It struck me as I was getting ready to leave West Virginia a few weeks ago that West Virginia is probably not exactly an in-demand vacation destination.
The state’s top industry is tourism, so obviously people are visiting. But apart from people who have said that they have family in the state, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard people mention wanting to vacation in West Virginia. I guess I still think it’s a pretty obscure place, as obscure as I thought it was when I found my missionary job online.
The news that comes out of the state doesn’t exactly help. Poverty, mountaintop removal, debates into the best forms of energy for the state…and then there’s all the stereotypes about marrying cousins, backyard moonshine, and people sitting on their front porches with a banjo and a gun slung over their shoulders. Among people who have never been there, West Virginia probably seems like a scary, strange place.
But after spending two years in the Mountain State, I can say with confidence that West Virginia is as worthy of a vacation destination as any of the big name getaways: Colorado, California, Florida, whatever other big names come to mind. West Virginia is a beautiful, unique state, and I already know that I’m going to be spending my vacation time there.
I wanted to start a new blog series detailing some of my favorite spots in West Virginia. I’ll start by looking back on places from memory, but I hope one day to actually return to the state for material, both to old haunts and new destinations. I hope to use this series to demystify the state that was so mysterious to me when I moved there and which is probably still so mysterious to many.
Let’s get started, yes?
Nestled near the Maryland border, Tucker County is, without a doubt, one of the most unique places I’ve been in West Virginia. I was able to visit a few spots in the county when my mom visited at Easter this year, and I had the privilege of spending a whole day there with my missionary team about a month before my second year ended. What follows definitely doesn’t cover everything that Tucker County offers, but it’s everything I’ve seen of it so far.
A good chunk of Tucker County is made up of Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. Dolly Sods is renowned for its variety of landscapes, from mountains to plateaus to swamps to alpine boulder fields to windswept pine trees. The terrain is more common to southern Canada than it is to the Mid-Atlantic! It’s a bit off the beaten path, marked only by brown signs along major highways (like 32 and 28) with arrows that point the way. After you get off these highways the road turns to gravel and you’ll start to feel like you’ve entered another world—scraggly and gnarled trees, rocks that look like they belong at the top of a mountain, short and scrubby bushes. Welcome to the Sods! There are plenty of places to park for a hike or for camping, but be careful where you walk; Dolly Sods was used as a testing zone for explosives during WWII, so there may still be some unexploded shells on the land. Dolly Sods is about 17,000 acres, so give yourself plenty of time to explore. Do so at your own risk, though. In addition to the possible unexploded shells, the varied topography of the Sods can make hiking treacherous, and the weather can change in an instant. I spent only about an hour or two there before heading to Blackwater Falls, but the desolate beauty of Dolly Sods and one scenic overlook in particular left such an impression on me that I’d recommend it to anyone seeking a unique outdoor adventure in West Virginia.
From the Sods, head west until you hit the town of Davis. There you’ll find the road that leads to the most iconic natural feature in West Virginia: mighty Blackwater Falls. Why the name? The Blackwater River winds through mostly pine forests. As these particular pine trees shed their needles, the needles fall into the river, essentially turning it into tea. You wouldn’t think it would make much of a difference, but sure enough, the water has a deep, rich amber color. The river meanders several miles before plunging five stories over the Blackwater Canyon. This spectacular sight can be viewed from several different overlooks, but the best way to experience it is up close. Go to the boardwalk observation area and you’ll descend down about 200 steps to a deck that places you mere yards from the roaring falls. If you’ve still got time to kill after checking out the falls, Blackwater Falls State Park is home to miles of hiking trails. Just make sure you bring sturdy footwear; the ground can be wet and muddy! And bring water; some trails are longer and more strenuous than others, so hydration is important.
If you’ve worked up an appetite from all that hiking, you can stop at the lodge at Blackwater Falls, or you can drive a few miles back into Davis. The highest incorporated town in West Virginia, Davis is home to some unexpected small businesses and restaurants. I’d recommend Hellbender Burritos, a dive-y little spot that serves up local brews and, of course, burritos. Get an order of chips and guacamole; it’s about $7 but the generous portion of fresh guac is worth every penny. After you’ve eaten, take some time to peruse Davis’ shops. Be sure to stop at Wild Ginger Spice, a hippie shop where you can buy unique clothing, incense, bulk spices, locally made honey, and an eclectic mix of other items.
Not far from Davis is the town of Thomas, another great place to stop for small-town shopping, eats, and charm. Unfortunately, when I stopped there with my missionary team, it was late in the afternoon on Monday, so most of the shops were closed. It might be best to come on a weekend; most businesses seem to have longer hours Thursday through Sunday. What was open, though, was The Purple Fiddle, a general store-turned-café and live music venue. The Purple Fiddle has a small menu of sandwiches and soup, as well as an impressive beer selection. When my missionary team went, everybody got a different item from the menu and they were all satisfied. What really stole our hearts, though, was the ice cream. The Purple Fiddle gets their ice cream from Lakeside Creamery in Maryland, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had. My strawberry ice cream was delicious, and I sampled a fellow missionary’s rum raisin ice cream, which skimped on neither rum nor raisins.
If you’re a beer person like me, Tucker County will surely make your heart happy. Davis is home to Stumptown Ales and Blackwater Brewing Company, and Thomas is home to Mountain State Brewing. Make sure you plan to visit these places on a weekend, though, as most of them are only open Thursday through Sunday. I’m gutted that I wasn’t able to visit these breweries in my trips to Tucker County, but I think I know what my first stops are going to be on my return to West Virginia.
Whether you’re an outdoors person or a lover of shopping, small businesses, and/or microbreweries, Tucker County is an excellent primer to the eclectic side of West Virginia, and a great introduction to the state in general.