One of my favorite rides is West Virginia Route 16 (although this trip also can be fun in the right car). This highway transverses the state, from the majestic Ohio River at St.Marys to the Virginia border beyond Coalwood (the company town made famous in the book “Rocket Boys” which became the movie “October Sky”) in McDowell County.
St. Marys in Pleasants County is just the first of many county seats that this highway connects. Following soon thereafter as one proceeds south is Harrisville in Ritchie County, Grantsville in Calhoun County, and Clay in—where else—Clay County.
In Clay County, Route 16 runs along the Elk River. If you have only seen the Elk River near its terminus in Charleston where it joins the Kanawha River, you can’t truly appreciate the Elk. It is a beautiful mountain river tumbling over the rocks as you run beside it, before crossing a bridge and heading up the hill to cross a ridge into another watershed.
Soon you enter the Gauley River drainage area, and eventually run alongside it until it meets the New River at Gauley Bridge. The Gauley is famous for its rafting, especially in the fall when water is released from the Summersville Dam. It is the most thrilling whitewater rafting in the eastern United States! [Indeed, I have rafted many rivers, but none compare to the mighty Gauley in the fall.]
At the end of the Gauley, Route 16 turns left and joins U.S. Route 60 (known as the Midland Trail highway) for an assault on Gauley Mountain. If you have the time, you may want to take a diversion to the right, past the little town of Gauley Bridge and through the adjoining hamlet of Glen Ferris (home of the historic Glen Ferris Inn, which has been in operation since 1839), and visit the park just below Kanawha Falls. The Kanawha is formed by the merger of the New and Gauley Rivers, and shortly thereafter tumbles over about a twenty foot cataract spanning the broad width of the river. The whole Kanawha Falls and Gauley Mountain area saw a lot of action in the Civil War, and future U.S. Presidents Hayes and McKinley served stints here.
If you skip Kanawha Falls and make the left turn, you still get a shot at a different type of waterfall—smaller, but taller rather than wide. Just a mile or so after Route 16 joins Route 60, the highway jerks left, crossing the railroad tracks, and directly ahead is a pull-off area on the left for Cathedral Falls, where a small stream tumbles down the rocky hillside heading towards the nearby New River. If there have been recent rains, this view can be spectacular.
Soon you are climbing away from the New River and up the legendary Gauley Mountain. The twists and turns over the next 15 miles or so are absolutely incredible, as are the views from several pull-off areas. Just after the tightest hairpin turn at Chimney Corner, Rt. 16 splits away from Rt. 60 and heads down to cross the New River over the low Cotton Hill bridge, before climbing up out of the gorge and into Fayetteville (the county seat of Fayette County). By the way, Fayette County has become quite the tourist destination in recent years, with lots of interesting shops and activities—too many to list here.
Another option is to veer left at Chimney Corner and follow Rt. 60 up the hill to Hawks Nest State Park, with its iconic overlook of the gorge (if you stop, be sure to read about the tragedy involved with the New River tunnel). Continuing on past Ansted, you can get on U.S. 19, and cross over the famous New River Gorge Bridge (as pictured on the back of the West Virginia quarter). Each year on the third Saturday in October, this four-lane highway is closed down for Bridge Day, as pedestrians flock to watch the parachutists jump off the bridge. Route 16 can be easily rejoined on the south side of the gorge at Fayetteville. Before leaving Fayette County, you pass through the town of Oak Hill—it was along Route 16 here that country singer Hank Williams died.
The next county is Raleigh County, and its county seat of Beckley, the only large town along this trip. After crossing under the West Virginia Turnpike, Rt. 16 continues south past Sophia, which was known as the hometown of former U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, and then through Mullins, the hometown of former NBA coach Mike D’Antoni.
The final two county seats are Pineville in Wyoming County and Welch in McDowell County. It is easy to see how populated and prosperous the southern West Virginia coalfields were in their glory years. Unfortunately, these areas are struggling to cope with the changing economic situation. Below Welch is the little town of Coalwood, the furthest south I’ve traveled on this trans-West Virginia jaunt.
By staying on just one highway and taking this cross-state road trip, traveling through eight county seats, it is easy to get a sense of rural West Virginia. The views are beautiful, and the driving is much more interesting than the typical interstate superslab. There are lots of intriguing roadside attractions along the way. We truly live in a wild, wonderful state!