every scream, spill, and high five.) I catch a glimpse of my face as our raft dropped over one of the more challenging rapids: I look positively deranged--scared out of my mind and loving every minute of it. I happily shell out $14 for a still photo of the moment.
Moira and I go back over the bridge to Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit. Co-owner Connie Taylor tells us Dirty Ernie was the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking original owner. Crunching across peanut shells customers have tossed on the cement floor, we head to a booth near the jukebox. A plate of barbecued pork ribs and a cold beer is the perfect end to the day.
- Class VI River Runnersoff U.S. 19, near Fayetteville, 800/252-7784, classvi.com, from $89
- Chetty's Pubabove Class VI River Runners, Fayetteville, 800/252-7784
- Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit310 Keller Ave., Fayetteville, 304/574-4822, open late April--mid Oct., ribs from $12
Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston
Leaving Fayetteville, we drive south to a small part of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River park. The town of Thurmond--or what's left of it--consists of a couple of abandoned storefronts and a railroad depot. It's hard to picture it as one of the busiest places around at the turn of the century, when there were 26 mines in the area. But Prohibition, competing rail lines, and the Depression took their toll, and by 1940, it was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. The restored Thurmond Depot is now a visitors center and museum, and it's here that we learn one of the town's most colorful tales. The Dunglen Hotel, also known as "Little Monte Carlo," hosted the world's longest continually running poker game. It lasted 14 years and ended only when neighbors from the other side of the river lost their patience and burned the place to the ground in 1930.
If Thurmond is the New River's past, Fayetteville is its future. It's become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Every third Saturday in October, a quarter of a million people flock to the area for Bridge Day, when hundreds of base jumpers parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. In town, we walk down Church Street to the Cathedral Café, in a deconsecrated Methodist church. Sunlight streams in through stained-glass windows as we eat grilled panini--smoked turkey and avocado for me, three cheese for Moira.
Back on the Midland Trail, the road clings to the mountain high above the gorge in a series of stomach-wrenching turns. Just past the entrance to Hawk's Nest State Park, one of the turns reveals a wildly painted Volkswagen beetle crashed into the side of a rusty corrugated trailer. It's called the Mystery Hole. Owner Will Morrison makes us promise not to tell what we see on the 10-minute underground tour, and he's the kind of guy you don't cross. Moira gets so discombobulated by the strange happenings (and perhaps my driving) that she ditches me for the parking lot.
On our way to the airport, we give our favorite song another go: "Drivin' down the road, I get a feelin' that I should have been home yesterday." But as I look back and catch my last glimpse of the Kanawha River, I can't help wishing we had another day.
- Cathedral Café134 S. Court St., Fayetteville, 304/574-0202, panini $6.25
- Thurmond Depot Visitor CenterRte. 25 past Glen Jean, 304/465-0508
- Mystery HoleU.S. 60, at mile marker 44, 304/658-9101, mysteryhole.com, $4
- New River Gorge National River304/465-0508, nps.gov/neri
- Fayetteville CVB310 N. Court St., Fayetteville, 888/574-1500, visitfayettevillewv.com
Finding Your Way
Continental, Delta, and US Airways all fly into Charleston's Yeager Airport. For a midsize car, expect to pay about $100 for four days. Before you leave home, pick up a copy of Far Appalachia, in which Noah Adams (former host of NPR's All Things Considered) recounts his journey by jeep, bike, foot, and raft from the New River's source in North Carolina to its mouth at the Gauley Bridge.
Day 1: Charleston to Beckley, 60 miles Yeager Airport Road becomes Greenbrier Street/Route 114. Follow signs for I-64 east/I-77 south (also called the West Virginia Turnpike). There are two $1.25 tolls. Take exit 45 for Tamarack; it's visible from the interstate. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is off exit 44. Head east on Route 3 (Harper Road) for a mile and a half and make a left onto Ewart Avenue. After about a mile, you'll see the New River Park entrance on the right.
Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg, 58 miles Follow Route 19 south from Beckley to Shady Spring, then Route 3 east toward Hinton. White Oak Mountain is four miles up on the right. Continue east on Route 3 through Hinton, Talcott, and Pence Springs. At Alderson turn onto Route 63, and at Roncevert, take U.S. 219 four miles into Lewisburg.
Day3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville, 57 miles Take I-64 west from Lewisburg and exit at U.S. 60 west, also known as the Midland Trail. At the junction with U.S. 19, head south toward the New River Gorge Bridge. Exit right at Ames Heights Road for Class VI River Runners. If you actually cross the bridge, you've gone too far. Warning: There are lots of cops on U.S. 19; observe the speed limit carefully. After rafting, get back on U.S. 19 south and cross the bridge. Fayetteville is on the other side of the New River.
Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston, 60 miles To reach Thurmond, take U.S. 19 south 12 miles to the Glen Jean exit. Follow the signs about seven miles down narrow Route 25 (no RVs). Backtrack to Fayetteville on U.S. 19. Cross the New River Gorge Bridge one last time and take U.S. 60/Midland Trail heading west to Charleston.