Between mountain ranges and two national forests in West Virginia lies an Appalachian tourism frontier with serene, unspoiled countryside and some of the best rock climbing in the region.
Pendleton County’s remoteness serves as both a selling point and an impediment to several companies that have invested in tourism in recent years. It has helped the area stay beautiful — but also off the beaten path for travelers.
Approaching from the east on U.S. Route 33, drivers pass through a canopy of trees several miles long in the George Washington National Forest and cross the state line atop the Shenandoah Mountain ridge. It’s along here that many travelers will find they’ve lost cell phone reception.
“Sometimes access isn’t all that it’s cut out to be,” said Gail Price, executive director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “We’re marketing to those that want to get away: quiet, no city lights. The stars here are unbelievable because there’s no light pollution.”
The county seat, Franklin, lies about an hour from the nearest interstate and a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Charleston, W.Va., as well as about four hours from Pittsburgh.
“Access is a challenge. A bigger challenge is communicating in those marketplaces everything there is to do,” said Dave Huber, the director of the NROCKS Outdoor Center at the foot of a stunning twin crag of sandstone known as the Nelson Rocks.
“If you like the outdoors, it’s pretty unlimited,” he said.
Since buying Nelson Rocks in 2009, Virginia-based Endless Horizons has added a welcome center, hotel-style rooms and a canopy tour of 12 ziplines through tall trees. The centerpiece is the via ferrata, a network of cables and steel rungs built in 2002 that take climbers hundreds of feet up rock faces.
To the east, developers have sold dozens of home sites around Highlands Golf Club, which was built in the last decade. In recent years, Seneca Caverns has opened new sections, and Price says that rental operators have built new cabins.
A recent study commissioned by the Appalachian Regional Commission cites the Nelson Rocks and Seneca Rocks, a formation to the north in the Monongahela National Forest, as keys to the area’s “tremendous potential as a tourism destination.”
The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center has recorded between about 60,000 and 67,000 annual visitors each of the last five years with the exception of a dip during the government shutdown of 2013, said the center’s director Kevin Duncan. He said thousands more rock climbers visit without stopping at the center.
From an economic development standpoint, more restaurants, hotels and other businesses would help the county capitalize on the traffic. Tim Ezzell, a University of Tennessee scholar and one of the 2012 study’s authors, said Pendleton County isn’t alone among Appalachian communities in this regard.
“A lot of it goes back to capacity. Are they prepared for tourism? Do you have places to eat? Do people have hospitality training? It’s a chicken-egg kind of thing. It’s a really tough thing to do, especially when you don’t have a lot of capital to invest,” he said in an interview.
The study notes winding, steep roads into the county from east and west, along with limited Internet and cell phone access. The study says a shoe factory had been the county’s largest employer before closing a decade ago. Price said the county is not a coal producer.
State figures show direct tourism spending increased from about $6 million in 2004 to $9 million in 2012 for the county. By contrast, the figures show tourists spent several times that in 2012 in Fayette and Raleigh counties surrounding the New River Gorge. Both of those counties are crossed by interstate highways.