Getaway: The Surprising Treasures Found in Moundsville, West Virginia
Moundsville has a half-dozen destinations hidden in plain sight — unexpected treasures that you’ll be stunned to find in this particular corner of the world.
The small city of Moundsville, clinging to the northwestern edge of West Virginia along the Ohio River, appears similar to plenty of neighboring towns. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, as well as the Mountain state, there are dozens of main streets like this — Rust Belt towns with a lot of history and hometown charm.
That’s how Moundsville appears at first glance, at least. Unlike many similar places, Moundsville has a half-dozen destinations hidden in plain sight — unexpected treasures that you’ll be stunned to find in this particular corner of the world. A glittering, golden palace. A centuries-old and purportedly haunted prison. A treetop resort. An ancient burial site. History, mystery and a dash of wonder.
It should be more of a tourist destination — but the fact that it remains something of an open secret is part of the charm.
The most remarkable of these marvels is, undoubtedly, the Palace of Gold, the centerpiece of the community of New Vrindaban (newvrindaban.com). Nestled in the rolling hills above Moundsville, New Vrindaban was founded by devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness — the Hare Krishna movement, more casually — in the late 1960s. Its early residents planned to build a palace for the movement’s founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who carried his message to the west in 1965, gaining followers among the hippie generation.
Prabhupada did visit the palace on four occasions, though it was not completed in his lifetime; the palace was opened to the public in 1979, two years after the influential guru’s death. Devotees, many with no formal training, worked for years to craft ornate patterns and symbolism in the palace’s gold, teakwood and marble; the result is as remarkable a building as you’ll ever see. Life Magazine said the palace is “a place where tourists can come and be amazed,” while The New York Times borrowed a phrase you’ll likely hear a few times in West Virginia: “Almost heaven.”
Back in town, a much older structure inspires wonder not through its detail but by its endurance. The Grave Creek Mound (wvculture.org) — which gives the city of Moundsville its name — is a burial mound built by the area’s indigenous population sometime around 200 B.C.E. Constructed by the Adena people — a modern name for the population — to honor revered members of the community, the mound has stood on the banks of the Ohio for more than 2,000 years, undisturbed for most of them. Archeological expeditions in the 19th and 20th centuries revealed the secrets within; efforts in the 21st century to preserve and protect the site are ongoing.
An informative, free museum deftly illustrates not only the history of the people who built this monument but also the fascinating story behind its discovery. Visitors should, however, leave time to climb the winding path that leads to the top of the mound, where one can survey the entire town and beyond — and consider that, no matter how much the details of this view may have changed, the majesty would have been just as striking two millennia ago.
Look east from the top of the mound, and you’ll see an imposing, stately structure: The former West Virginia Penitentiary (wvpentours.com), which unfortunate prisoners called home from 1876 through 1995. Today, the grand building remains as a site for historical tours, haunted attractions and filming; it even served as the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary in Hulu’s “Castle Rock” series.
While the prison’s history-focused daytime tours are fascinating and illuminating in their own right — look especially for the graffiti and paintings left by former inmates — when autumn rolls around, West Virginia Penitentiary converts to a haunted attraction that draws thrillseekers from near and far. The particularly daring can even opt to stay overnight and conduct their own paranormal investigation; the building is said to be haunted.
If you prefer a cheerier trip, the aptly named Grand Vue Park (grandvuepark.com) offers views of the region — observed while hurtling down a zipline on one of eight adventure courses. Grand Vue Park is also known for its treetop villas, rustic-yet-commodious lodgings that bring the forest in (figuratively, at least).
The above list of Moundsville’s treasures is not exhaustive; cultural locales including the century-old Strand Theatre and more historical sites such as the Cockayne Farmstead can be found, and there’s much more in neighboring Wheeling. Not to turn this into a bustling tourist town, but you should probably plan a trip — or a few journeys.
Where to Stay:
Grand Vue Park has lodging on the ground, as well, including fully outfitted deluxe cabins (a day of ziplining leads nicely to an evening in the hot tub). Bed-and-breakfast lovers should make a reservation at the charming, ornate Bonnie Dwaine Bed & Breakfast (bonnie-dwaine.com); the lovely, old-fashioned inn contains five spacious rooms, and guests rave about the breakfasts (best, and biggest, on the weekends). The price is right at Bonnie Dwaine, and proprietor Bonnie Dwaine Grisell will make sure you’re comfortable.
What to Eat:
Leave room for barbecue. Plan for a massive meal at Mason Dixon Barbecue Co. (masondixonbbqco.com),
a veteran-owned casual restaurant offering brisket, ribs, chicken and more; just consider making that lunch rather than dinner, as the spot is so popular that some offerings can sell out well before closing time. (And if it’s lunch, you won’t need dinner.) Stop by Osaka Steak House (osakawvonlinebusiness.com) for sushi and hibachi. If you’re visiting the Palace of Gold during warmer months, a restaurant offers vegetarian Indian cuisine; it’s often cited as the best veg-friendly food in the region.
When to Go:
While many of the above attractions are open year-round, things are definitely a bit more sleepy in the winter; West Virginia Penitentiary takes a few months off after Halloween, and tours and food are limited in New Vrindaban. A trip in the spring or early autumn, out of the summer heat but with the town humming, is best.