The top historical attraction in the state is Harpers Ferry National Historic Park (tel. 304/535-6029; www.nps.gov/hafe), whose 2,300 acres actually cover three states, though the primary historic sites are in West Virginia, in the historic town of Harpers Ferry. It was here that abolitionist John Brown launched a raid of the federal arsenal (which supplied guns for Lewis and Clark's famous expedition), as an attack on slavery. It was also here that Stonewall Jackson secured the largest surrender of Union troops (over 12,000 of them) during the Civil War. The town still looks as it did in the 19th century, and many of the historic buildings are open to the public; there are lots of quaint shops and restaurants as well. Stop in at the Cavaliers Visitors Center, off U.S. 340 (tel. 304/535-6298), for assistance in planning your visit. Park admission is $6 per vehicle, $4 per pedestrian or cyclist. The fee includes the shuttle bus from the visitor center to the town proper and is good for 3 days.
Hikers should head for the Appalachian Trail Conference, 799 Washington St., Harpers Ferry (tel. 304/535-6331; www.appalachiantrail.org), the headquarters for the Appalachian Trail, for information, maps, and advice on hiking the famous trail.
Once you've worked your muscles into a frenzy, head to historic Berkeley Springs (tel. 800/447-8797 or 304/258-9147; www.berkeleysprings.com), a quirky town that's a haven for artists, and where massage therapists outnumber lawyers three to one. George Washington was among the first of many visitors who came to "take the waters" at the first spa town in the country. Today it's still a popular place to kick back and relax. Berkeley Springs Historic State Park (tel. 304/258-2711; www.berkeleyspringssp.com), whose bathhouse opened in 1930, is still a working mineral spa today. Luxuriate in the Roman-style baths or take advantage of the health treatments; prices are extremely reasonable. Once you've soaked and relaxed, browse the town's many art galleries and antiques shops.
For those of a more scientific bent, the state's Potomac Highlands region is home to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Route 92/28 in Green Bank (tel. 304/456-0211; www.nrao.edu/epo), which houses the world's largest radio telescope and several hands-on exhibits dealing with radio waves and space exploration. Tours of the facility are offered daily in summer.
When it comes to outdoor recreation, West Virginia offers more activities and opportunities than most outdoor enthusiasts can hope to take advantage of. More than three million visitors a year take advantage of some of the best wildlife viewing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding in the state at the exceptional Monongahela National Forest, 200 Sycamore St., Elkins (tel. 304/636-1800; www.fs.fed.us/r9/mnf). Civil War buffs can also drive the park's Auto Tour, featuring stops at historic sites such as Fort Summit and Camp Allegheny. Be sure to stop at the park's Seneca Rocks Discovery Center (tel. 304/567-2827), at the base of the exceptionally scenic Seneca Rocks cliffs off I-33, which attract rock climbers from all over the country.
Two state parks just north of the National Forest on Hwy. 32 -- Canaan Valley Resort (tel. 800/622-4121 or 304/866-4121; www.canaanresort.com) and Backwater Falls State Park (tel. 304/259-5216; www.blackwaterfalls.com) -- offer first-class downhill and cross-country skiing in winter, and fabulous mountain biking and hiking trails in summer. The best skiing in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as superior mountain biking trails, can be found at Snowshoe Mountain, 10 Snowshoe Dr., Snowshoe (tel. 877/441-4386; www.snowshoemtn.com), an 11,000-acre resort in the scenic Allegheny Mountains.
If you prefer watersports, head straight for the southeast section of the state to the New River Gorge National River Recreation Area, off I-64 (tel. 304/574-2115 or 466-0417; www.nps.gov/neri). Here you'll find the best white-water rapids in the eastern U.S., as well as numerous other recreational activities, from horseback riding and hiking, to fishing and boating. Be sure to stop at the year-round Canyon Rim Visitor Center, off Route 19 just north of the New River Gorge Bridge, where you'll find exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the area, and several rangers who dispense valuable information and offer guided walks several times a year. Contact the Tourism Division for information on the numerous reputable outfitters who service the region if you're interested in a guided raft trip or other organized tour.
For a different sort of scenic tour, head over to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Route 66 (tel. 304/456-4300; www.cassrailroad.com), which encompasses a historic early-20th-century logging town, but whose prime attraction is a vintage steam train ride amid the West Virginia mountains. Head here in the fall for breathtaking foliage.
John Brown's Body: A Bloody Pre-Civil War Raid
On October 16, 1859, John Brown -- already notorious from a bloody raid against slaveholders in Kansas -- enlisted 19 men to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, intent on arming the nation's slaves and starting a rebellion. Frederick Douglass warned Brown that the arsenal, in a town wedged between mountains and the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, would be impossible to hold with so few men, and, as Douglass had foreseen, the raid failed. Brown and his men captured the arsenal but were unable to raise any significant number of slaves into rebellion. They were soon pinned in the arsenal's firehouse (later to be known as John Brown's Fort), and Brown was captured when U.S. Marines under Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the building. Brown was tried and convicted of "conspiring with slaves to commit treason and murder," for which he was hanged. His action polarized the nation and was one of the sparks that ignited the war. Harpers Ferry later witnessed the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War; it also opened one of the earliest integrated schools in the U.S.
The John Brown Museum, on Shenandoah Street, offers exhibits and displays on the abolitionist and tracks the course of his raid, capture, and conviction. The Harper House is a restored dwelling that sits at the top of the stone stairs, above High Street. The oldest remaining structure in Harpers Ferry, it was built between 1775 and 1782, and served as a tavern for such guests as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.