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.
4. New River Gorge National River
Pioneers called it the New River, but geologists say that this waterway, which has barreled down the same course for about 65 million years, is one of America’s oldest. As rafters who sweep down the New’s white-water are the first to attest, its venerable age hasn’t diminished the river’s free-flowing vigor. In fact, its roiling rapids are judged the most difficult east of the Rockies.
Although Rte. 60 has several overlooks along the northern end of the New River Gorge, an even better place to glimpse the chasm is at the Canyon Rim visitor center on Rte. 19. Awesome cliffs—some nearly 1,000 feet high—vault into view, and far below, the New River sparkles in the sun as it races northward. New River Gorge Bridge, just west of the visitor center, soars 876 feet above the water, making it the second-highest single-arch span in the country. Throwing caution to the winds, parachuting daredevils come once a year to leap from the bridge’s vertigo-producing heights, from whence they gently float downward to land on sandbars in the river.
Now a semiwilderness of tree-covered ridges and sandstone outcrops, the river corridor was until fairly recently one of the busiest coal-mining centers in the country. To this day miners and other long-time locals gather at the visitor center to recount their experiences in conversations that help to keep alive West Virginia’s time-honored tradition of storytelling.
5. Babcock State Park
Most of the old mines were abandoned by the 1930s, and nature ever since has been reclaiming the ground under towns on which they stood. This regrowth is apparent at Babcock State Park. The 4,127-acre tract, lying to the south along Rte. 41, earns special renown for its two different kinds of wild rhododendrons—one bedecked with purple flowers, the other with white blooms—that enliven the hillsides from May until July. Birds carol in the canopy of hardwoods, and trout fight the currents of Glade Creek. Also of note are a reconstructed gristmill that stands at the stream’s edge, and some 20 miles of trails tempting hikers to explore the parklands.
6. Big Sewell Mountain
Zigzagging across the Allegheny Plateau, the Midland Trail crests as it rolls across the summit of Big Sewell Mountain. The peak, which climbs to 3,170 feet, served as a camp for Robert E. Lee and his Confederate troops during an 1861 Civil War campaign.
Many other parts of this rumpled region—a strategic link between North and South—were fought for and occupied during the war. As the drive rolls onward through rural hamlets, you’ll come to Lewisburg, once a Confederate outpost, where some buildings still bear the scars of battle. Yet Lewisburg’s past goes back even further. One stone church, complete with the original pews, was erected by settlers in 1796. Several historic houses, inns, a library, and a courthouse also were built in the decades before the Civil War.
7. White Sulphur Springs
A steady supply of spring water, tinged with smelly sulphur and other minerals, has been drawing health seekers—presidents and politicians among them—to this fashionable retreat since the 18th century. At the town’s edge, tucked amid forested hills and lush green pastures, stands the venerable Greenbrier Resort, looking like the White House—only bigger—and evoking the elegance of the Old South that typifies this glorious region.
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