This summer, our Pittsburgh family took a long-awaited bucket list road trip through Appalachia. We had recently spent 18 months driving the Pan American highway, and while it was an epic journey, the need to deeply explore our roots kept calling to us. We wanted our three children to experience their home region’s Americana vibe, in all of its quietly staggering beauty and extraordinary humility. So we set out on a 1,700 mile loop that ticked off eight of Appalachia’s 13 states.
These are our hand-picked highlights – toddler, kid, and adult approved. They represent some of the best examples of Appalachia’s dutiful, spirited and homegrown heritage. You can easily squeeze these must-sees into a holiday weekend or follow our tracks and turn your route into a weeklong vacation. And the best part? Most of these highways have all-season appeal.
Our itinerary used “The Paris of Appalachia” – Pittsburgh, if you didn’t know – as a base, but your city will work as a starting point, too. No matter what direction you travel, you’ll be diving into a culture so distinct and united by its cuisine, music, landscape and history that state lines start to be nothing more than some catchy signposts.
So buckle up, fill the tank and crank up the bluegrass. You’re headed on an unforgettable adventure.
As the nation’s most mountainous state, rugged West Virginia promises visitors spectacular views – and you won’t find more genuinely good-natured folks anywhere.
Going south on I-79, as you enter Morgantown, the geology changes from Pennsylvania’s eroded plateaus to mountains, and sheltered valleys become West Virginia’s quintessential scenic hollers. It’s hard to tell whether the highest point in the sky is Dorsey’s Knob, a cross erected prominently on a hilltop, or the beacon of roadside restaurants – Cracker Barrel. But no matter what draws your eyes upward, you can’t shake the feeling that here in West Virginia, you are perfectly small.
Beckley, in southern West Virginia about an hour north of its border with Virginia, is a great spot for a taste of everything “Wild and Wonderful.” Get into town for a farm fresh lunch at The Dish Cafe. There are two things you’ll see on every menu going forward, fried pickles and peanut butter pie, and around these parts, it’s recommended you eat both with reckless abandon until you find your favorite joint.
Your second stop is the architectural Tamarack Marketplace for a heavenly serving of renowned peach bread pudding drizzled with bourbon caramel. Enjoy it outdoors beside a live soundtrack of original songs from local musicians as part of Tamarack’s Courtyard Concert Series. After your treat, graze the dozens of shops and galleries showcasing local crafts designed by talented artisans from all 55 of West Virginia’s counties.
Visiting the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is key to understanding West Virginia’s complex economic past. As coal production decreased, the surrounding communities became financially distressed, and it created a quality of resilience that still shines today. Retired miners guide the thrilling underground ride at Exhibition and eagerly share astonishing details and interesting anecdotes that tell a story of struggle, determination and unrelenting faith. On site, there is also an artifact museum, restored early 1900’s historical buildings, and a super fun and surprisingly innovative youth museum for tiny travelers.
Pack a picnic or pick up a pizza – either way, grab some grub and park at the Grandview Overlook. A short hike leads to captivating vistas of the second oldest river on the planet. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set behind the towering peaks outlining the canyon of the New River Gorge.
The Blue Ridge Parkway
Your next destination is about 5 hours south on I-77. On the way, you’ll pass through Virginia and North Carolina, and you’ll be graciously rewarded if you start the day early. The thick morning mist reaching into the ravines provides a magical backdrop for vacation pics. Soon after, the landscape turns from jutting mountains into rolling farmland, roughly bordered by post and rail fences, logged long ago. The atmosphere is one of certainty and overflowing with abundance.
Veer off in Bland, Virginia, for a quick pop in at Dismal Falls. A 5 minute descent will take you to this small but spectacularly serene spot. The Appalachian Trail also intersects in this area, too, if you want to try your legs at a longer hike. Take a deep breath of dewy air before embarking on what’s officially named America’s favorite drive – the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As with any road trip, expect the unpredictable. A big section of the Blue Ridge is closed for construction and others will take turns being under repair as part of a three year maintenance project funded by the Great American Outdoors Act. Be sure to check for detour updates before finalizing your route. (Or wing it – whatever!) At the time of this writing, southbound traffic is diverted around milepost 220, but there are some worthy sites leading up to this exit.
Mabry Mill at milepost 176 is the perfect stopover to sample a true Appalachian menu and appreciate the craftsmanship of a restored 1905 gristmill. There are live woodworking and blacksmith demonstrations, a cute gift shop with souvenirs you can’t refuse and traditional music every Sunday afternoon. At the Groundhog Meadow Overlook at milepost 189, visitors can climb the retired Forest Service observation tower. From the top, behold panoramic peaks behind a dense wildflower field that kids (and grownups) won’t be able to resist frolicking in.
Now wind your way through a couple North Carolina mountain towns, like luxury Blowing Rock or charming Black Rock, and pass by block after block of antique shops. If you time your travel for the month of June, you’ll even see the Catawba Rhodies blossoming on the slopes of the North Carolina Smokies as you approach the day’s resting place – Greenville, South Carolina.
Greenville has become the city for everyone. Its appeal is universal, and its warmth (literally and figuratively) welcomes tourists from all corners of life. Once you see it for yourself, you’ll know the enthusiasm, while ever-casual, is spot-on and contagious. Is it the food, the foothills, the people? The entertainment, education and perfect location? Can’t choose; doesn’t matter. Greenville is quickly growing into Appalachia’s “where it’s at,” and you don’t want to miss it.
A perfect day here starts with breakfast at the Swamp Rabbit. The cafe offers an array of really delightful dishes that are sustainably sourced from smallholder farmers and the grocery selection is almost entirely organic, featuring local goods. The focus on community here is clear, evidenced by the gated on-site playground and bike rentals available for a lovely late morning cruise down the adjacent 20-mile, multi-use Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Okay, onto Falls Park on the Reedy. This is every picture you see of Greenville and none do it justice; but simply put, it’s a peaceful and pristine paradise in the center of downtown. There are two paved trails following the banks of the Reedy River and many offshoots taking walkers into the heart of the park to gaze at the many gardens consciously designed to bloom year-round.
Floating above you is a masterpiece of engineering: The renowned Liberty Pedestrian Bridge is suspended by a single cable and is the only of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Its curved design artistically cradles the waterfall in a symbolic nod to Greenville’s outdoorsy yet contemporary atmosphere. Take some tasty tacos to-go from Papi’s and soak it all in.
South Carolina’s urban upstate hub boasts tons of all-star amenities without losing its intimate, small-town feel. If there’s something you typically love doing in a city – museums, zoo, nightlife, hiking, galleries, sports, or family fun – Greenville’s got it in spades, so go for it! And then end your evening with a dining experience at Gather GVL, a best-in-flavor bustling international food and cocktail court with communal tables and buildings made from revamped shipping containers (100% kid and pet friendly).
Finally, get a nightcap for your sweet tooth from The Crazy Mason Milkshake Bar and take it with you to watch the sun go down on a rock face with breathtaking 360 scenery at the Glassy Mountain Heritage Preserve.
The next section of this trip is a whirlwind of activities spotlighting some of the best of Southern Appalachia before you might swing back north. Ultimately, you’re heading towards Huntsville, Alabama. You can choose to take a direct route on I-85 through the outskirts of Atlanta, or with added drive time, weave in and out state borders, stopping at attractions that offer unique insight into authentic Appalachian living. Assuming you’re up for a little adventure, your first break is just outside Franklin, North Carolina, via highway 64 east.
Highlands Road Gem Mine guarantees tons of multi-generational fun. They provide gem buckets loaded with fancy crystals like rubies and emeralds, many sourced from nearby mountains, for sluicing. They also have a lapidary on premises in case you fall in love with a stone.
After playing in the dirt, you’ll be ready to eat. R&A Orchard planted their first apple tree over 75 years ago and have been serving the local community of Ellijay, Georgia, with farm fresh fruits and artisan products ever since. The peach cider slushie alone is worth driving hundreds of miles for, but don’t forget to try the hand pies or to chat up the super kind local residents.
Arriving into Huntsville around dinner means snagging a booth or barstool at geek-famous Toybox Bistro. The dishes are quirky and oh-so-good in that guilty way, but the genre-busting fandom decor coupled with the humorous story of the diner’s humble beginnings might be even better.
In the morning, hit up Huntstville’s Craft Coffee Trail – a collection of 11 cafes ranging from sommelier style espresso sipping with trained baristas to a comfy corner with a simple, black drip. There’s even a trail guide so you don’t miss your mark. Once you’re properly fueled, it’s rocket time!
Go southwest of the city for an all-star day in the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. NASA is filled with incredible exhibits and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like participating in an insanely cool underwater astronaut training class. To keep living like a frontier explorer, finish your day dining in any of the many German restaurants, like Hildegard’s, that sprung up when the space program was first launching in Huntsville around 1960.
It’s easy to get comfortable in Appalachia. For our family, traveling outside of our home city was the perfect nudge to remind us of the seemingly endless breadth of experiences Appalachia offers. We felt, first-hand, the richness of our dazzling landscapes and the sincerity of our endearing people, whose contributions have embedded our region into greater American culture. Surely, our nation would be far less without spicy boiled peanuts or fiddles or some of the earliest examples of our country’s melting-pot diversity.
But don’t just take my word for it – turn the key. Appalachia’s right there, waiting for you.