West Virginia is now behind me, fading away in my rearview mirror, but not in my memory or my heart. I chose West Virginia to start this 4 year journey for a reason. West Virginia is one of the most misunderstood states in the country. People have an image in their head of a bunch of backwoods hillbillies picking their banjos and sipping moonshine from a mason jar. And there is certainly some element of truth to that, but that isn't the whole story. West Virginia is a beautiful place with a wonderful State Park system, some top-notch universities, a deeply proud musical tradition, some fun and vibrant cities and a host of off-the-beaten-track sites, shops and restaurants to enjoy. The people, though maybe a little shy, are kind and friendly and generally very welcoming.
West Virginia is in tough times though. The population is shrinking and with the loss of coal as a viable resource, jobs have become scarce. Meanwhile, West Virginia is in the midst of the opioid epidemic and they face a bit of an identity crisis as they figure out what direction they want to go in. West Virginia needs tourism, and they have some unbelievable resources in place to try and bring people and tourist dollars into the state. I wanted to learn more about West Virginia and see how they are progressing. By all accounts, including mine, there have been big improvements in this regard, but it's not enough. There need to be more local initiatives and people need to actually want tourism in their towns. My month in the state wasn't easy. Being winter, it was cold and the days were short and a lot of things were closed for the season. Even so, I saw some really wonderful things, met some great people and learned a lot about the state. It was sad to leave in many ways, but the cold weather made it a little easier. Now I'm headed south and hope to spend the next two months in the Carolinas. But before I go, I wanted to write a post about the very best of my month in West Virginia, a wonderful state that really should be on your itinerary.
November and December were tough months for a photographer in West Virginia. The days were short and often gray, but on those crisp, clear days the clean air made for some great moments. I enjoyed photographing waterfalls in several places and my best shots came at a little falls outside of Thurmond. Split Rock was an amazing early morning hike from Harpers Ferry. If only the sun had cooperated the photos would have been spectacular. But the Best Spot for Photography was undoubtedly Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park. If you travel in West Virginia, you will see photos of this mill everywhere. I had seen so many photos of it that I was almost afraid to go see it as I feared disappointment, but it was definitely worth the trip. It combines the natural beauty of West Virginia with the pioneering spirit of its early settlers. This mill was actually only built in the 1970s, but combines parts of other old mills and is a replica of an earlier mill in the area. Regardless, it is a wonderful place to take photos. Be sure you bring your tripod though, so you can get the waterfalls in the foreground. This is simply too iconic a photography site to pass up.
There are some great breweries in West Virginia, and I enjoyed visiting many of them. I definitely want to give a shout-out to Big Timber Brewing in Elkins, as their Big Timber IPA was a serious contender and a delicious brew. But my two favorite beers from my month in the state came from Greenbrier Valley Brewing in Maxwelton. They were, unfortunately, closed when I drove past, but that doesn't change the fact that they brew some excellent beers. The runner up for my favorite beer went to their Wild Trail Pale Ale, a delightfully well balanced, flavorful, hoppy brew with a clean finish. The winner for best beer in the state, though, went to their Devil Anse IPA. A bold, hoppy, intense brew with great color and flavor, I had one any chance I got. You should too.
I had some truly wonderful meals as I made my way around the Mountain State. I try and avoid chain restaurants as all costs and stick with the local guys wherever possible. Notable highlights included the Hutte in Helvetia and Atomic Grill in Morgantown, but my choice for Best Restaurant went to Muriale's Italian Kitchen in Fairmont. Muriale's has been serving up plates of homemade pasta and other Italian favorites since they opened their doors in 1969. The food was the best Italian food I have ever had anywhere in the United States. Besides the food, the restaurant was clean and comfortable, the service was spot-on from start to finish and management was clearly taking an active role in maintaining their commitment to excellence. The food at Muriale's was the highlight, as it should be, but the rest of the experience could serve as an example to others of how a good restaurant should be run. Check out my seven must-have West Virginia meals HERE.
There are a handful of great venues around the state which could compete for this title. On the one hand it is hard to choose because live music is something you can mostly only catch on weekends in the Mountain State. On the other hand, I mostly planned my weekends around seeking out these places. One note in this category is that I was in Morgantown, generally considered one of the better towns to catch a show due to the University, over winter break when many venues were closed. Of the places I did visit, The V Club in Huntington certainly should get a mention. A great small venue with a friendly staff and a good stage and sound system, they also host a weekly Open Mic night and have good drink specials. My pick for Best Music Venue would definitely go to the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, though. I've written about the Fiddle several times, so I won't get too deep into it here, but they maintain a great lineup of musicians year-round in a warm, welcoming environment. This is a small venue that fits nicely in its environment, maintains a great internet presence and is just an all-around joy to visit. They even have on-site lodging options for those who prefer to stumble home. They have stayed the course and I hope it is paying off for them. If you visit West Virginia, definitely make plans to visit the Purple Fiddle for a show. For a full look at my favorite music venues in West Virginia, check out my post HERE.
This was an easy one. West Virginia Independence Hall in Wheeling and the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant certainly deserve a nod. The first for its important place in state history and well maintained collections. The second for its balanced yet amusing take on an interesting, focused, intensely local set of events. The West Virginia State Museum, however, in the basement of the Culture Center in Charleston, is so incredibly well done that it would be hard to beat. Granted, I'm sure their budget surpasses what most museums could afford, but it is the State Museum. Whoever put this place together did a brilliant job. The museum is full of intensely visual and tactile exhibits as well as well-presented, well-edited displays showing off the very best that West Virginia has to offer. From a recreated coal Company Store to a look at West Virginia music and sports, this museum seems to really cover it all. It is a great place to start your visit to the state as it will give you many ideas on places to visit. It doesn't seem like it occupies a big space, but feels like it goes on for miles. And best of all, it's free! This was probably one of the best museums of this type I have ever been in.
West Virginia Public Radio produces some amazing shows. In preparation for my trip to the state, I found that listening to their programming gave me a really good feel for the history and culture of the state. I really like The Front Porch. This show is hosted by West Virginia Public Broadcasting Executive Director Scott Finn and is co-hosted by liberal columnist Rick Wilson and lawyer and conservative columnist Laurie Lin. While discussing some aspect of life in The Mountain State, we get to hear opinions from both sides of the aisle. While there is often disagreement, the conversation is always civil and is a model for how we should all approach such discussions. Hearing people with differing opinions have these conversations, especially on a more local level, really gives the listener so much to think about. My choice for Best Podcast, however, goes to Jessica Lilly's Inside Appalachia. This show really gets deep into issues that face West Virginia today. They aren't afraid to delve into issues like black lung disease and the opioid epidemic, and their series The Struggle To Stay, about West Virginian's decisions to stay or leave Appalachia based on job availability and local resources is intimate and eye-opening. I would recommend you download a few episodes to listen to on your way into or through the state, as the show will really allow you to understand West Virginia better. Of course i think my two podcasts on West Virginia: Almost Heaven and Deep in the Heart of Coal Country are pretty awesome as well.
As a professional tour guide by trade, I am pretty particular about guided tours. I am unlikely to take one unless I believe it to be truly worth my time and money, so I only went on a few guided tours in my time in West Virginia. It being winter, a lot of businesses were shuttered for the season. One I would love to come back for (but wouldn't have wanted to do in the cold) is the airboat ride up the Tug Fork River in Hatfield-McCoy country. The boat leaves from wonderful Matewan which has so much history and is working so hard to make tourism one of their mainstay industries. From what I did see though, my choice for Best Tour on my trip went to the Project Greek Island Tour at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. This tour takes you deep into the bunker at The Greenbrier which served as the United States Congressional Fallout Shelter from 1961-1995. It was a little bit pricey, but definitely worth it. Our guide was excellent and being from the area could really add a local opinion to the mix. You can hear all about the bunker on my podcast HERE.
I didn't visit many distilleries in my time in West Virginia, as I generally prefer a beer these days but I made an exception to visit the wonderful Sweeter Side of the Feud distillery outside of Spencer. You can read about my whole experience HERE, but suffice it to say I had an amazing time talking booze, history, tourism and local politics with the very hospitable Mark and Brenda Hatfield. I spent the better part of an afternoon there and am really glad I did. They make some excellent wine and some great moonshine and whiskey, but the Devil Anse Barrel Proof was a whole different story. This stuff was beyond good, and strong enough to wake you up and knock you out at the same time. I couldn't drink this every day, but I bought enough to break out on special occasions for a long time.
Best Fast Food
I'm not a big fast food kind of guy, but sometimes you just have to eat. Even when I am in that situation though, I would still prefer something local over the chains. Probably even more-so with fast food, as you are far more likely to get higher quality ingredients from a mom and pop hamburger stand than most chains. West Virginia was a little bit different because the West Virginia hot dog is such an institution, and I needed to try them in several establishments to satisfy my curiosity (and to declare a favorite). While Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage took Best Hot Dog, I had to go with the Frostop in Huntington as best all-around Fast Food. Before last month, I had never had curbside service, and it was a little weird in the cold weather, but it was cool too. Very retro to have a metal tray on my window. Service was great at Frostop, the dogs were good, and the iconic spinning root beer sign was amazing. It just felt good to be there.
I did not get to even half of West Virginia's State Parks, but I really enjoyed the time I spent in them. They were all beautiful and quiet and I had a good time speaking with, and learning from, the rangers. I did a lot of hiking and found the trails clearly marked and easy to follow and the trail maps really helpful. I spent the night in a few, and thought they were doing such a great job for what I was paying. My favorite night was in Holly Springs State Park where I stayed in an old Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) cabin with a huge fireplace and a full kitchen. It was an amazing place to take shelter from the cold. All around, though, of the parks I did visit, I chose Lost River State Park as Best State Park. The trails were great and they had some wonderful C.C.C. cabins there as well. I really enjoyed going for a nice long hike in the woods to the Cranny Crow overlook and more. It was pretty much everything I wanted a State Park to be. Read my full post on West Virginia State Parks HERE.
Best Shop or Store
There are some great art and craft stores in West Virginia. There are also some great farmers markets and food stores stuffed with delicious jams and jellies and pickled eggs and pies. I loved my time at Appalachian Glass and thought they were wonderful people doing so many things right. The Artisan Center in Wheeling was great, showing off so many local treasures. Orr's Farm Market in Martinsburg was also a treat and I ate delicious apples from there for weeks. It would be impossible, however, to beat out Tamarack in West Virginia. Billed as "The Best of West Virginia", they truly do deliver. From paintings to wines and from jams to sculptures, Tamarack had it all, but not too much to make it feel cluttered. They even had a delicious food court. Tamarack was one of my all-around favorite places in the whole state, but definitely the Best Store I found there. See my full post on it HERE.
This is a tough one too. I didn't go to a ton of bars during my visit, especially if I wasn't looking for live music, but I did go to a few. TCR's Place in Bluefield was amazingly friendly and even shared their delayed Thanksgiving dinner with a stranger. The folks at the Country Roads Saloon in Thomas went out of their way to make me feel welcome any time as well. My choice for Best Bar, though, would have to go to Apothecary Ale House and Cafe in Morgantown. This was a warm and friendly bar. The bartender was attentive but not pushy and they had a great selection of beers. Everything just seemed to be relaxed and easy and comfortable there. While some might say there was nothing special about Apothecary, I would counter that that is exactly what was so special about Apothecary.
There were so many wonderful places that I visited in the state, this is another tough category. The State Penitentiary in Moundsville was really neat and the tour was very informative. The Keith Albee Theater in Huntington was magic and I was so glad I got to see the inside. The Greenbrier and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum are both grand in their different ways, and some of the courthouses I saw were truly spectacular. At the end of the month, though, I can only choose one and for Best Building I went with the Palace of Gold in New Vrindiban (outside Moundsville). The Palace of Gold was so out of place in the hills of West Virginia, and yet seemed to fit in perfectly as well. Its unique design and hand-crafted details were truly something special, and the people there were informative and friendly as well. It was definitely the most unique place I visited in the state, and also one of the most beautiful.
I like the cities of West Virginia. I've spent a lot of time in Charleston over the years, and there are some great things about it although it seems to have deteriorated significantly since I first visited in the early 90s. I felt a revitalization on this visit though, and hope I am right. Wheeling is always cool with their antebellum suspension bridge and faded industrial downtown. Morgantown has a lot of great qualities and I loved staying at the Hotel Morgan and eating at the Atomic Grill. But for Best City, I went with a surprise sleeper choice - lovely Huntington. Huntington surprised me. The downtown area was spotless and vibrant. The riverfront location is great and is probably even better in the summer. There was a fantastic and informative Visitor Center and a lot of great park space around. Huntington felt very alive and livable to me, but even as a visitor it seemed like people were going out of their way to help me and see to it that I enjoyed my stay.
A big part of my trip is living the small-town experience. Having grown up in a big city and spent most of my life as a tour guide, I have never really spent a lot of time in small towns outside of those on the well-worn tourist track. I loved Matewan for its history and its museum. Of all the towns I visited it felt like Matewan was trying the hardest to be a tourist destination. I hope they get there, and I will be back to check. Shepherdstown has a lot going for it and I enjoyed my time there and Helvetia, while more of a village, was fascinating. Best Small Town, though, had to go to tiny Thomas. I have never seen a town that goes so far out of its way to be inclusive and welcoming. It's small enough to feel like an off-the-beaten-track hidden treasure, but tourism is developed enough to offer everything you might need. Of all the towns I visited, Thomas was the town doing everything right. Read my full post about Thomas HERE.
Best National Park
I am a very big fan of the National Park Service. The Park Service protects our greatest treasures, preserves our past and interprets our history honestly and without inhibition. Why we can't spend more of our budget to help keep these places alive and accessible is beyond me. There are only a few National Park sites in West Virginia, but all of them are great and deserve mention. There are four waterways: The Gauley, Bluestone and New Rivers and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The Appalachian National Trail passes through the state, and West Virginia is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. There are two great National Heritage Areas: Wheeling and Coal NHAs. Some of my favorite sites from were the entire town of Thurmond and the Visitor Center and museum in Bramwell. For Best Park, though, I went with the wonderful National Historical Park at Harpers Ferry. So much happened there from the early days to Lewis and Clark to John Brown's raid and the Civil War that it is a history lover's dream. There are wonderful trails overlooking town and some great interpretation from the rangers and volunteers. And perhaps best of all, it's only an hour or so from my hometown of Washington D.C. meaning I will definitely be back.
My month in West Virginia was filled with fantastic places and people. I learned so much about the state, their history and what life is like there today. I had some great meals and heard some outstanding music. West Virginia will always be the place this journey began. I feel like while there are still things I would like to see and do there, my visit was thorough and I feel good moving on for now. If you ever want to get off the tourist track and get a slice of Appalachian culture, West Virginia hold up to what their state signs declare. It truly is Wild and Wonderful.