Cresting a ridge south of Davis, West Virginia, on the state’s Appalachian Highway, there’s a moment where you’d be hard-pressed not to have John Denver lyrics starting to drift into your ears. The rising slope opens to a view fit for a postcard, the Canaan Valley.
Just under three hours southeast of Pittsburgh, a little under an hour past Deep Creek, Maryland, the largely undeveloped valley offers a stark contrast in outdoor recreation opportunities when compared to its northern neighbor.
Deep Creek’s condo-laden landscape, motorized lake recreation and other amenities are a popular escape for many a Pittsburgher. The Canaan Valley and the towns of Thomas and Davis aren’t that.
Deep Creek’s more rustic cousins embrace a different vibe, surrounded by a natural landscape filled with protected forests, ridges and wetlands. The twin towns — a sort of gateway to the Canaan Valley — have developed their own unique character, filled with a selection of local restaurants, breweries and a vibrant art scene.
“We’re not going to be your glitz and glamor (destination); it’s a little rugged and rough around the edges,” says Jessica Waldo, executive director of the Tucker County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, describing the area’s outdoor recreation appeal. “You’re not going to see a Starbucks.”
There’s an authenticity to Thomas and Davis you won’t find in a lot of places. They embrace their heritage as logging and mining boom towns — visible in their main street facades — and mix it with a modern recreation destination filled with vibrant independent local businesses, eateries and art galleries.
While they definitely embrace more of a rugged outdoor town mentality, they are increasingly on the tourism radar. The last 20 years have brought culture to them as well, headlined by the acclaimed Purple Fiddle, a family-friendly acoustic music venue, cafe and bar.
“I thought it would be a great place to have a business,” says owner John Bright of picking the main street of Thomas for his restaurant venue back in 2001. “It was primed. It was just a few stores, lots of empty storefronts.”
Opening the place not long after 9/11, Bright saw the potential for people leaving cities and a renewed interest in the outdoors. His venue now even attracts national acts passing through. A blend of Americana, the Purple Fiddle hosts everything from grassroots country to jazz.
“We celebrate our Appalachian musical heritage for sure,” says Bright, “but we broaden our musical perspectives from there.”
While Davis has had a long-standing tradition as an outdoor destination — with neighboring Blackwater Falls State Park established back in the 1930s for vacationing residents of Maryland and Washington, D.C. — Thomas didn’t see its renaissance until the 2000s.
“Thomas was abandoned. It was like a ghost town,” says Chip Chase, a longtime local and regional legend in his own right. “There were no businesses in Thomas until the Purple Fiddle.”
Chase established another Canaan Valley cornerstone back in the 1980s when he opened White Grass Ski Touring Center. Drawn to the area by a magazine article, Chase saw the potential in a small abandoned downhill ski area, reimagining its long-empty lodge — once home to a ski club — with an alpine influence. He converted it into a popular cross-country and backcountry ski destination with a personality all its own.
On a winter weekend, guests huddle into the small lodge for live music and a unique mountain-themed menu with hints of the Alps. Meanwhile, Chase, a 69-year-old self-described hippie-type, holds court greeting all who enter.
Both Davis and Thomas feel like their present is what people say mountain outdoor recreation towns “used to be” — the kind of place a Colorado native might grumble about missing as they walk past a chain store in an overdeveloped resort town.
At one time, the valley could have become home to a reservoir built by a utility company, similar to Deep Creek, which likely would have given the region a far different trajectory. But successful environmental protection efforts in the 1970s and 1980s to preserve the valley succeeded, following drawn-out court battles and government action.
Choose your adventure
Unlike Deep Creek, the majority of the Canaan Valley and the surrounding counties are a combination of state- and federally-protected land with a wealth of “choose your own adventure” possibilities and a diverse set of ecosystems. At more than 3,000 feet above sea level, the valley floor itself is the highest elevation large valley east of the Mississippi.
The region is home to the expansive nearly 1 million-acre Monongahela National Forest and the 17,000-acre Dolly Sods Wilderness preserve that’s on many backpackers’ bucket lists and part of the Eastern Continental Divide. There is also the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, protected wetlands that make up the headwaters of the Blackwater River.
“We’re more of a backcountry area,” says Sue Haywood of Blackwater Bikes in Davis, “It’s just this rugged beauty and a cute town to go with it.”
A former pro mountain biker, Haywood settled down in Davis after college because of its outdoor scene.
“The one thing I love is you can park in downtown Davis and literally go on a backcountry adventure,” she says. While she’s seen the area gain popularity in the last 10 years and traffic in town has definitely increased, she says “The trails are (still) never crowded.”
The region is also home to Blackwater Falls State Park, along with two ski resorts with lifts — Timberline Mountain and Canaan Valley Resort — plus the White Grass Ski Touring Center.
A true four-season destination, the region has no shortage of offerings from mountain biking and hiking to backcountry camping, horse riding and skiing. Further south, Seneca Rocks is also home to renowned rock climbing.
If you go
While it is one of West Virginia’s least populated regions with much of the land protected, there are no shortage of lodging options, from bed and breakfasts and Airbnbs in Thomas and Davis to backcountry camping in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. The state park system also has a variety of lodging options from camping and rustic cabins to more conventional hotel-style lodges at Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley Resort state parks.
Dining & the arts
Regardless of whether you chose the backcountry or more conventional lodging, both Davis and Thomas are worth an afternoon to wander their main streets.
TipTop Coffee in Thomas is a must for many a visitor to get their day caffeinated. The small town is primarily a short main street corridor with the coffee shop, the Purple Fiddle and a number of small art galleries, craft shops, boutiques and even a shop specializing in vintage music equipment and clothing. Riverfront Wood Fired Pizza is a great grab-n-go food option there.
In Davis, Hellbender Burritos is a popular stop with plate-sized offerings of flour tortillas rolled and nearly bursting at the seams with meat and veggie fillings. Sirianni’s Pizza Cafe across the street is a longtime local favorite Italian restaurant.
Davis and Thomas are also home to two breweries. The larger of the two, Mountain State Brewing Co., was founded in Thomas and now has multiple locations throughout the state. The other, Stumptown Ales, pays homage to Davis’s nickname — dating back to its days as a logging boomtown — and is located in downtown Davis. Or sip an Old Fashioned in The Billy Motel’s midcentury modern Bar and Lounge.
Purple Lizard Maps also makes a fantastic waterproof trail map for the entire Canaan Valley region including Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks.
For more information on the region visit West Virginia’s state tourism website or Tucker County’s tourism website Gettuckered.com.
The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.