The Wicked West of the East
A FEW YEARS AGO, fresh from 21 days of kayaking the gigantic waves of the Colorado River, I returned to my home state of West Virginia to paddle the Cheat River, where I'd been a raft guide for the previous three springs. It was May, just after flood seasonand I was feeling badass. In a moment of bravado, I followed a friend into the meat of Class V Coliseum Rapids, the toughest on the river, and whompfa huge wave clobbered me and everything went dark. Lesson one: The grand old western rivers have nothing on these eastern monsters.
West Virginia is frequently overlooked by East Coast urbanites, who tend to flock to the closer and more pastoral Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley of Virginiaor fly right over on their way to Rocky Mountain highs. But this inattention has been a blessing in disguise. Since coal mining started its big decline in the 1980s, the state has been spared from heavy development and sprawl. And with 4,000-foot mountains, thundering rivers, 45 inches of precipitation per year, some of the best crags in the country, and miles and miles of rooty, rocky singletrack, it's beginning to enjoy a new cachet as a recreational oasis. Need I mention the 910,155-acre Monongahela National Forest ("the Mon" to locals), which includes the Otter Creek, Dolly Sods, Cranberry, and Laurel Fork wilderness areas and takes up practically the entire eastern third of the state? Perhaps West Virginia has been misunderstood because of its rustic personality. True, the state passed a law in 1998 making it legal to collect (and, presumably, eat) roadkill. And, should you drive down a road to nowhere through the steep and leafy "hollers," you're likely to end up in a forgotten coal hamlet that brings to mind 19th-century sepia-tone photographsall part of the state's real-deal backwoods charm. I lived in West Virginia for six years, sharing a cabin bordering Coopers Rock State Forest that rented for $190and we had a hard time coming up with even that tiny sum because we were too busy biking, hiking, and kayaking.
Since I left, in 1997, West Virginia has averaged a 4 percent increase in tourism per year, and an adventure infrastructure has developed with it. So now you can rent mountain bikes, pick up a river shuttle, buy essential climbing gear, and hire a guide to take you wherever your heart desires. Here's a guide to the best of the Mountain State.