5 exciting ways to explore WV history on an outdoor adventure
As John Denver said, “Life is old there, older than the trees.” But the wild, adventurous spirit is as youthful as ever.
West Virginia has always been an outdoor hub, and it’s been a rich repository of human history for centuries, too. Our lush forests and hollows contain many stories, and compared to many more urbanized places, the relics of history are still here for us to see.
Here are some of the best ways to combine our state’s strengths of history and adventure:
1. WWII Biplane Rides
Pilot Christian Kappler, the owner of the Wild Blue Adventure Company, exudes history and aviation. He’s been flying planes and helicopters since he was a teen, and owns 2 vintage WWII-era biplanes, which he keeps in tip-top shape with beautiful paint jobs. You can fly in these planes with Kappler at the controls, wearing a 1940s pilot’s jumpsuit.
But Wild Blue Aviation goes beyond just suave, retro history. The company is based out of the Fayetteville Airfield, just minutes from the 1,000-foot deep New River Gorge. Flights can take you on a scenic odyssey of the gorge that few people ever experience, and for the truly adventurous, you have the option of an “aerobatic” ride– think loops and dives midair!
2. Carnifex Ferry Hikes
Most of us know that West Virginia was very much a contested “middle ground” during the Civil War. It was originally a part of the Old Dominion of Virginia, and much of its Appalachian culture even today is arguably “southern.” But, because the Mountain State’s rivers and coal deposits pointed more toward northern industry, West Virginia seceded from the South to join the North.
The 1861 battle that secured the Union’s control over the Mountain State happened at a strategic but remote crossing of the Gauley River, at Carnifex Ferry. Today, you can visit this state park, with plenty of interpretive signs and restored battle relics.
If you are feeling adventurous, hike the scenic trails along the rim of the Gauley River Gorge. Whitewater rapids thunder along hundreds of feet below, and in the fall carry thousands of rafters along the river, most of them unaware of this region’s equally turbulent and divided history.
3. Thorny Mountain Fire Tower
Most people associate fire-towers with the 1930s New Deal-era American West, when rangers would scan the horizons for smoke. West Virginia’s forests had quite a few fire towers, too, and several are still operational and open to the public.
Recently, the West Virginia State Parks refurbished the 1935 Thorny Mountain Fire Tower in Seneca State Forest. Visitors are allowed to take guided tours that include climbs up the tower’s 69 steps to take in the fantastic forest views from the tiny 14-by-14 foot cabin. If you really want to go all-out, however, you can also rent out the rustic tower for an off-the-grid night under the starry skies.
4. Whippoorwill Cemetery
It is no secret that there are some dark stories in any history. In the early 1930s, hundreds of workers– mostly African American– were employed to dig the Hawks Nest tunnel below the New River Gorge. As a result of the incredibly dusty air in this tunnel, more than 700 died of acute silicosis within months of this job, and were buried in a segregated cemetery near Summersville.
In 1972, the cemetery was disrupted by the widening of Highway 19, and the bodies were moved to a new plot, just off the Whippoorwill road south of Lake Summersville, and on the rim of the 100-foot cliffs that line the lake.
Today, you can visit this graveyard and its historical markers. The beautiful natural setting of blue water, white sandstone and inviting swimming spots contrasts profoundly with the dark legacy of this cemetery, but it is an adventure that every West Virginia history buff should experience.
5. Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry sits firmly at a junction of natural and political borders– near the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, and nearly a stone’s throw from the Maryland and Virginia state lines in the Mountain State’s far eastern panhandle. It has long been a place of historical confluences and divisions as well. Thomas Jefferson viewed the Potomac’s cut through the Blue Ridge as a “stupendous scene,” and most famously, radical abolitionist John Brown raided a federal arms depot here in an unsuccessful attempt to incite a slave uprising.
There are also some amazing hikes in this historical park. It serves as the halfway point and administrative headquarters for the 2,000+ mile Appalachian Trail. Plenty of shorter but equally scenic trails and walkways also meander through the park’s forests and along its river banks. All the hikes are worth trying, but probably the most scenic and adventurous is the Loudoun Heights trail, which rewards hikers with a spectacular view of the rivers’ confluence from the south.
Which historic adventure will you brave?