Travel

These Appalachian Hills Are at Their Best in the Fall

Mountain mama gets on her stylish seasonal ensemble.

Steve Heap/Shutterstock
Steve Heap/Shutterstock
Steve Heap/Shutterstock

For anyone living outside of West Virginia, there’s a pretty good chance that your first introduction to the Mountain State stems from the iconic anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” And while John Denver and his fellow writers had never actually been to the state before penning the song, they did a surprisingly stellar job of highlighting its strengths.

Though the deep interior of the state is home to spectacular natural wonders like New River Gorge National Park and Lost World Caverns, there’s no need to travel far to find some truly gorgeous landscapes. Just a couple hours south of Pittsburgh, West Virginia’s Mountaineer Country offers scenic overlooks, roaring waterfalls, and a varied food and drink scene all neatly packed into three counties-Monongalia, Preston, and Taylor, to be precise.

As the Mountain State’s sprawling forests don their dazzling fall colours, there’s no better time than now to set off on your own Appalachian journey. Whether you’re planning on tackling rugged mountain trails, paddling along the surf on a kayak, or just drinking your weight in craft beer, Mountaineer Country serves as a shining example of just how close to heaven this underrated state really is.

Leonard's Grill
Leonard’s Grill
Leonard’s Grill

Taste flavours from near and far

It’s tough to find a better foodie destination across the Mountain State than Morgantown. Home to West Virginia University, this charming college town is packed with more than 25,000 active students-and this collection of academics has fostered a seriously diverse dining scene. For fans of Southeast Asian cuisine, the downtown Chaang Thai is a top spot for coconut massaman curry and lad na, while nearby Fresh Mint Indian Grill serves masterfully crafted fare from the west Indian coast, with flavorful dishes like chilli paneer, aloo gobi masala, and beigan bertha all gracing the menu.

Though Morgantown may dominate the surrounding gastronomy scene, it’s far from the only place worth visiting in Mountaineer Country. Just east of Morgantown, Tropics offers a tiny slice of Hawaiʻi in West Virginia, equipped with an expansive outdoor dining area and classic dishes like loco moco, kalua pig, and chicken katsu with mac salad. Further south, the more sparsely populated reaches of Mountaineer Country are home to a couple of underrated gems, with both Leonard’s Grill and Monroe’s serving up classic American fare.

Nature's Charm/Shutterstock
Nature’s Charm/Shutterstock
Nature’s Charm/Shutterstock

Trek along stunning Appalachian Mountain trails

As you may have already guessed from the name, the Mountain State is packed full of top-tier hiking, mountain biking, and wildlife viewing destinations-and in Mountaineer Country, the crown jewel is undoubtedly Coopers Rock State Forest. Located just east of Morgantown, this massive expanse of land measures in at more than 12,500 acres, offering ample opportunity for outdoor exploration.

For casual hikers, the two-mile Raven Rock trail culminates in gorgeous vistas from the eponymous cliff face-and offers a surprisingly diverse array of fungi and arthropods along the way. Not a fan of hiking? No worries, the park’s main overlook (and a smaller ADA-accessible overlook just steps away) can be easily reached by car, with both highlighting some of the finest natural beauty in all of Mountaineer Country. Perched more than 2,000 feet above Cheat River, visitors can take in spectacular views of Appalachia’s pristine forested hills as far as the eye can see, with fascinating native species like Allegheny woodrats and flat-spired three-toothed land snails calling the area home.

While Coopers Rock State Forest may be Mountaineer Country’s top hiking destination, it’s far from the only one worth visiting. In the southernmost reaches of Preston County, Cathedral State Park is home to the largest old-growth forest in West Virginia. And those who prefer to stick closer to Morgantown can find peaceful trails throughout both the WVU Core Arboretum and West Virginia Botanic Garden.

Morgantown Brewing Company
Morgantown Brewing Company
Morgantown Brewing Company

Sample fresh Mountain State brews across the region

After a long day of exploring the trails, there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a cold ale-and fortunately, the Mountain State is overflowing with the stuff. As with most industries in Mountaineer Country, Morgantown is one of the best destinations for imbibing, with a high concentration of top-tier breweries all within walking distance. To kick off your crawl, swing by Morgantown Brewing Company, a colourful outpost next to the Monongahela River that excels at sours, ranging from the tropical fruit-loaded Mr. Goofy Coconuts to the self-explanatory Mr. Goofy Strawberry Shortcake Ice Cream Bars.

Next up, two particularly enticing destinations sit within Morgantown limits, each one offering a drastically different vibe. Launched in 2005, Mountain State Brewing Co is a lively venue, offering trivia nights, wood-fired flatbreads, margarita flights, and a massive array of West Virginian brews. Meanwhile, Chestnut Brew Works puts the micro in microbrewery, with just a couple of tables and six seats lined along a tiny backbar. Though small in stature, brews like the Sex on the Cheat strawberry rhubarb ale and The Bloob blueberry ale pack a king-sized punch of flavour for any fruit lovers out there.

There’s also a world of beer to explore outside Morgantown limits as well, with two particularly charming venues located in Preston County just west of the Maryland border. In the heart of Terra Alta, High Ground Brewing has earned local acclaim for its incredible cuisine and diverse array of IPAs, while the rurally-located Screech Owl Brewing holds the record for oldest brewery in the county, providing visitors with refreshing blonde ale, dark porters, and everything in between.

Tara Ballard/Shutterstock
Tara Ballard/Shutterstock
Tara Ballard/Shutterstock

Wind around waterfalls and lakes

Though West Virginia ecotourism tends to centre around hiking, the many mountains and hills across the state have given rise to some seriously gorgeous waterways, with no shortage of crashing waterfalls and rushing rivers to explore. For Mountaineer Country in particular, Valley Falls State Park serves as one of the region’s finest examples, measuring in at 1,145 acres of protected Appalachian land. While the area is home to sawmill ruins and roughly 18 miles of hiking trails, the main draw here is the park’s four massive waterfalls churning along the Tygart Valley River.

The topography of West Virginia isn’t particularly conducive to large bodies of water, but have no fear-the state is home to a wealth of artificial lakes that solve that problem. Just a hair south of Grafton, the ultra-idyllic Tygart Lake State Park is a paradise for all forms of water sport, with kayaking, swimming, fishing, and even scuba diving taking place in its waters. In addition to aquatic activities, the ten-mile-long lake is also home to hiking trails, camping sites, and a gorgeous lodge and restaurant, making this stunning state park one of northern West Virginia’s top spots for an outdoor-focused vacation.

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Jared Ranahan is a freelance writer focusing on travel, wildlife, and food & beverage.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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