West Virginia - Nature and Scientific Wonders


West Virginians are proud of their “Wild and Wonderful” state. Few states boast such a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities so close to metropolitan areas. From world-class whitewater rafting to the Mid-Atlantic's best skiing and scenic canoe trips, West Virginia is wild all over.

There's no shortage of sinkholes in the Greenbrier Valley and the Monongahela National Forest, which means plenty of caving. If you prefer light adventure, there are guided cavern tours available at Lost World, Organ Cave, Seneca Caverns and Smoke Hole Caverns. Organ Cave is the second largest cave on the East Coast and is a national natural landmark. Seneca Caverns features some of the most impressive underground rooms. Smoke Hole Caverns feature the six-ton “World's Largest Ribbon Stalactite.” Lost World Caverns features the 30-ton “Snowy Chandelier,” one of the world's best displays of pure white calcite. For the more adventurous, outfitters and caving clubs are available for “wild” cave exploration in locations throughout the state.

The New River Gorge is becoming more popular as adventurers rediscover cliffs like “Endless Wall” and “Beauty Mountain” in the heart of the Gorge, above formerly active coal-mining communities. The National Park Service says within the 63,000 acres of the New River Gorge National River there are more than 1,400 established rock climbs. In the Potomac Highlands, Seneca Rocks was used as a training ground for Army troops during World War II. Today, it's one of the East's best-known crags. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Seneca Rocks offers rock climbers a unique opportunity because of the hardness of the Tuscarora sandstone formation and the degree of climbing difficulty. There are more than 375 major mapped climbing routes.

West Virginia is a world-class destination for mountain biking enthusiasts, due to the abundance of trails, beautiful scenery and variety of terrain. For mountain bikers who love a challenge, the trails in Fayette, Pocahontas, Preston, Randolph and Tucker counties have the best reputation among expert riders. For a family outing, West Virginia has approximately 300 miles of abandoned rail-lines converted to trails. The only difficulty on these flat trails is trying to take in all of the beautiful surroundings. West Virginia's two most popular rail-trails are the nationally recognized Greenbrier River Trail and the North Bend Rail Trail.

Monongahela National Forest
You've heard about getting back to nature to forget the press of the daily grind. The 909,000-acre Monongahela National Forest spans ten counties in the northeastern and highest-elevated regions of West Virginia. Visitors who come to "The Mon" for solitude and relaxation probably never realize it hosts about three million visitors each year. The forest contains 23 designated campgrounds and more than 500 miles of hiking trails. The extensive backwoods road and trail system is used for hiking, mountain biking and horse riding.

The forest has five federally designated National Wilderness Areas. If you truly want to get away from civilization for a few days of backpacking, hiking and camping, seek out places like Dolly Sods, Otter Creek or Cranberry. The forest provides habitat for nine federally listed endangered or threatened species: two bird species, two bat species, one subspecies of flying squirrel, one salamander species and three plant species. Fifty other species of rare or sensitive plants and animals occur in the forest. There are 230 species of birds known to use the Monongahela and about 75 species of trees. There are 579 miles of trout streams.

West Virginia state parks offer special weekends and programs year round. Beginning with special New Year's Eve packages and ending with the Centennial Bird Count in December, the programs are diverse and fun. In wintry weather, you can count on weekends dedicated to quilting, dancing or dinner theater. As the weather warms, photography workshops, nature walks and wild foods weekends fill the schedules. Naturalists offer special walks and ghostly campfires in the summer months. And, if it's some alone time you need, take a hike, a horseback ride or jump in the lake.

As for science, West Virginia is home to the world's largest fully-steerable radio telescope. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank offers guests an opportunity to look at space exploration and study with exhibits that range from some of the earliest telescopes to a high-tech interactive visitors center that fascinates science buffs of all ages.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.