Length: About 120 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Nearby attraction: Greenbrier State Forest, with hiking, camping, and swimming, four miles south of White Sulphur Springs.
Not to be missed: Bridge Day, when the New River Gorge Bridge is open to pedestrians and parachutists. Held the third Saturday in October.
Further information: West Virginia Division of Tourism, 90 MacCorkle Ave. SW, South Charleston, WV 25303; tel. 800-225-5982, www.callwva.com.
Climbing beside the Kanawha River to wooded hills and ridgetops, the narrow ribbon of Rte. 60—the Midland Trail—unfurls across the heart of West Virginia. Here in a region where Civil War battles were fought and generations of miners dug for coal, the bittersweet sound of the folk ballads of another era still lingers in the air. But today it is nature’s music that dominates, breaking the silence with songs as graceful as the hills and as entrancing as a rushing river.
Though the Midland Trail’s official route was expanded a few years ago and now starts in Huntington, we will begin the drive in Charleston. (Purists may want to visit Huntington to see the B & O Railway Station, Old Central City, Huntington Museum of Art, and the old-time amusements of Camden Park.)
The old James River–Kanawha Turnpike, built to link Richmond, Virginia, with Charleston, West Virginia, followed the course of an old bison path that later became an Indian trail across the Alleghenies. Today the two-lane road (Rte. 60) is known as the Midland Trail.
Start at Charleston’s most impressive landmark: the mammoth marble state capitol building, completed in 1932. Facing the Kanawha River—long the economic lifeline of the city—the capitol boasts a golden dome that serves as a beacon for miles around. The red brick governor’s mansion and the contemporary Cultural Center are among the adjoining features of the lively Capitol Complex.
As you depart the Mountain State’s largest city, traveling east on Rte. 60, you might want to pause at Daniel Boone Park. The riverfront oasis commemorates the renowned woodsman, who lived for a time in the area. A log house and the 1834 Craik-Patton House, both furnished with period antiques, are open for tours.
2. Kanawha Falls
For the first several miles, Rte. 60 passes through a drab industrial corridor. The factories, important in the state’s growth and history, were built to refine the minerals and fuels that were discovered in this part of the Kanawha Valley. By the early 1800s the town of Malden, for example, was a major producer of salt, a commodity that at the time was literally worth its weight in gold.
Farther along, the factories disappear, the air clears, and the drive begins its ascent into the Alleghenies. The road winds atop ridges cloaked with beeches, oaks, and hickories, while stands of pines add year-round dabs of dark green. In places you’ll drop into fertile valleys where the sap of the sugar maples, known locally as sweetwater, is tapped in springtime and boiled down into syrup. Just before Gauley Bridge, pretty Kanawha Falls pours down a natural staircase of succeeding and massive sandstone ledges. Farther upstream, the Gauley and New rivers unite to form the Kanawha.
3. Hawks Nest State Park
The terrain turns intensely rugged as the drive, looping around a succession of hairpin turns, climbs to Hawks Nest State Park. Perched on a clifftop 585 feet above the sinuous curves of the New River, the area offers bird’s-eye views that extend for miles. A park gondola carries passengers down into the depths of the gorge. Wildflowers stud the slopes in spring; come fall, the region is a golden blaze of fluttering foliage. At the water’s edge, visitors can boat and picnic.