Summer’s gone but the fun doesn’t have to stop in the West Virginia hills. We’ve got your guide to enjoying all that autumn has to offer.
Ride the Rails
West Virginia is widely renowned for its leaf peeping. When the weather starts to turn, mountainsides all across the state are dappled with beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red, and green. There’s only so much you can see from your car windows, however. For a change of pace and scenery, consider traveling the state like your great-grandparents did—by train.
Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad, with depots in Durbin and Elkins, offers a few different excursions. The New Tygart Flyer travels 46 miles through an “S”-shaped tunnel and a 1,500-foot-deep canyon to the High Falls of the Cheat River. For a longer excursion, take the Cheat Mountain Salamander. This 128-mile, eight-hour trip travels deep into the forests of Cheat Mountain, with a stop in the former town of Spruce, accessible only by rail. The Durbin Rocket is a good choice for shutterbugs and families with small children—this two-hour trip features both open and closed cars, and passengers are free to move among them throughout the 10-mile journey. Hop into the open car for frame-worthy photos of the Monongahela National Forest. Elkins Depot, 315 Railroad Avenue, Elkins; Durbin Depot, 4759 Staunton Parkersburg Turnpike, Durbin; 304.636.9677; mountainrailwv.com
Cass Scenic Railroad is a living museum. The state park is home to the largest number of still-operating Shay locomotives in the world. Originally employed to carry timber from the mountains, the steam-powered engines now carry thousands of tourists up and down the steep switchbacks every year. Trains leave each day from May through the end of October on three different trips. The route to Whittaker Station offers a look at a historical recreation of a 1940s logging camp. The train to Bald Knob, the third-highest point in West Virginia, gives visitors a chance to see a section of the state similar in climate and vegetation to the Canadian wilderness. Cass also offers its own train to Spruce. All the train rides offer breathtaking views of a seldom-seen section of the state. 242 Main Street, Cass; 304.456.4300; cassrailroad.com
The Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad showcases views of a different landscape, West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. You’ll ramble past farms, hardwood forests, and narrow valleys. Keep an eye out. When you’ve reached the halfway point of your trip, the engineer will slow the train and allow passengers to enter an open car to look for bald eagles that frequent the area. Wappocomo Station, 149 Eagle Drive, Romney; 304.424.0736, potomaceagle.info
For two weekends each October, the Collis P. Huntington Historical Railroad Society charters a special New River Gorge rail trip, taking riders from Huntington to the depot in Hinton for the town’s Railroad Days festival. Guests ride in mid-century comfort in the society’s restored railroad cars. Try to get a spot on the Braddock Inn car, built in 1949 for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In addition to a full kitchen and dining area, this coach includes several captain chairs that spin 360 degrees so passengers can gaze comfortably out of the large windows on both sides. 304.523.0364; newrivertrain.com
It should come as no surprise that a place with as many dark hollows as West Virginia has produced some seriously spooky ghost stories. Many cities around the state host ghost walks, but no one does it better than Harpers Ferry. Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry, by O’ Be JoyFull Historical Tours and Entertainment, hosts walks Monday through Saturday nights, all year long. Actors in period costumes take guests through historical happenings as well as local legends and stories of ghostly encounters.
Although the stories are plenty spooky, organizers emphasize the tours are family friendly. Reservations are not required on Friday and Saturday nights from April through the end of September. 304.725.8019; harpersferryghost.20m.com
The state’s most popular destinations for ghost hunters are the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, which have both have attracted the attention of paranormal experts nationwide.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, formerly known as the Weston State Hospital, was built before the Civil War and is the largest hand-cut stone building in North America. Although built for 250 patients, its population once reached 2,400. Historical tours, held Tuesdays through Saturdays, take visitors through the history of mental health treatment. But the asylum also offers ghost-hunting tours throughout the month of October. 71 Asylum Drive, Weston; 304.269.5070; trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com
After the state decommissioned the West Virginia Penitentiary in 1995, locals turned the spot into a creepy tourist destination. You can still see prisoners’ graffiti on the cell walls and take a peek at “Old Sparky,” the prison’s electric chair. During the Halloween season, the prison is transformed into a one-of-a-kind haunted house dubbed “The Dungeon of Horrors.” The penitentiary hosts tours Tuesdays through Sundays but Dungeon of Horrors tours only occur on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from late September to the end of October. 818 Jefferson Avenue, Moundsville; 304.845.6200; wvpentours.com
While in Moundsville, make a side trip by the Archive of the Afterlife, a collection of “macabre and paranormal-inspired exhibits.” The museum also hosts ghost walks through Moundsville. 272 Jefferson Avenue, Moundsville; 304.905.3545; archive-afterlife.weebly.com
An Abundance of Apples
Orange and yellow leaves aren’t the only things that appear on West Virginia’s trees when autumn arrives. The state’s fall apple harvest is a time for celebration, and not just for folks who are trying to keep the doctor away.
The Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival in Martinsburg, held October 20-23, is everything small-town living is supposed to be. There’s an apple peeling and eating contest, a pancake breakfast, and a square dance hosted by the Panhandlers’ Square Dance Club. Local girls compete to be named “Queen Pomona.” There are beauty contests for apples, too: awards for the biggest apple, the best-tasting apples, the best apple arrangements, and even a contest for the best apple photo. msahf.com
Berkeley Springs’ Apple Butter Festival, held each Columbus Day weekend since 1974, fills the Eastern Panhandle hamlet with the spicy smell of apple butter, slowly cooking in big copper kettles right in the middle of downtown. This year’s festival begins October 8 with a Saturday morning parade, which kicks off two full days of arts and crafts, music, and entertainment. There are apple butter and baking contests, along with some quirkier events—an egg toss, a hog-calling contest, a turtle race, and a beard contest. The festival ends with a raffle of the Official Apple Butter Festival Quilt, which makes its debut each May at Berkeley Springs’ Quilt Show and Sale. 304.258.3738; berkeleysprings.com/festivals/apple-butter-festival
The Clay County Golden Delicious Festival, which runs September 15-17 this year, celebrates “a small town with a golden heart.” Clay County was where the Golden Delicious was first discovered in the early 1900s; it eventually gained wide acclaim when Stark Bro’s Nurseries began marketing the fruit in 1914.
Now, more than a century later, locals herald their most famous export with three days of community fun. There’s an antique car show and youth art auction, kids’ activities, pageants, and a parade. Confectioners compete for top prize in apple pie, apple cake, and apple butter contests. The annual quilt show gives out awards for best handmade, machine-made, and baby quilts, along with other needlecrafts like crochet, embroidery, and knitting. This year’s event will also feature a puppy pageant and a “Sip Cider and Create” event, where local artist Quincy Potasnik Mitchell will lead participants in a step-by-step painting tutorial. 304.332.5018; claygoldendeliciousfestival.com
You can celebrate the apple harvest on your own, too. Many orchards around the state allow visitors to pick their bounty right off the trees. Check out Morgan Orchard in Sinks Grove, near Union, or Sizemore Farm in Clay. morganorchardwv.com; facebook.com/sizemorefarm.clay
Gauley, By Golly
Just because the weather is getting a little colder doesn’t mean outdoor fun is over. In the New River Gorge, September and October mean one thing—Gauley Season. The Gauley River is full of white-knuckle adventure all year long, but each fall the Army Corps of Engineers draws down Summersville Lake with a series of scheduled releases, sending 2,800 cubic feet of water per second gushing down the gorge. This extra water creates the “Big 5”—a series of five Class V rapids that attract adrenaline junkies from around world. Even if you’ve never rafted before, there are several outfitters in the area more than happy to take you on a wild river ride. Take a look at ACE Adventure Resort in Minden or Adventures on the Gorge in Lansing. aceraft.com; aotg.com
Autumn adventures aren’t limited to the water in the New River Gorge, however. Some especially brave daredevils also take to the sky. Each October, BASE jumpers leap from the New River Gorge Bridge as part of Bridge Day. The event began three decades ago to celebrate the completion of the bridge, one of the world’s longest single arch spans. All four lanes of the 3,000-foot bridge are shut down to everything but foot traffic. It’s a great way to get an Instagram-worthy selfie high above the gorge. But the real attraction is the jumpers. Watch them take running jumps off the side of the bridge, then deploy their colorful parachutes as they drift toward the valley below. Less adventurous types can take a walking tour of the bridge’s catwalk, harnessed and hooked to a safety line.
The nearby town of Fayetteville also gets into the action on Bridge Day. Check out the funky local restaurants, or attend the annual Bridge Day Chili Cook-Off, which takes place after the bridge activities. On the Lansing side of the bridge, Adventures on the Gorge hosts the popular Taste of Bridge Day at its Smokey’s on the Gorge Restaurant, an annual sampling of area restaurants. officialbridgeday.com
Good Times on the Gridiron
If you happen to be in Morgantown on a Saturday afternoon and hear what sounds like a musket shot followed by thousands of people singing along to a John Denver song—you’re exactly right. The West Virginia University Mountaineers football team inspires rabid devotion all over the state, but there’s nothing quite like watching the Mounties on their home turf. The experience is even more enjoyable this year, thanks to $50 million in renovations at Milan Puskar Stadium. Fans will notice a wider concourse on the east side of the stadium along with improved restrooms and concession stands. The university plans to complete the renovations on the rest of the stadium by the 2017 season. wvugame.com
But Saturdays aren’t only for Mountaineers. In Huntington, the biggest game in town belongs to the Marshall University Thundering Herd. The team is headed by the beloved Doc Holliday, who grew up in Hurricane and played and later coached for the Mountaineers before joining Marshall in 2009. Grab a seat in the 38,000-seat Joan C. Edwards Stadium—known to fans as “The Joan”—and holler along to the school’s famous chant. “We are … Marshall!” herdzone.com
For all the excitement of college football, there’s still nothing like Friday night lights. If you want a real taste of local culture, head to a local high school football game. Cheer alongside the proud parents, applaud the marching band at halftime, grab a hotdog from the concession stand—it’ll make you feel like a kid again.