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From Quiet Trails to Thrilling Whitewater, West Virginia Offers Heaps of Outdoor Adventure

Wild, wonderful West Virginia is one huge outdoor playground, and whether fun to you means sliding on snow or slithering down rivers, there is plenty of outdoor adventure on tap here.

Thomas Jefferson once said that the passage of the Potomac River through Harpers Ferry was “one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.” Today, the town is a national historical site and a center for outdoor activities, and visitors can fish, boat, and whitewater raft. The 2,300-mile Appalachian Trail passes through the town and Harpers Ferry is considered the “psychological midpoint” of the trail. Hikers can take the summer off and attempt the whole trail, or simply lace up their boots for a day hike. From The Point, hop on the trail northbound and cross the Potomac on the pedestrian-only Winchester and Potomac Railroad Bridge before paralleling the river past White Horse Rapids on the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath.

Grandview State Park in Beckley has 6 miles of trails. The toughest, which can either be mountain biked or hiked, is the Little Laurel Trail which leads downhill for 2 miles to the New River and the scattered remains of a coal town. The .9-mile Big Buck Trail rolls through forest and signs along the way identify trees. The enjoyable Grandview Rim Trail is 1.6 miles long and passes several breathtaking views of the gorge and river far below.

The state’s longest trail is the 77-mile Greenbrier River Trail. This was once a rail line connecting Cass to North Caldwell. When train traffic waned, the rails were removed and now the mostly level trail can be used by hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers, and horseback riders. Along the way you’ll find solitude, two tunnels, and 35 restored bridges.

The Spectacular New River Gorge is protected as a national river, and while most of the action is on the water there are plenty of hiking trails for those who prefer to stay dry. Near Fayetteville, the 8.6-mile Kaymoor Trail runs parallel with the middle of the gorge and passes a historic mine site. The difficult Kaymoor Miners Trail descends steeply from the gorge rim to the mine using switchbacks and stairs.

One of the more popular trails is the Craig Branch Trail, a 2-mile path which can be hiked or biked, but the most popular one is the Endless Wall Trail, a 2.4-mile moderate hike which offers unsurpassed views of the river and access to some of the best rock climbing in the eastern United States. The Arrowhead section of the park includes about 13 miles of mountain bike loop trails, while the Glade Creek area sports the short but strenuous Kates Falls Trail and the moderate Glade Creek Trail, which passes through hemlock forests and rhododendron thickets which bloom magnificently in the summer.

The highest mountain is West Virginia is Spruce Knob, which sits at 4,862 feet. This peak is noted for its prominence – that means you get great views – and while a road goes most of the way to the summit, you can also hike much of the peak using the Seneca Creek and Huckleberry trails. At the summit you can experience a rare rocky sub-alpine landscape.

If you prefer your outdoor action to take place on the water, then know that West Virginia is home to some of the wildest rivers in the East. The Upper New River is a suitable spot for first-timers – you’ll find some calm water as well as Class I and Class II rapids, which are fairly tame. The Lower New River, meanwhile, adds Class IV rapids to the mix, though here too the whitewater is interspersed with sections of calm water. Rapids are created by big drops between huge boulders in the river, and the last 8 miles are essentially one long stretch of rapids and foaming water. Guides and outfitters can get you on both stretches of water.

The Upper Gauley, meanwhile, is experts only. This section of river has consistent Class IV to Class V rapids, and the river drops 335 feet in 13 miles. The river is even more intense in the fall when water is released upstream from Summerville Dam. The Lower Gauley offers similarly extreme rapids which reach up to Class V, but there are spots to relax, too, and this stretch is suitable for intermediates.

The Shenandoah does not get as much attention as the New and the Gauley, but this river near Harpers Ferry has beginner-friendly whitewater and plenty of outfitters willing to get you on the water.

The Hatfield-McCoy trail system is one of the nation’s largest off-highway play areas. There is something here for everyone whether you are on an all-terrain vehicle, a utility vehicle, or a dirt bike. Trails stretch roughly from Bluewell to Logan and you’ll find everything from technical single track to family-friendly dirt roads. Outfitters in Matewan, McDowell, and Rock rent ATVs and everything you need for a day on the dirt.

The Mountain State has more than 700 miles of designated mountain bike trails. Choices range from the 69-mile North Bend Rail Trail which begins near Parkersburg to the 50-mile trail system around Spruce Knob, which has earned “Epic” status ranking from the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

All those mountains turn white in the winter, and West Virginia boasts surprisingly good skiing. The state’s largest area is Snowshoe, which receives an average of 180 inches of snow a year. There are 14 lifts spread across three skiing zones, one of which has double-diamond expert runs. Other ski areas are Canaan Valley, Timberline Four Seasons, Winterplace, and Oglebay Resort.

Seeking a slower pace in winter? You can find cross-country skiing and snowshoe trails around the state – top spots are the Elk River Touring Center, Monongahela National Forest, Pipestem Resort State Park, and Blackwater Falls State Park. White Grass is a top-level backcountry touring center – skiers here can use telemark gear to climb the mountain and ski down open slopes.