Story and images by Reed Hellman
A road trip along the Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway climbs into the heart of one of the world’s signature ecosystems. Winding 136 miles from Lexington, Va., west over the Allegheny Mountains to Summersville, W.Va., the byway, also known as Route 39, mixes sumptuous accommodations, natural hot springs, mountain traditions and a wealth of cultural attractions with hundreds of thousands of acres of public wildlands.
“This is one of the most globally significant forest biomes in the world,” said Marek Smith, executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Allegheny Highlands Program. “It’s only rivaled in diversity by similar forests in China.”
Abutting the byway, the Conservancy’s 9,000-acre Warm Springs Mountain Preserve also shares a 13-mile border with the George Washington National Forest and stands as one of the largest and most ecologically significant private forests in the Central Appalachians.
The byway writhes and wriggles across parallel mountain ridges and, for a good portion of its length, traverses national forest land. It’s a “driver’s road,” well surfaced and maintained, but coiling through looping switchbacks, steep inclines and sharply banked tight curves. Frequent pull-offs enable drivers to enjoy the panoramas without having to stay focused on the road ahead.
Lexington, the byway’s eastern gateway, is steeped in history, and has successfully updated itself while maintaining its charming Greek Revival and Queen Anne architecture. Civil War history abounds, and visiting the notable sites from behind a team of Lexington Carriage Company horses adds to the ambiance. To continue the historic theme, dine and spend the night at The Georges, a boutique lodging on Main Street, occupying two of the city’s oldest structures. Don’t forget to try the old-fashioned, homemade ice cream, served in handmade waffle cones at Sweet Things, just down the block.
Just outside of Lexington, the 600-acre Virginia Horse Center offers year-round events, stabling for 1,200 horses and a 4,000-seat arena. This world-class equestrian facility attracts local, national and international competitions and sales, and provides recreational, educational and demonstration opportunities for people living and traveling in Virginia.
The Appalachian Byway Geocache Challenge offers yet another way to explore scenic Route 39. Find six of the nine caches along the route and answer questions correctly to win a special commemorative coin, available at the visitor’s centers along the way.
Goshen Pass is the first tip-off that Route 39 is a truly majestic drive. Hardwood forests blanket the steep slopes and rare mountain flowers flourish among the boulders. Hunters, anglers and photographers find many opportunities along the Maury River. The town of Goshen can be a good first night’s stop, where the Hummingbird offers classic B&B accommodations: welcoming, homey, clean and comfortable, with a sumptuous breakfast and the added attraction of active train tracks just beyond the front drive.
Beyond Goshen, the byway enters the George Washington National Forest and crosses Warm Spring Mountain at the Dan Ingalls Overlook trailhead for a 2.4-mile (round trip) hike that introduces Warm Springs Mountain and the region’s natural and human history…
Read the rest of Hellman’s story, including more insights and recommendations for stops along Route 39, in Eastern Home & Travel’s January/February 2016 issue- out soon!
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