“Wild, Wonderful West Virginia” – That’s what the West Virginia Division of Tourism calls its home state. As tourism slogans go, it hits the nail on the head.
West Virginia is a landlocked, mostly rural state sandwiched between Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. With an average elevation of 1,500 feet above sea level, the “Mountain State” is the highest, most mountainous state east of the Mississippi River.
The eastern half is riven by the undulating crest of the Appalachian Mountains – more often known as the Alleghenies in these parts. The western half is a jumble of high, rugged hills and deep, ancient river valleys. Thick, mature forests cover a vast majority of the state, broken only by the occasional pasture, a handful of modest urban areas, and a few aging scars left by the once-dominant coal mining industry.
West Virginia’s natural assets make it a prime outdoor vacation destination – a true mecca for hikers, artists, adventure sports enthusiasts, and tourists looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of nearby cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Whether you visit for a weekend or plan to make the Mountain State the centerpiece of a much longer vacation, these top outdoor activities in West Virginia should be high on your to-do list. Unless noted otherwise, quoted activity prices are per adult and do not include taxes or resort fees.
Top Outdoor Activities in West Virginia
1. Adventures on the Gorge
Adventures on the Gorge is a genuinely exciting adventure resort on West Virginia’s magnificent New River Gorge, the deepest canyon in the eastern United States. The property has a comprehensive menu of seasonal and year-round activities and adventures. If it can be done outdoors anywhere in West Virginia, it can be done at Adventures on the Gorge.
Adventures on the Gorge’s signature activity – and the reason thousands of people make the trip here from all over the world each year – is world-class whitewater rafting. The resort has easy access to two breathtaking rivers, the New and the Gauley, and rapids ranging from easy (class I and II) to extreme (class V).
The best time to visit is during “Gauley Season,” the 6-week stretch in fall when the breathtaking Gauley reaches peak flow – beginning the weekend after Labor Day. That’s when Summersville Dam, which holds back Summersville Lake, releases tremendous quantities of water downstream in controlled spurts, turning the already energetic Gauley into a raging beast.
Adventures on the Gorge offers more than 20 rafting excursions, from quick trips such as Lower New River Rapid Run Half Day ($99 to $119) and Fall Upper Gauley Express ($129 to $189), to overnight adventures like New River Overnight ($329 to $349) and Gauley River Overnight ($359 to $389 per person).
Keep in mind that parts of the Gauley River – often rated among the world’s top five rafting destinations – are truly challenging. If you’re new to whitewater rafting, look at the slower-paced (but still exciting) options on the New River. And if you want to make rafting the centerpiece of a quick weekend on the gorge, check Adventures on the Gorge’s overnight rafting and lodging packages ($179 to $599, depending on package and options).
Adventures on the Gorge has a slew of other activities on and around its sprawling property. Highlights include:
- Canopy tours and ziplining ($34.50 to $169)
- Deepwater rock climbing (starting from a boat or paddleboard), kayaking, and stand up paddle boarding on nearby Summersville Lake ($109 to $129)
- Rappelling and traditional rock climbing ($59 to $169)
- Guided fishing tours ($325 to $975 per two-person boat)
- Paintball ($59 to $89)
- Mountain biking ($59 to $89)
- Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding on Hawk’s Nest Lake and local rivers ($84 to $269)
- Guided hikes ($59 to $89)
- Cave tours at nearby Lost World Caverns ($79)
- Horseback riding ($45 to $115)
Adventures on the Gorge is not the pinnacle of luxury, but its lodging options are surprisingly generous.
Onsite camping is budget-friendly, with campsites starting at $15 per person, per night. Already-pitched platform tents offer a slightly more upscale (but still outdoorsy) experience – they start at $49 per night, assuming double occupancy.
Onsite cabins are more comfortable, with rustic (but still electrified) cabins starting at $89 for two people per night. Fancier “deluxe” cabins go anywhere from $200 to $569 per night, based on occupancy. The most extravagant option, and the best for larger groups, are the luxury vacation homes located near the resort groups. They can comfortably sleep up to 12 but will set you back anywhere from $525 to $1,250 per night.
If you’re looking to save money on your next adventure vacation (and who isn’t?), check out Adventures on the Gorge’s deals page, which features weekday specials, family-friendly discounts, and seasonal promotions. Be sure to take in the resort’s free or low-cost on-site amenities, including a spacious pool, nine-hole disc golf course, lawn games, spa, coffee bar, three full-service restaurants, and more.
2. DIY Rock Climbing With Hard Rock Climbing Services
If you’ve already made lodging arrangements elsewhere and want to add a true rock climbing or rappelling experience to your West Virginia outdoor vacation, find your way to Hard Rock Climbing, an appropriately named outfitter devoted to the art and science of rock climbing and rappelling.
Hard Rock Climbing’s packages are straightforward and require no prior experience. Choose from:
- Half Day. Includes approximately two hours of climbing, two hours of rappelling, climbing equipment, transportation, and basic instruction for beginners at $75 per person (groups of three to six), $80 per person (groups of two), or $160 per person (one-on-one instruction).
- Full Day. Includes a full day of rock climbing and rappelling, plus climbing equipment, transportation, lunch, and basic instruction for beginners at $145 per person (groups of three to six), $150 per person (groups of two), or $275 (one-on-one instruction).
- Custom. Hard Rock Climbing offers a slew of customizable rock climbing and rappelling trips for climbers of all experience and interest levels, including experts. A full day of customized climbing costs $150 per person, with a minimum of two climbers.
3. Family-Friendly Spelunking at Seneca Caverns
Does spelunking count as an “outdoor activity”? After all, caverns are confined spaces with natural climate control systems and, in many cases, running water. Then again, they’re not known for comfy furniture or adequate lighting.
As caverns go, Seneca Caverns is not particularly challenging or spectacular. However, it’s a fun, family-friendly introduction to the underground, requiring no expensive equipment or heroic resistance to claustrophobia. In fact, the entire length of the hour-long tour ($14), which descends 165 vertical feet below ground, is well lit and safe, with concrete steps and handrails for cautious visitors.
If you’re bringing kids along, consider springing for the gem mining package, which costs $4.50 per bag. You won’t strike it rich, but it’s a great opportunity for an impromptu geology lesson.
4. Spectacular Water Views at Blackwater Falls and Elakala Falls
It should be no surprise that a state known for world-class whitewater rafting has its share of spectacular waterfalls. It’s nothing like Niagara Falls or Yosemite Falls, but Blackwater Falls and Elakala Falls, both located in Blackwater Falls State Park, are worth visiting.
Blackwater Falls is super accessible. Just walk a quarter-mile from the visitor center, down a boardwalk and staircase – it’ll be staring you in the face. Elakala Falls requires a lengthier, woodsier hike on occasionally challenging terrain, but the first two cascades (of four) are easily accessible for sure-footed hikers. The trail ends at Elakala’s second cascade, and hikers without ropes and harnesses are strongly discouraged from venturing further due to the steepness and slipperiness of the canyon walls.
Once you’ve seen the falls, spend a day or more exploring the park’s extensive backwoods hiking trail network.
Blackwater Falls State Park has plenty of onsite accommodations. Small cabins start at approximately $120 per night during the peak season (late spring through early fall), while larger cabins capable of sleeping eight guests start at about $230 per night during those months. Off-season prices fall by 20% to 30%. Camping is the cheapest option, with rustic sites starting at $20 per night and sites with electricity starting at $23 per night. However, camping isn’t available over the winter (from November 1st to late April).
To ensure a spot during peak periods, reserve your sites in advance starting February 15th each year.
5. Scenic Mountain Drives
Want to cover a lot of ground on a road trip through West Virginia? The state is riddled with too many scenic roads to mention in this post, but the four called out by the West Virginia Division of Tourism here are all worth your time. None have tolls, so the only direct costs you’ll face are fuel and rental car fees, if applicable:
- Route 32 (Canaan Valley). This 20-mile route connects the hamlet of Harmon with the small town of Thomas. It mostly wends through the Canaan Valley, a minimally developed mountain valley with thousands of acres of ecologically significant wetlands, broad grasslands, and fantastic fall colors.
- Route 60 (Midland Trail). This 180-mile byway cuts straight across West Virginia, from Kentucky to Virginia. It hits many of the state’s literal and figurative high points, including the capital city of Charleston, the New River Gorge, Hawks Nest State Park, and the mountain resort community of White Sulphur Springs.
- Highland Scenic Highway. This 43-mile mountain road ascends to the crest of the Allegheny Mountains, nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. Four primary overlooks offer stunning photo opportunities, especially in fall.
6. Eerie Ghost Towns and Abandoned Places
With the coal industry in terminal decline, West Virginia is successfully rebranding itself as a lifestyle and adventure destination. But that doesn’t mean the state’s economy isn’t feeling the pinch. In fact, the boom-and-bust nature of mining has played havoc with locals’ livelihoods for decades.
Not surprisingly, the state is littered with abandoned (or nearly abandoned) towns and mining complexes. Some are downright eerie – and, according to some locals, potentially haunted.
The West Virginia Divison of Tourism lists five ghost towns that are certainly worth visiting if you’re in the area. Unless otherwise noted, all are free to explore:
- Kaymoor. This eerie mining town is built into the side of the New River Gorge. The entrance to the mine itself is suspended about 400 feet above the river level, accessible from the top of the gorge by 821 twisting steps. There’s another set of ruins along the railroad tracks at river level. Look for the frozen-in-time signs around the mine.
- Winona. Winona is technically still inhabited, but its heyday was back in the early 20th century, and the area has been in decline ever since. Look for the old pool hall, a potent reminder that they really don’t build ’em like they used to.
- Thurmond. Situated along a popular put-in and take-out site for river rafters, Thurmond was once home to a grand hotel and casino.
- Sewell. Tucked deep in the woods and accessible only by foot, mountain bike, or all-terrain vehicle, Sewell was the site of a small coal-processing facility. Don’t miss the ruined old furnaces and improbably clear spring.
- Nuttallburg. This well-preserved mining community is the essence of old West Virginia. Perched above the New River Gorge, it’s quite scenic as well. If you’re feeling sure-footed and have extra time, descend into the gorge and hit the actual mining complex.
For more creepy, abandoned places in West Virginia, including the site where the infamous Mothman allegedly appeared back in the 20th century, check out Atlas Obscura’s Guide to Hidden West Virginia.
7. Foraging in the Backwoods
If you visit West Virginia during the growing season, save a few bucks (or more) on meals with a guided or self-directing foraging tour through the state’s lush forests. The West Virginia Division of Tourism has a primer on foraging opportunities and events throughout the state. Popular events include the Dandelion Festival at Kirkwood Winery in White Sulphur Springs and the Feast of the Ramson (which celebrates the ramp, a pungent green forest veggie) in Richwood. For more adventurous types, self-guided blueberry and raspberry foraging expeditions bear fruit (literally) on West Virginia’s many sunny outcrops in July and August.
8. Stargazing in the Mountains
West Virginia claims to have the darkest skies on the Eastern Seaboard. Whether or not that’s technically true, many high-elevation locations across the state are indisputably awesome for amateur stargazers.
If you’re up for a night hike, find your way up to the Spruce Knob Summit Observation Tower at the top of West Virginia’s highest mountain. From here, you can clearly see the contours of the Milky Way. And, with Spruce Lake Campground’s walk-in campsites starting at $12 per night and car camping sites starting at $14 per night, it’s a bargain to stay overnight.
Another option is the Green Bank Telescope, part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Located in an astronomical “quiet zone” deep in the mountains, the facility is open to the public, with public tours at the top of the hour (9am to 6pm, $6 per adult) on summer days. After dark, the sky here is a mesmerizing tapestry of normally invisible stars, planets, and unimaginably distant dust clouds.
9. Spend a Day (Or Two) in Charleston, West Virginia
Not to be confused with the colonial city of Charleston, South Carolina, West Virginia’s Charleston is a picturesque river town that serves as the state’s political and cultural capital.
If you tire of the rugged outdoors, Charleston is a great place to recharge and reconnect with your softer side. Since it’s part of West Virginia, it also has a bevy of easily accessible outdoor activities for visitors of all ages and fitness levels.
Charleston’s top permanent attractions and tourist-friendly activities include:
- Charleston Town Cente, an indoor shopping center with an urban address, is one of the largest malls east of the Mississippi – a surprising find in a city of just 50,000 people. Many national retailers are represented here, but it’s also possible to find locally made products sold by local retailers. Deals abound here if you’re willing to search for them.
- Capitol Market, part farmers’ market and part artisanal mall, is a year-round indoor-outdoor shopping destination that showcases the best of West Virginia’s farmers, foragers, and craftspeople. If you visit during the summer, load up on fresh produce here before heading to your vacation rental.
- East End Historical District is an inner Charleston neighborhood not far from Capitol Market. It’s basically an outdoor art and architecture museum, complete with 19th-century architecture and a growing portfolio of art installations.
- Kanawha State Forest is a hiker’s paradise located just a few miles from the heart of Charleston. Many trails are mountain bike-friendly, and the forest is a magnet for Nordic skiers during the cold season. An onsite playground keeps kids occupied for hours. If you’re looking for affordable accommodations near Charleston, try the state forest’s campground, where sites start at $22 per night.
- Cato Park is Charleston’s largest urban park that boasts an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an affordable nine-hole golf course, and a slew of pedestrian trails and paths winding through its woods and open meadows. Camping isn’t permitted, but this is nevertheless a great place to spend a nice spring or fall day.
If your West Virginia travel dates are flexible, consider working your Charleston visit around one of these festivals or special events:
- ArtWalk, held on the third Thursday of every month, is a family-friendly, self-guided art crawl that spotlights Charleston’s surprisingly vibrant art scene. You don’t have to buy anything to enjoy the extended gallery hours and opportunities to mingle with local artists and art patrons.
- West Virginia International Film Festival is a twice-annual cultural event that draws up-and-coming filmmakers from around the globe. You don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate their artistry – nor the spring in Charleston’s step during the April and November screenings.
- Vandalia Gathering is dedicated to West Virginia’s singular culture – an eclectic celebration of homegrown music, dance, food, and folkways. Non-West Virginians are welcome!
- FestivALL Charleston is an inclusive arts event that aims to “create and sustain a community with comprehensive and robust arts and entertainment opportunities.” FestivALL hosts more than 100 individual events at numerous venues around town. In the spirit of inclusivity (and frugality), all are free or low-cost.
Pro Tip: Before you arrive in Charleston, check with Groupon, the United States’ largest social coupon provider. I ran a quick search of Groupon’s site for deals in Charleston and returned dozens of hits. Not all are relevant for frugal travelers, but there’s enough happening to warrant a few minutes of your time on the way into town.
For on-the-go access, download the Groupon app (if you don’t have it already) and turn on push notifications, which ensure you don’t miss the most relevant, proximate deals. There’s no better way to support local businesses and save money eating out at restaurants without going too far out of your way.
Many of these outdoor activities are world-class. They’re the sorts of adventures you’d expect to have in truly exotic locales halfway around the world – truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences that most people lack the time, flexibility, and budget to repeat.
West Virginia is different though. One of the best things about the Mountain State is its surprising accessibility. Just off the Atlantic coast, on the edge of the United States’ midsection, West Virginia is less than a day’s drive from tens of millions of people, including inhabitants of major Midwestern metropolises such as Chicago and Detroit. The caliber of the experiences found here might properly be described as “once-in-a-lifetime,” but there’s absolutely no reason to visit such an accessible, affordable outdoor paradise just once.
Have you ever been to West Virginia? What is your favorite activity?