When you think of the state motto of West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful, your mind may not turn the southernmost area, McDowell County. The Appalachian Mountains define the borders of the county and the rugged landscape is a perfect escape from city life to enjoy winding byways, mountain trails and small towns rich with coal mining heritage and local flavor.
While some might find the partial cell phone coverage in rural areas or lack of a Wal-Mart limiting, true explorers will enjoy discovering the best of outdoor recreation and mountain tranquility that can only be found a few hours from many urban areas on the east coast. Be sure and take a printed map on your adventures in McDowell County, because you never know what rolling road will inspire you to turn off the paved highway.
A great time to plan your visit to McDowell County is around one of the many festivals that happen throughout the year. A list of annual events can be found at www.coaltownusa.com. The upcoming WV Coalfields Cookoff will kick off summer happenings on June 11 and 12 in downtown Welch, the county seat.
The Coalfields Cookoff will showcase national and backyard barbeque pitmasters cooking for the coveted WV State Championship trophy and cash prizes. $5.00 tasting tickets include music each night, a regional battle of the bands, children’s events, public BBQ tastings, ATV contests, and a beer garden. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Welch, WV Volunteer Fire Department. More information can be found at www.wvcoalfieldscookoff.com.
Another unique summer event is the Welch Community Cookout and Fireworks on July 4th, which celebrates Independence Day with the biggest little cookout in West Virginia. Fireworks reverberating off the mountains is a sound you will never forget!
Two excellent routes offer access to many of the towns in McDowell County and are a great place to start your meandering ride through the mountains. From the North, near Beckley, take exit 42 (Robert C. Byrd Drive) off Interstate 77 and head toward Sophia. Follow Rt. 16, the National Coal Heritage Highway; through Sophia, Mullens, and Pineville, and into historic Welch. More information on the rich coal history in this area can be found at www.coalheritage.org. This drive is approximately 1.5 hours (approximately 48 miles). If you head east consider Rt. 52, which will showcase the small towns of Northfork, Keystone, Kimball and Elkhorn. Detour at Northfork to the Ashland Company Store and the Coal Camp Café, for a snack, a souvenir, and a glimpse into its coal history. More information can be found at www.ashlandcompanystore.com. Plan your selfie stops carefully as you travel our byways. Some great choices include the Kimball World War I Memorial, built to honor African American veterans of World War I. It is the only such memorial in the United States. If you detour south off Rt. 52 onto 161, you will find the town of Gary. The entire town was owned US Steel until the 1970’s, when the company decided to deed it to the residents. Constructed specifically for coal miners, even today, the town shows an excellent example of a coal camp, including churches and a school.
Both Rt. 16 and Rt. 52 intersect in Welch. Located at the fork of Tug River and Elkhorn Creek in the center of McDowell County, Welch is noted for the first municipally built, owned, and operated parking building. It still in operation today. Located in the heart of the charming downtown, the parking building is open 24/7 for parking. Bring your $1.00 for all day parking, that is free on the weekends. Take the historic buildings walking tour and visit the Jack Caffrey Arts & Cultural Center, located at 143 Wyoming Street. The historically renovated building also holds the McDowell County CVB and welcomes heritage artisans from the area to exhibit.
Welch is home to notable figures such as Steve Harvey, Mel Street, and John Ellison whose song “Some Kind of Wonderful” is the most recorded pop song in history. Photos of the area from acclaimed railroad photographer O. Winston Link are also displayed in the Caffrey Center. After your stroll around town, if you need to relax, the Pocahontas Theatre, offers the chance to take in a movie, let the kids enjoy the arcade, and sample the WV candy available in the lobby. More information about Welch can be found at www.cityofwelch.com.
Welch is also remarkable for its pivotal role in coal mining. 2021 celebrates the centennial of the spark that ignited the coal wars. Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were assassinated on the courthouse steps in Welch. Rumor has it, the bullet holes are still visible in the courthouse wall. If you would like to continue your journey through the storied history of coal mining, plan to attend the Coalfields Heritage Festival September 10-12. The event features a carnival, music, vendors, crafts, historic story tellers and period actors.
In November, the longest continuous occurring Veterans Day Parade with occur in Welch. 2021 will mark the 103rd edition of this patriotic event and all veterans are invited to participate. Former Marshalls of the parade include President Lyndon B. Johnson, President Harry S. Truman, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, U.S. Senator John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV, and Senator Joe Manchin.
While in Welch, several food options are available. A marvelous choice is the historic Sterling Drive In. Since 1945, the restaurant is favorite of locals and visitors. A diverse menu offers something for everyone, but the deep-fried sub rolls are a neighborhood favorite. Make sure you take a photo with the original sign and post it to your social media before you leave, with the hashtag #WelchWV for a chance to be featured on the City of Welch social media pages!
Depending on your route, you will find 17 properties and districts listed on the National Register of historic places in the county. Most of these locations are the former company stores of coal companies. An excellent example of a former coal company store can be found in Carswell, just a short drive from Kimball off Rt. 52. You’ll wind through a narrow valley called a “holler” locally and arrive at a former coal company store constructed in 1923. Though not open for visitors, the Italian Renaissance–style Houston Coal Company Store offers a reminder of the central role the industry played in nearly every aspect of daily life and how populous the area was well into the 1950’s, with over 100,000 residents.
McDowell County also offers the opportunity to go wild for those travelers seeking to roam the back country of West Virginia! The area offers four government managed areas for outdoor peace and quiet. The Tug Fork Wildlife Management Area, The Anawalt Lake Wildlife Management Area, Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area and Panther State Forest, which offers over 7,000 acres of hiking trails, wildlife, fishing spots, scenic overlooks, picnicking, swimming, cabins, and serenity.
If peace and quiet is not what you need, get down and dirty on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System. These ATV friendly trails cover hundreds of miles in the WV Mountains and many local towns invite ATV riders to stop and fill their bellies at local restaurants and to refill their gas tanks in town before roaring off for more off-road adventures! No matter which trail you choose, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System offers paths ranging in difficulty. If you are a novice, guided tours are also available. The City of Welch is a connector between the Pinnacle Creek and Warrior Trail Systems. Towns and cities along the system include Ashland, Northfork, Kimball, War, and Welch.
If you find your day trip needs to be extended, McDowell County has several lodging options, a full list can be found at www.meetmcdowell.com. Some excellent options include the Ashland Resort, which caters to ATV travelers, the Elkhorn Inn on Rt. 52, which is located adjacent to a rail line and a must stop for any railroad buffs and the Pocahontas Motel or Count Gilu Motel in Welch, which offer traditional lodging in a central location to explore McDowell’s hidden gems. For more individualized options, many rustic cabins area are also available for rent.
McDowell County offers many historic towns and mountain vistas, but the real gem can be found in getting away from the hustle and bustle of interstates, chain stores, and taking a step back to fresh mountain air, local festivals and finding the heart of Appalachia beating strong in the people that reside in these mountains.
Safe travels and we cannot wait to meet you down the winding road in McDowell Co. WV!