This road trip starts in the mountains of West Virginia, where wild rapids, climber-ready sandstone and a high-elevation wilderness draw active travellers. Afterwards, road trippers can soothe sore muscles in historic hot springs then dig into America’s turbulent past in Harpers Ferry. The adventure concludes in Virginia with a mountain-top drive.

West Virginia To Shenandoah National Park

Approx. distance: 650 miles

Duration: one week

Suggested route: Charleston, Hawks Nest State Park, New River Gorge National Park, Seneca Rocks & Monongahela National Forest, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Berkeley Springs State Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Shenandoah National Park, Washington, DC.

Autumn sunset view from Little Stony Man Cliffs along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park Virginia USA

The view from Little Stony Man Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park

Suggested driving route

From downtown Charleston, West Virginia, follow Hwy 60 east along the Kanawha River. Pull over in Malden for a tour of JQ Dickinson Salt Works, which sources its artisan salt from a local underground sea. From Malden, Hwy 60 follows the river then twists up through the mountains to Hawks Nest State Park, a journey of 40 miles. From Hawks Nest, continue southeast twenty minutes to the visitor centre at New River Gorge National Park.

For an overnight stay, consider a campsite or cabin at one of the adventure resorts bordering the New River, especially if you plan to take a whitewater rafting trip in the morning. For dinner, head into Fayetteville, an outdoorsy town with a robust dining scene.

The next day it’s a three-hour drive past lakes and mountains to Seneca Rocks, an eye-catching sandstone fin famed for its rock climbing. Hold tight for the twisting drive to the remote hiking trails in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River. Spend the night in Thomas or nearby Davis, making sure to visit the Purple Fiddle for live music. The next day it’s a two-hour drive north from Thomas to Berkeley Springs State Park.

From Berkeley Springs drive one hour southeast to Harpers Ferry, found at the eastern tip of the West Virginia panhandle. Spend the night in charming Shepherdstown. The next morning it’s a one-hour drive to the northern entrance of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The northern entrance is about 70 miles west of Washington, DC.

Where to stop & what to see

Hawks Nest State Park

With its gorgeous cliff-top view of the New River, the scenic overlook at this 270-acre park is deservedly popular. Short trails crisscross the grounds and a seasonal aerial tram drops to Hawks Nest Lake, an impoundment along the river. Hop aboard a jet boat for a sightseeing trip to the New River Gorge Bridge. There’s a 31-room lodge and a dining room at the park.

New River Gorge National Park

Established in December 2020, this new national park is an adventure powerhouse, with whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking and hiking. The enormous park hugs the New River as it flows north through a rugged gorge carved deep in the Appalachian Mountains. Outdoor outfitters lead whitewater rafting trips from spring through fall. The Upper New is best for first-timers and younger kids. The New River flows into the Gauley River, famed for its Class V whitewater trips during the fall dam release. The park’s African American Auto Heritage Tour visits 17 historic sites that spotlight Black stories and experiences. Guided tours cross the open catwalk beneath the 871ft-high New River Gorge Bridge. Bridge Day, held the third Saturday in October, is the one day that BASE jumpers can legally leap from the bridge.

Seneca Rocks & Monongahela National Forest

Experienced rock climbers have been scaling the quartzite fins of Seneca Rocks in Monongahela National Forest for more than 80 years. Guiding companies today can get newbies on the rocks, which soar 900ft above the surrounding valley, during a one-day course. Hikers can view the rocks up close on a short interpretive trail that climbs from the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. Families with teens may prefer the fixed-anchor via ferrata course 10 miles south at Nelson Rocks. Public and commercial campgrounds are available near both climbing areas.

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Why visit this remote wilderness? Solitude, serenity and a beautiful...Canadian landscape. Forty-seven miles of trails crisscross the Dolly Sods Wilderness, a 7,731-acre natural treasure atop the high-elevation Allegheny Plateau. Views of surrounding valleys sweep from the windswept northern edge of the plateau toward the horizon. Smaller wonders include red spruce trees, heath barrens and cranberry bogs, all more typically found in the northern reaches of Canada. There is one primitive campground in Dolly Sods, and backcountry camping is allowed.

Berkeley Springs State Park

Visitors can soak their muscles inside a historic bathhouse at this compact state park in downtown Bath. The park’s warm mineral springs have attracted tourists since the Colonial era, and the waters were a favorite of George Washington. Kids may prefer the mineral-water swimming pool to the baths. The spring water is safe to drink, and it’s free pursuant to a 1776 decree – so fill your water bottles at the spout.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Perched beside the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Harpers Ferry played an important role in America’s early history. A longtime hub of industry and transportation, it was also the site of abolitionist John’s Brown’s anti-slavery raid in 1859. Today, the historic downtown doubles as an open-air museum. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is within walking distance of the park, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters & Visitor Center is also here. The C&O Canal National Historic Park, a popular 184.5-mile multi-use trail along the Potomac in Maryland, is an easy walk or bicycle ride from the historic downtown.

Shenandoah National Park

This skinny national park runs north-south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Trailheads, campgrounds, picnic areas and scenic overlooks are scattered along the 105-mile Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the park. Skyland is one of two park lodges, and it’s the closest one to the northern entrance. For a family-friendly trail to big views of the Shenandoah Valley, tackle the 1.6-mile roundtrip hike to the Stony Man overlook. Horseback rides are available at Skyland Stables.

About the author

West Virginia To Shenandoah National Park Road Trip

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

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