The neighboring towns of Thomas and Davis make a perfect home base for exploring wild and wonderful Tucker County, West Virginia. Read on for tips to help you plan a trip to #AlmostHeaven this summer.
I recently had the chance to visit the Monongahela Forest area of West Virginia for a three-day weekend. Is it just me, or is it hard to think about West Virginia without also getting a few lines of a John Denver song stuck in your head? Not like that’s a bad thing. In fact, I love that the WV tourism board has embraced the state’s affiliation with “Country Roads,” which is a pretty accurate reflection of what you will find there.
When I think about West Virginia, the first thing that pops to mind is the color green. Trees everywhere! This state is chock full of beautiful scenic byways and (importantly) very little traffic. The second adjective that I think of is “charming,” which may or may not come as a surprise to you. This part of the country has a rich history that shines through.
Side note: it’s shocking to me that even in 2018, is still seems like West Virginia is one of the most under-rated destinations in the United States. This state remains an under-celebrated yet easily-accessible place to explore for much of the East Coast, including Washington, D.C. If you are an outdoorsy person, a visit to West Virginia is a no-brainer. But it is also a great destination for perusing local shops, finding a good meal, or simply relaxing. One pro tip – cell service is hit or miss around these parts. When you get down between the mountains (in the “holler”) it is all but nonexistent. So print out your maps and have a plan before hitting the road.
Where to Stay
Located a stone’s throw from one another, Thomas (population: 562) and Davis (population: 655), WV are about three hours from D.C. on the new-ish Highway 48 and about the same distance from Pittsburgh, PA. I am all about a small town with a personality. And let me tell you, these two bring it. If Thomas is the artist in the family, Davis is the outdoorsy one.
While laid back at heart, many of the state’s small towns have a distinctive artistic flair that belies a “crunchy” side. Thomas has become a bit of a media darling in recent years for that reason. Its downtown consists of several impossibly charming blocks of shops and cafes. I have to wonder what the per capita ratio of art galleries to citizens in this town is. Take your pick of creative shops for perusal, including The White Room, Creature, Mud Ceramics and more.
I was curious to learn more about the history of the area and stumbled upon a thorough review of the ups and downs of the region. My CliffsNotes version: Thomas was first settled in 1884 as a railroad town and by 1900 was bustling thanks to a variety of industries (timber, coal, trapping) that sprung up around it. The population peaked at around 2,300 citizens before times changed and the industries that the town relied on dried up. The town turned all but dormant for about 80 years but over the last decade has experienced a resurgence. Some people are returning to build a home, some people are visiting for the first time. Buildings like Cottrill’s Opera House in downtown Thomas are now being restored to their former glory. This revitalization is thanks to the area’s natural resources, but this time instead of cutting down trees people are enjoying the natural wonders of the area’s two nearby state parks.
For my money, the best place to stay when exploring the area is the gorgeous Blackwater Falls State Park. I was blown away by this spacious campground located next to the falls that lends the area its name. The park also has cabins for rent, a large lake and lots of outdoor activities.
I also like the look of the Billy Motel – “hillbilly fabulous,” dare I say more? – and I am intrigued by the Purple Fiddle’s Hostel and Guesthouse for both the extreme convenience and the advertised “old school TVs with VHS” that come with each room.
What to Eat/Drink
First things first. Where to eat (and drink) in this part of West Virginia?
After perusing a few art galleries, make a stop into the much-celebrated TipTop coffee shop and cocktail bar. This is the kind of place that brings together locals and tourists in equal measure. I love the little wood bar tucked in the back of the shop, with friendly bartenders that mixed up creative cocktails made of local spirits like the “Gold Rush” (chai turmeric, ginger syrup, lemon, bourbon) and the “White Nitro” (cold brew, vodka, oat “milk”). The front of the shop is part art gallery part café part book shop.
A stop by the Purple Fiddle is also a good idea, whether for a meal, or for ice cream, or to watch one of the nightly shows to fit all sorts of music tastes. Eclectic and friendly, this is a good place to enjoy some people watching. When we stopped by an Americana band called Driftwood was setting up to play on stage that night, their RV parked right outside the front door. Give them a listen – they make for a great soundtrack for cruising around West Virginia.
Other close-by food and drink spots: Hellbender burritos (Davis), which I have heard rave reviews of; Sirianni’s Café (Davis), an Italian spot that had lines out the door around dinner time; Flying Pigs Breakfast and Lunchery (Thomas) for comfort food; and Front Street Grocers (Thomas) for a variety of local products that would be just perfect to take on a picnic or hike.
I need to highlight a special honorable mention. Another town that paints a picture of West Virginia’s boom and bust is Elkins, which is located about an hour west of Thomas. Today, Elkins has a population of around 7,000, down from more than 9,000 in the 1950s, before the local railroad’s passenger service was discontinued. The downtown remains a time capsule to its glory days. However, Elkins now has a welcome depot area and tourist train service which was quite busy the day we stopped by.
On a whim, we stopped by Mama Mia Pizzeria on 3rd street in downtown Elkins. It was one of those local gems that you always dream of stumbling upon. A friendly owner and staff, huge portions, and most importantly, delicious pizza, what more can you ask for? I also got their version of the pepperoni roll, a ubiquitous West Virginia food that got its start as a convenient and portable lunch for the local miners. I’m a fan.
What to Do
There’s no two ways about it. The outdoors demand your attention when you are in West Virginia. The Monongahela National Forest spans nearly one million acres and as you can imagine offers a wide variety of hiking options.
As I already mentioned, I was blown away by Blackwater Falls State Park for its campground and amenities. The park gets its name from the 57-foot waterfall that has amber-tinted water which is apparently the result of tannic acid from hemlock and spruce needles. The Blackwater Falls boardwalk trail is a fairly easy .25 mile boardwalk that takes you down 200 steps to an observation deck. We also checked out the Lindy Point overlook trail, a flat 1.37 mile out-and-back that features a beautiful view of Blackwater Canyon.
Here’s a shortlist of other hikes in the region that I want to tackle.
Table Rock trailhead is described as an easy 2 mile out-and-back located off a backcountry road with amazing views of the Alleghany Mountains. It must be breathtaking in the fall!
The Dolly Sods wilderness offers some of the best hiking in the eastern U.S. The Bear Rocks trailhead is a 10.6 mile loop that can be completed as a long day hike or split up into an overnight backpacking trip. The route provides sweeping vista views. However – fair warning that the area was used by the US Army for artillery training during WWII and unexploded mortar shells are still sometimes found. So be sure to keep an eye out if you get off the trail.
The highest point in West Virginia is Spruce Knob. It is described as one of the top five backpacking routes in the mid-Atlantic and among the best camping to be found in the region. The Spruce Knob/Seneca Creek trail gains 2,310 ft in elevation and can be taken on as a 16.5 mile out-and-back or broken down into a shorter route. The trail takes you by the wreckage of a 1973 plane crash. The sad story behind the crash is here.
About 45 minutes away from Thomas is one of West Virginia’s most iconic natural landmarks, Seneca Rocks, which rise 900 feet above the North Fork River.. This is a favorite for rock climbers. A 2.6 mile hike full of switchbacks, shady trees, and ferns will take you to an observation deck. We loved the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center which features a large viewing window, educational exhibits, and local information. The Sites Homestead is also nearby. The grounds include an 1839 log home and heirloom gardens that are open to tours.
On a less-outdoorsy note, I also recommend a stop by Lost River Trading Post in Wardensville, WV, which is on the way to and from Washington, D.C. In addition to the unique selfie opportunities it offers (see above), this modern general store is part-art gallery part-coffee shop part local foods store part upscale thrift shop. Such a fun place to peruse and fuel up for the trek back home.
Looking for a little more inspiration? Check out some West Virginia Instagram accounts worth following for a true local perspective.
Below are some more helpful resources to help you put together a wild and wonderful West Virginia itinerary.
- Burgh Gal – “Dear Pittsburgh – stop underestimating West Virginia”
- Purple Lizard Maps – Davis and Thomas Guide
- Blue Ridge Outdoors – 48 Hours in Tucker County
- Travel and Leisure – Great American Small Towns List
- Only In Your State – West Virginia Road Trip Itinerary
- Parts Unknown – West Virginia Guide
I admit I still have much more of West Virginia to explore and another trip is definitely in the works. Personally, here’s what is top priority for my next visit: the Swiss village of Helvetia (to eat at Hutte), snapping the perfect photo of the dramatic New River Gorge, going spelunking, and lots more hiking… I’m thinking the Bear Rocks trailhead would be a good place to start.
Have you been to West Virginia? Let me know if I missed any of your favorite spots in the comments below. I hope I did this beautiful state justice!