Destination: Appalachian Highlands

by | Sep. 21, 2010


Natural Attractions

West Virginia is the only state entirely blanketed by the ridges and folds of the Appalachians, some of the oldest surface rock in the United States. There are literally millions of acres of highland peaks and plateaus. These mountains aren’t like the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. The rounded mossy ridges and narrow river valleys are the hunched and worn remnants of ancient giants.

Highland Playgrounds

What the Alleghenies, Blue Ridge, Cheat, and other West Virginia mountain ranges lack in altitude, they make up for in attitude. These hills are anything but tame. Bears roam their forests. Class V rapids tumble through wild ravines. Upheaved layers of rock dangle over hazy valleys.

All this wildness beckons millions of outdoor enthusiasts each year to places like the stunning Monongahela National Forest (just call it “the Mon” like the locals do). If West Virginia is an outdoor playground, the Mon is the biggest jungle gym on it. Even the government recognizes that: the Mon contains the first-ever designated National Recreation Area.

This area, the Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, comprises 100,000 acres of unspoiled natural splendor. The highest point in the state, Spruce Knob (4863 feet), offers spectacular views from a 360 degree observation tower. Seneca Rocks’ 900-foot sandstone tower challenges experienced climbers from around the world. The remaining 900,000 acres in the Mon offer plenty of sport: hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, horseback riding, and canoeing.

Sporting Around

Why go anywhere but the Mon to play outside in West Virginia? Because top-notch sporting can be found at equally gorgeous, less-discovered destinations across the state.

  • Whitewater rafters flock to world-famous rapids. In a single 14-mile stretch, the New River drops 240 exhilarating feet through a 1,000-foot sandstone gorge. The Gauley River, fueled by dam-released waters, claims the most Class IV and Class V rapids around, which is impressive when you know that the thunderous Tygart and Cheat Rivers also rage nearby. 
  • Mountain bikers find all-terrain paradise on thousands of miles of twisting single-track trails. Their premier destination? Snowshoe Ski Resort in the Potomac Highlands. Here, 1,500 vertical feet of machine-groomed trails challenge even world-class bikers. Families who bike together love nearby Canaan Valley Resort State Park’s well-marked trails, gentler terrain, and family-friendly amenities.
  • Hikers—backwoods backpackers and novice nature walkers alike—find trails all over the state. In the Mon you can walk a short route to the top of Seneca Rocks, hike the 24-mile North Fork Mountain Trail, or stride the 330-mile Allegheny Trail. More top picks? The remote 35,000-acre Cranberry Wilderness backcountry trails and the Greenbriar River Trail make for a nationally rated, easy-grade trip along an old railroad route.
  • ATV, motorcycle, and horseback riders love the famous Hatfield-McCoy Trails, the second-largest off-highway vehicle trail system in the world. This series of six trails offers plenty of local flavor. Residents pieced the trails together from rough old mining and logging roads, and they ride it as much as the tourists do.

You can also enjoy the gorgeous scenery without even breaking a sweat. National and state scenic byways twist through narrow valleys and tiptoe along razor-thin ridgetops. Leave yourself plenty of time to drive them; you’ll want to stop and enjoy the view several times along the way.

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