West Virginia Road Trip: Cass Scenic Railroad and the Green Bank Telescope

Last Updated on April 6, 2021

West Virginia is a gorgeous state with miles of scenic byways through picturesque rolling hills, scenic rivers and stunning valleys. My husband Daniel is from West Virginia and my in-laws like nothing better than to introduce me to the natural wonders of their state. During a visit to West Virginia in 2019, we went on an impromptu West Virginia road trip to the Monongahela National Forest on the eastern side of the state.

Highlights of the trip include riding the Cass Scenic Railroad, touring the Green Bank Telescope and visiting the tiny Swiss-German village of Helvetia. We also visited Beech Fork State Park near Huntington before starting the road trip and explored the lake on a boat. It was a really fun trip and I enjoyed getting better acquainted with the wild and wonderful state of West Virginia.

Lunch time for the train engineers on the Cass Scenic Railroad

West Virginia Road Trip Itinerary

Here’s on overview of our West Virginia road itinerary, plus a bonus day

West Virginia Road Trip Day One

  • Morning: drove four hours from Huntington to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
  • Early afternoon: rode the Cass Scenic Railroad – Durbin line
  • Late afternoon: toured the Green Bank Observatory and Telescope
  • Dinner: ate dinner in Showshoe and watched the sunset
  • Evening: spent the night at the Inn at Snowshoe, a budget hotel at the base of the mountain

West Virginia Road Trip Day Two

  • Morning: went on a scenic drive through the Kumbrabow State Forest to Helvetia
  • Lunch: ate lunch at the Hütte, an authentic Swiss-German restaurant
  • Afternoon: made the return trip back to Huntington

Bonus Day: Beech Fork State Park

  • Day trip: explored Beech Fork lake by boat in Beech Fork State Park near Huntington

Cass Scenic Railroad – Durbin Line

For the first stop on our road trip, we planned to check out the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and ride the steam train. To reach Cass, we drove for approximately four hours along both major highways and windy country roads. It was a pretty drive through the forest which was just starting to turn autumn colors. Too bad we weren’t there a week later when the colors would be in full swing.

The historic town of Cass used to be a company town for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. Founded in 1901, the town of Cass was originally constructed for the loggers who worked in the nearby mountains cutting Spruce and Hemlock. Now the town of Cass has now been converted to a state park. The Cass Scenic Railroad State Park features an 11 mile-long heritage railroad and authentic company town complete with company store and gift shop. While not technically part of the Monongahela National Forest, the railroad is located in the middle of the forest and is a great jumping off point to discover other places in the area.

The Monongahela State Forest Greenbrier Ranger Station.

When we arrived in Cass, we were disappointed to learn that no more trains ran for the afternoon. However, we were in luck – another steam train operated by the same company was scheduled to run in the nearby town of Durbin. So we booked it over to Durbin and scored train tickets just in the nick of time.

The Durbin Train Station.

At that point, we all collectively realized that it was way past lunch and we were starving so I hustled along Durbin’s main street looking for food. There’s not much going on in the town of Durbin but I finally hit the jackpot at Al’s Upper Inn Club, located adjacent to the Durbin Rail & Trail Store. I plopped on a bar stool next to some local folks and miraculously the restaurant staff made us 4 burgers to go just in time for the train tour.

And that is how I found myself on a historic steam railroad tour in rural West Virginia, gobbling down a burger, with my in-laws and a train full of energetic seniors for company. It was another hot sunny afternoon but we were seated in a covered car with open windows and the breeze felt lovely. Smoke and cinders from the steam engine wafted inside the car occasionally and left smudges on my face. The train travelled at a leisurely pace for 5 miles and then we stopped for a few minutes before returning to the Depot.

For more information about the Cass Scenic Railroad and to buy tickets, check out the Durbin & Greenbrier Valley Railroad web site. As of 2021, the Durbin line does not seem to be operating any longer but tickets are on sale now for the popular Bald Knob trip.

Black smoke billows from the historic Durbin Rocket Locomotive.
Sun filters through the trees and the dense cloud of smoke.
Stopping at a stream to collect water for the steam engine.
A photo of my in-laws Mary and Greg on the steam train

Green Bank Observatory and Telescope

After the train tour ended, we headed to the nearby Green Bank Observatory and Telescope. The Green Bank Observatory is home to the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope. The Green Bank Telescope is absolutely enormous – it has a surface of 2.3 acres and can be seen from miles away. The Observatory is located in a unique area called the National Radio Quiet Zone in which radio transmissions are heavily restricted. This helps to protect the telescope from interference.

Welcome to the Green Bank Observatory!

Daniel and I were really excited to check out the observatory as it was recently featured in our favorite podcast, The Adventure Zone. The Adventure Zone stars 3 brothers and their dad who play role playing games together. The show started out basically as a way for the brothers to tell corny jokes but evolved into some really interesting and touching story telling. We’re huge fans of The Adventure Zone which made visiting the Green Bank Telescope even more fun.

The Green Bank Telescope from afar.
A model of the Green Bank Telescope inside the science center.

We booked a tour at the observatory which included a bus ride that drove right to the base of the Green Bank Telescope. We were not allowed to take any photos once we approached the telescope but it was amazing nonetheless. As we stood gazing up at the telescope, it rotated to point to an entirely different location in the sky. It moved surprisingly fast for such a big structure. Neat!

Taking the bus tour to the Green Bank Telescope.
Cheesy photo op inside the observatory. We’re space aliens!

Dinner and Sunset at Snowshoe

We worked up an appetite after touring the observatory, so we headed to the nearby town of Snowshoe. Snowshoe is a ski village on the top of a little mountain with great views. We grabbed some dinner at a nearby restaurant and then stepped outside just in time for a fabulous sunset.

Sunset over Snowshoe Mountain

An Emotional Happening in Helvetia

The next morning, we took the back roads to the isolated village of Helvetia. Founded by Swiss immigrants in the mid-1800s, Helvetia is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Due to the area’s isolation, Helvetia has largely maintained its Swiss traditions.  Despite a population of only 59 people, the town boasts a number of businesses including a cheese shop, a bed and breakfast, and Swiss restaurant called the Hütte.

To get there, our GPS took us on a route that involved driving on a gravel road through the Kumbrabow State Forest for over half an hour. When we turned onto the uniquely-named Turkey Bone Road, I knew things were going to be interesting. When we finally arrived, it was time for the day’s main event: lunch at a traditional Swiss restaurant called the Hütte. During lunch, my father-in-law Greg had only what could be described an emotional happening. To read more about it, check out the following blog post: Lunch at the Hutte in Helvetia WV.

The Hütte restaurant in Helvetia, WV

Exploring Beech Fork Lake in Beech Fork State Park

The day before we left on our road trip, Mary and Greg greeted us warmly at the Huntington Airport. Daniel and I were worn out from travelling and so we decided to keep the day low-key. We drove out to Beech Fork Lake and spent the afternoon tooling around on a fancy boat that we rented from the Marina. It was wonderfully relaxing and good preparation for the adventures in store for us the following day.

Walking to the Marina with Daniel’s parents.
Cool boat. We’ll take it!
My father-in-law, Greg, is a smooth operator. Of boats, that is.
Chilling on the boat at Beech Fork Lake.
We’re on a boat!
Daniel strikes a pose.
Selfie with more of the extended family. From left to right: Levi, Greg, Maggie, Shelly, Mary, Daniel and me.

Where are we now?

We are in Snowshoe, West Virginia!

Location: Snowshoe, WV
Date: October 3, 2019
Vagabonding Journey Status: Day 3

You may also be interested in these other posts about our visits to West Virginia:

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