Thousands of votes poured in to our 7th annual Top Towns contest sponsored by Blue Mountain Brewery. These three mountain towns were your favorites.
You’d think it would be hard for locals to miss High Knob, the 4,233-foot mountain that looms far above the streets of Norton, Va.
Yet for years the small city—actually Virginia’s smallest independent city, as well as its westernmost—was so focused on serving the dominant coal industry that it overlooked the potential of the mountain and its accompanying fishing, hiking, trail running and mountain biking opportunities.
These weren’t potential tourist draws, residents thought.
Anyone with even a passing interest in national economic news can probably guess what happened next. Big coal became much smaller. And Norton’s business and political leaders, seeking a financial lifeline, finally took notice of High Knob and the surrounding wilderness.
“Our economy has been struggling in this region, as you know,” said Norton City Manager Fred Ramey. “It’s caused a lot of us to look at our assets and see what we can capitalize on, and it’s caused us to focus on this beautiful mountain that we have.”
“Mountains, lakes, streams and trails—all these things have long existed, but they were local recreational facilities,” said Mark Caruso, owner of an outfitter in Norton, Pathfinders Outdoor Adventures. “We started to see that the assets we liked so much, other people might want to visit, too.”
Once this mindset took hold, the people of Norton started to realize just how much they had to work with.
The city is at the crossroads of two four-lane national highways, U.S. 23 and U.S. 58, meaning it is both accessible and well stocked with hotel rooms — 350 of them in four hotels. Built mostly for travelers passing through town, they are increasingly used by people who want to stay.
Norton is served by a regional tourist development organization, Heart of Appalachia.
“(Nearby) counties are all in the same boat and all pulling together and working together,” Caruso said.
But the town of 4,000 also has a distinct identity built partly on the memorably named Woodbooger, a legendary, sasquatch-like creature who supposedly roams the surrounding mountains.
“Some people wondered if we wanted to go down that path, but we’ve embraced it,” Caruso said.
And it has the most crucial assets of all: natural beauty and range of options to explore it.
High Knob, which rises 2,000 feet from downtown Norton, is capped with a recently rebuilt observation deck that offers views of five states. Its flanks are home to the Flag Rock Recreation Area, with an eight-mile trail network that has received rave reviews from mountain bikers and that, with the help of a crew of AmeriCorps workers, will eventually be expanded to 30 miles.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous up there,” said Jane Sandt, 58, a lifelong Norton resident, who walks the trails daily with her rescued Labrador retrievers.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t believe you do this every day,’ but every day it’s a new experience.”
The city reservoirs in Flag Rock are not only scenic spots for paddleboarders and kayakers, but offer first-rate bass fishing within minutes of downtown. Flag Rock’s cliffs are also attracting a growing contingent of rock climbers, one of whom recently told Caruso, “You don’t have just a local or national rock climbing venue here. You have an international rock climbing venue that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
On the other side of the mountain is one of Virginia’s most famous swimming holes, a crystalline, waterfall-fed pool called Devil’s Bathtub. Also within an easy drive from the city: kayaking on the Clinch River, mountain biking in the Jefferson National Forest, and hiking and trail running at Breaks Interstate Park.
These assets have not yet rescued Norton’s economy. The unemployment rate of surrounding Wise County is still well above the statewide rate, and the average household income far below it. But the vibrancy that outdoor recreation has brought to Norton could clearly be seen on one weekend in October when the city hosted three big outdoor events: 10K race from downtown to the top of High Knob; a celebrated series of trail runs, including a 100-miler; and Norton’s annual Woodbooger Festival.
Even more important is a new, year-round change in the way people look at their town and at High Knob.
“There’s just a special excitement in the air,” he said. “People are really thrilled to be welcoming people to our community and sharing the mountain in a way they haven’t shared it before.”
At the Holiday Inn. Norton is home to four motels owned by national chains, but only this one is downtown, within walking distance of a planned visitors’ center at Flag Rock Recreation Area.
1051 Park Ave.
At the Wood Booger Bar and Grill. It not only embraces a local legend, but serves a hamburger platter that is a legend in its own right. “It’s huge and it’s just tremendous,” Caruso said.
921 Park Ave.
At the Country Cabin, a historic, 80-year-old community center and events venue that showcases Appalachian history, art and music.
6034 Kent Junction Rd.
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1st RUNNER UP
Bill Atkinson still remembers where and when he saw the light about the potential of outdoor tourism: Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park, 1989.
Atkinson had traveled there to attend a conference exploring the feasibility of what then seemed a long-shot project, building a multi-use trail between his hometown, Cumberland, Md., and Pittsburgh, Pa. His inspiration came not in meeting rooms, but in the tiny, vibrant town of Ohiopyle, just outside the park entrance.
“It was packed with people biking and walking,” said Atkinson, a regional planner with the state of Maryland. “I thought, ‘Holy Cow! If they can draw this many people to a town of 67, just think what we could do in Cumberland.’ ”
The Cumberland-to-Pittsburgh trail, called the Great Allegheny Passage, did, in fact, prove to be feasible. And its completion in 2013 did, ultimately, inspire Cumberland and surrounding Allegany County to pursue the economic future Atkinson long envisioned. The city is emerging as a prime destination for specific types of outdoor enthusiasts, ones who like to mix fresh air with culture, history and access to major metropolitan areas.
“I think we’re going through a brand renaissance,” said Ashli Workman, Allegany County’s tourism director.
“We’re a declining industrial town in a lot of ways, but we’re fighting that,” says Doug “Hutch” Hutchins, owner of the Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop and head brewer of the newly formed 1812 Farm Brewery. “We’re trying to educate people about what tourism can do for this city.”
Like another Top Town, Norton Va., Cumberland probably could have taken this approach much earlier if it hadn’t been bound to traditional industry. For a town of 20,000, it’s loaded with natural and manmade attractions.
Cumberland has long been known as the northern terminus of the 185-mile towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which is to bike trails what Fenway Park is to baseball stadiums. Thanks partly to the lobbying of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the canal was designated as a national historic park in 1971. The completion of the Allegheny Passage placed Cumberland near the midpoint of the combined trails—a smooth path, free of car traffic, stretching from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh.
This may be one of the area’s most famous attractions, but it’s far from the only one, Workman says.
Cumberland serves as the gateway to the Allegheny Mountains and 25 percent of its land is publicly owned. Visitors can fly fish on the Potomac River, paddle in 243-acre Lake Habeeb in Rocky Gap State Park, or ride mountain bikes in the 46,000-acre Green Ridge State Forest. The city is so tightly tucked into a corner with West Virginia and Pennsylvania—and all the recreation opportunities they offer—that a well-known road bike ride manages to include three states in a loop covering just 24 miles.
“If you’re into outdoor adventure, this is a mecca,” Workman said.
But Cumberland is also packed with culture—so packed that even disinterested cyclists or paddlers may accidentally bump into a musical performance, art gallery, or historical site.
The annual DelFest, one of the nation’s largest bluegrass events, is held on a cliff high above the Potomac and offers put-in and take-out spots for fans who want to squeeze a river trip in between shows. The towpath trail passes neighborhoods famous for galleries, bars that feature musical acts vying for a DelFest booking, and numerous historical sites, several of which testify to George Washington’s deep and lasting imprint on the Potomac valley.
The trail skirts both a historic district of 19th-century homes on a road named, of course, Washington Street, and a cabin that served as Washington’s headquarters when he was a young colonel fighting in the French and Indian War.
His commander at the time, Gen. Edward Braddock, built a road that was the precursor to America’s first federally funded highway, the National Road. It once stretched from Cumberland west, across the Allegheny Mountains; the towpath takes cyclists directly past mile zero.
Washington was also the biggest backer of the canal that the towpath follows, though he imagined it continuing west, over the mountains, to the headwaters of the Ohio River—the current site of Pittsburgh. That means the planners who worked so long on the Allegheny Passage and the Cumberland residents starting to benefit from this work are, like Washington, focused on the economic potential of westward expansion.
“We like to think we completed Washington’s vision,” Atkinson said. “We just did it in a different transportation mode.”
COZY + VERY OLD
Cumberland is home to several independently owned boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts. One of the most opulent and historic is the Bruce House Inn, formerly a private residence built in 1840.
201 Fayette t.
EAT WITH GINO
Cumberland is home to two landmark restaurants specializing in fare justified only by the most grueling ride or hike: the Queen City Creamery (108 W. Harrison St.) and Curtis’ Coney Island Famous Weiners (35 N. Liberty St.) The aptly named creamery specializes in frozen custard—the richest imaginable ice cream further enriched with egg yolks. At the 99-year-old Curtis’, customers can watch owner Gino Giatis stack his tattooed arms with dogs “and just load them down with Coney sauce and onions,” Workman said.
DelFest, which honors the legacy of bluegrass legend Del McCoury and is held annually over Memorial Day weekend. It attracts the best acts in bluegrass and as many as 40,000 fans to a spectacular riverside venue.
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2nd RUNNER UP
Lewisburg, West Virginia
Lewisburg has banked on eco-tourism since the days when taking in a mountain view from a veranda—typically with a soothing beverage in hand—counted as outdoor adventure.
The city of 3,800 is just nine miles from the palatial, 710-room Greenbrier Resort, which has been drawing visitors deep into the Allegheny Mountains since 1778. So while some regions are just discovering the advantages of marketing natural beauty, Lewisburg’s corner of West Virginia practically invented the concept, and the city of 4,000 has benefitted for as long as natives such as Kara Dense can remember.
“It’s like a Ford plant for us. It employs 1,600 people and funnels a ton of business through the city. It really is our economic driver,” said Dense, executive director of the Visitors and Convention Bureau of Greenbrier County, home of the city and the resort.
Lewisburg still draws fans of the civilized brand of outdoor recreation associated with the resort, tourists who might follow a float on the gentle Greenbrier River with a spree in the town’s boutiques and upscale restaurants. But the city is increasingly courting more adventurous types, including hardcore mountain bikers, and has found that the two populations are not mutually exclusive. Seekers of adrenaline and endorphins, it turns out, often enjoy capping their conquests with good meals, culture, and the aforementioned soothing beverages.
“The great thing about Lewisburg is that it’s a nice little town with a lot of stuff going on. There’s some old money here with the resort. And it’s got a nice restaurant scene, with people really firing it up,” said Stu Schwab, owner of the Appalachian Bicycle Company, a bike shop in Lewisburg.
But the city is also near the south end of the Monongahela National Forest and accessible to “kayaking, skiing, mountain biking and road cycling,” Schwab said. “To me, Lewisburg has everything. That combination is what makes it so great.”
Schwab, who grew up in West Virginia, returned to the state recently after several years in Asheville. The mountain biking in the “Mon,” he said, stacks up to that of Pisgah National Forest, and it occupies a similarly vast portion of its home state.
“This side of West Virginia is nothing but national forest from here to Davis,” he said, referring to a mountain biking mecca three hours to the north.
But because the town is small and remote, cyclists can feel they have thousands of acres of wilderness all to themselves, which Schwab pretty much did on a recent ride on the Monongahela’s Tea Creek Trail System. This network offers 44 miles of “technical backcountry trails that look like they’re in British Columbia—roots and rocks and super-mossy, super-dense forest,” he said. “When I was up there soloing the other day, I did 17 miles and I ran into one hiker.”
Big challenges are available closer to town at Greenbrier State Forest, featuring 3,280-foot Kate’s Mountain, and the acclaimed Snowshoe Bike Park, where the elevation tops out at 4,848 feet. Road cyclists can not only access miles of quiet and spectacular country roads, but 78 miles of traffic-free riding on the Greenbrier River Trail. Snowshoe, as the name suggests, was built as a ski resort, and anchors the region’s many opportunities for downhill and cross-country skiing.
But visitors should remember they are not obliged to haul themselves up or to plunge down mountains, Dense said.
She mentioned the city’s many outstanding restaurants and shops, but also a Carnegie Hall that was funded by the same Andrew Carnegie who built the famous venue in New York City. It opened in Lewisburg in 1902 and still acts as magnet for big-name performers. For a small town, Lewisburg also has an unusually vibrant drama scene, featuring the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, a state-backed venue for professional actors.
“Our city is about all kinds of adventures and experiences,” Dense says.
The local food scene’s commitment to farm-to-table dining is embodied in the Livery Tavern, an interpretation of a 19th-century tavern situated in a historic building and featuring a menu heavy on chops and steaks. Though you wouldn’t want to show up at the Livery in mud-spattered cycling gear, you’d probably be fine at Thunderbird Taco. It features outstanding renditions of its namesake dish, a design scheme relying on hand-painted skateboards and “really good, strong margaritas,” Schwab said. “It reminds me of what we had in Asheville. Good food, good music and a good collection of mixed drinks.”
Greenbrier Valley Theatre is designated as the State Professional Theatre of West Virginia and provides the region with first-rate drama while also serving as a training ground for up-and-coming actors. “They hone their craft here before they go to New York or Los Angeles,” Dense said.
CAN’T MISS ROAD RIDE
Highland Scenic Highway, about an hour north of Lewisburg, is West Virginia’s version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Just the description of the highway on the Appalachian Bicycle Company is enough to make legs burn: “Topping out at over 4500 feet, it challenges expert road cyclists with its big sustained mountain climbs to long high speed descents.”
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