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The New River is seen from Hawks Nest State Park near Ansted, West Virginia. The scenic overlook is one spot in the New River Gorge National River.

Kale Wilk, The Times

Appalachia is a section of the country I had never seen. It wasn't even until 2015, when an influential college photojournalism instructor back at Indiana University told us he was from West Virginia that my curiosity was piqued. My eager mind researched gorgeous images of the mountains, valleys and rivers found there.

For about a year and a half after that it was my top choice for a place to visit. I finally completed that goal this month. The Mountain State has something for everyone with its stash of adventures.

Scenery

Cruising through the mountains and hills of Appalachia left me awestruck. Many of West Virginia's cities and towns are situated in valleys, often also along rivers. They're in beautiful landscapes that are quite the contrast from Indiana.

One of West Virginia's popular tourist attractions is the New River Gorge National River, a rugged area of about 70,000 acres from Fayetteville to Hinton. This area housed many of the marvelous sights I wished to see. The stretch has scenic overlooks scattered throughout that offered excellent photography opportunities as the lush greenness of spring continued. I can only imagine how stunning it must also look in the fall. Two frequented and picturesque spots include Hawks Nest and Grandview State Parks, locations that sit above bends on the New River. The views can speak for themselves.

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The scenic overlook at Grandview State Park is shown near Beckley, West Virginia. The site is a spot along the New River Gorge National River.

Another grand view worth taking in is that of the New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia's famous arch structure that carries U.S. 19 across. Until its completion in 1977, motorists had to spend 40 minutes winding through roads down the gorge, across the river, and back up. Now, the drive across takes less than a minute.

Besides the scenic overlooks at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, walks across the bridge are available too. For about five years, Adventures on the Gorge has offered Bridge Walk, a guided tour across an original catwalk constructed underneath the bridge. If you have the bravery to secure yourself along with informative guides and tread over hundreds of feet above the New River, this adventure, and the views, will not disappoint. Just don't let the vibrations made by traffic overhead spook you too much.

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The New River Gorge Bridge is seen from the bottom of the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia.

History

West Virginia may rank in the back end of statehood chronology, having joined the Union in 1863. However, its history more accurately begins back in the 1700s when it was still a section of Virginia. Thus, it's a place that holds a bundle of tradition and stories, perfect for those that enjoy delving into U.S. history.

A visit to the state museum in Charleston showed its story is one of hardiness and hardship as pioneers blazed their trails in the mountains and valleys. Conditions were rough and travel was not a straightforward task. The railroad slightly improved the area's fortunes, such as the old town of Thurmond. It's a ghost town in the New River Gorge operated by the National Park Service that anyone is welcome to stop by and walk around in. At least five people actually still live around there.

But a trait that has characterized the state throughout American history, and even fairly recently, is its lineage of coal miners. It's evident while driving some of the roads and seeing stickers or decals on vehicles with coal miner illustrations that below them read "Six inches from hell." There's also a mine you can tour in Beckley. These signs, and others in neighboring Pennsylvania, reminded me very much of northwest Indiana's own industrial and manufacturing background. It made me think of workers, like coal miners, that took on hard jobs and sacrificed their health to keep the lights on in America and use what they could to put dinner on the table for their families.

Legends and more

What else incites some adventure or curious investigation than urban legends and or ghost stories? West Virginia is filled with them. A famous myth is that of the Mothman. Right away after crossing the Ohio River on U.S. 35 is the town of Point Pleasant. The story of this winged creature with glowing red eyes started coming about in the '60s and '70s, and seeing it was rumored to spell doom. So one story goes that it was spotted near the Silver Bridge, which carries U.S. 35. Soon after, a tragic incident occurred in 1967 where the bridge collapsed, resulting in 46 deaths.

The urban legend is honored with a one-of-a-kind Mothman Museum in the downtown section as well as a shiny statue adjacent to it.

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A statue honoring the urban legend of the Mothman stands in downtown Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

If one has a curiosity for ghosts or the paranormal, two notorious locations in that realm are housed in the Mountain State: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston and the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville. Both were some of the first of their kind - the asylum housing mentally ill patients from the area and the prison holding many dangerous criminals of that time period. Both facilities also closed in the '90s. Even though he wasn't housed there, Charles Manson sent a letter, which the penitentiary holds in a display case, requesting to be moved there to be closer to his home. Both have guided tours through the dilapidated structures that feel very much like urban exploration.

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A view inside a cell block at the decommissioned West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville.

Whatever gets you excited about a vacation, West Virginia is likely to have it. From scenery to history, the Mountain State is a majestic destination.

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Staff photographer

Kale is a photographer with the Times. He is a Region native, hailing from Schererville. He writes feature stories, shoots photos, and co-produces Byline, a Times podcast. He is a graduate of Indiana University.