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8 ways to experience West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

A visitor enjoys the view at the New River Gorge Bridge A visitor enjoys the view at the New River Gorge Bridge. | Photo courtesy West Virginia Department of Tourism

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a different kind of national park. For example, few parks allow, much less encourage, cliff climbing, rafting, mountain biking, or hunting and fishing. All of this is possible—even BASE jumping one day each year—at New River Gorge, which debuted as a national park in 2020.

Another difference? It’s not isolated miles away from civilization. In fact, about two-thirds of the country’s population reside within 500 miles of the park’s West Virginia location in major Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast cities.

New River Gorge’s incredible diversity—its scenery, rare plant and animal life, history, recreational options, and the charming small towns on the park’s fringes—invites repeat visits. Here are 8 ways to experience the beauty and adventure that New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has to offer.

1. Ride the river

Kayaking

A kayaker test his skills on the Lower New River. | Photo by Jay Young/Adventures on the Gorge

Despite its name, the New River is actually one of the planet’s oldest waterways—perhaps 360 million years old. Over time, it carved the deepest and longest canyon (53 miles within the park) in the Appalachians, creating a remote sanctuary for rare plants and a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. The railroad intruded in 1873, bringing coal miners and sparking the creation of boom towns, but nature has long since reclaimed the valley, erasing the mining scars and leaving behind “ghost town” artifacts.

Ride the river to fully experience the gorge, imagining it as Native Americans and fur trappers saw it in the 1600s. Options range from rafts piloted by whitewater guides to kayaks, canoes, and rubber duckies (inflatable 1-person kayaks). You can challenge Class III–V rapids on the Lower New. The Upper New is perfect for playing in Class I–III rapids or drifting through quiet pools while casting for fish.

2. Roam the trails

Arrowhead Trails

Built for single-track mountain biking, the park’s Arrowhead Trails include 3 levels of difficulty. | Photo courtesy West Virginia Department of Tourism

About 100 miles of trails, ranging in difficulty from easy to extreme, lace the park’s 70,000 acres of varied terrain. You can take to the trail on foot, on mountain bike, or on horseback. Equestrians can ride on the park’s 2.7-mile out-and-back Brooklyn Mine Trail or opt for a guided tour of the gorge’s rim with views of the river below through Equestrian Adventures. Four dedicated mountain bike loops—12.8 hand-cleared miles—comprise the Arrowhead Trail complex, but another 16 footpaths are also open to bikes (only the Stonecliff Trail allows e-bikes).

No matter the method of travel, the rewards include fresh air, the silence of the wilderness, mountain views, flowering plants, critter sightings, and a sense of achievement. Grandview- and Fayetteville-area trails offer spectacular overlooks of the deepest parts of the gorge; the Sandstone-Brooks and Glade Creek areas are known for waterfalls and swimming holes; and the Nuttallburg trails lead to historic coal mines and settlements.

3. Get vertical

Rock Climbers

As the sun sets, rock climbers scale a bluff above the New River. | Photo courtesy West Virginia Department of Tourism

As the New River carved through the region’s sandstone, it created some of the country’s finest climbing cliffs. The gorge has more than 1,400 established climbing routes, ranging in height from 30 to 120 feet, with features such as cracks, faces, slabs, overhangs, and roofs. Most are technical challenges (5.9 or harder; i.e., for experienced climbers) but several outfitters offer guided excursions for novices. The Endless Wall Trail accesses a popular spot where climbers descend from the trail via permanent ladders to begin their climbs. The Diamond Point Overlook offers great views of climbers and the river below.

4. Walk the (bridge) walk

Bridge Walk

Bridge Walk offers walking tours on the catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge. | Photo by Jay Young/Adventures on the Gorge

A West Virginia icon, the 3,030-foot New River Bridge is the Western Hemisphere’s longest single-span bridge and the third-highest bridge in the U.S. It’s closed to foot traffic except for Bridge Day. On the third Saturday in October, crowds watch from the bridge as BASE jumpers, rappellers, and zip-liners drop over the railing toward the river 876 feet below. (BASE is an acronym that stands for 4 types of objects from which one can jump: buildings, antenna, spans, and earth.)

However, the catwalk suspended in the girders under the bridge is open for organized walks every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, wind speeds permitting. Wearing a safety harness and led by a guide, you can stroll for more than a mile along the underside of the bridge, snapping pictures and watching rafters and kayakers run the rapids below.

5. Drive it

You can enjoy the New River Gorge from your car via a scenic 83-mile driving loop (with some gravel roads and short walks to attractions) that begins at the Canyon Rim Visitors Center. Nearly a dozen points of interest are accessible via the route, including the Thurmond Historic District and restored depot, the Sandstone Visitors Center, the Sandstone Falls Overlook, the Grandview Visitors Center (with views from the park’s highest elevation), and the Coal Heritage Trail roadside exhibits on Fayette Station Road.

Another driving option is the African American Heritage Auto Tour, an app or CD tour with 17 stops. From 1870 to 1930, thousands of African Americans moved to the area for jobs laying rail or mining coal. African Americans made up most of the 764 people who died of silicosis while digging the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, the site of one of the country’s biggest industrial disasters. The Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial Cemetery is one of the trail stops.

6. Go hunting—yes, hunting

Hunting

Hunting is allowed in parts of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. | Photo courtesy West Virginia Department of Tourism

Although the region has enjoyed “national river” protection since 1978, it took years to gain national park status. While national parks traditionally do not allow hunting, harvesting white tail deer and other game for food is a tradition vital to the communities adjacent to the gorge, hence the site’s additional designation as a preserve. Obtain a West Virginia hunting license to hunt during the various game seasons within the boundaries of the preserve.

7. Step back in time

Coal Tower

An abandoned coal tower for steam locomotives stands near the Thurmond ghost town in New River Gorge National Park. | Photo by Brian Welker/Alamy Stock Photo

By exposing 4 seams of some of the world’s best bituminous (smokeless) coal, one could say the river was its own worst enemy. Prior to intrusion by miners and the railroad, Native American tribes and early European subsistence farmers lived here in relative harmony with the land. The railroad spawned around 50 towns in the valley, some with thousands of residents. Coal mines defiled the land, and countless trees were felled for wood to build houses, to fuel fireplaces, and to be shipped back East.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the history of the New River Gorge, which now consists of still-life snapshots: remains of coal mining structures and houses in Nuttallburg and Kaymoor, the partially restored railroad town of Thurmond, and old homesteads hidden in the forest. Biking along a rail trail, you can imagine trains carrying coal and timber to Eastern cities and provisions to the communities in the gorge. Walking on a winter’s day when the woods are bare, you can spot vestiges of those lives: fence lines, foundations, and cemeteries. Spring brings random sprouts to long-abandoned gardens.

8. Mingle with the locals

Downtown Fayetteville

Downtown Fayetteville is usually less than a 10-minute drive from the New River Gorge Bridge. | Photo by Nikolai Hamel/Alamy Stock Photo

Many small towns along the park’s fringes offer food, lodging, and, sometimes, entertainment. Several resorts and state parks with lodging are nearby, as well as country inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and campgrounds. Fayetteville, dubbed one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America,” is worth exploring—after you’ve refueled at one of the local restaurants, including one in a former Irish Catholic church. The town boasts stops on the multistate Civil War Trail, as well as its own walking tour of more than 75 historic homes and sites throughout its picturesque Historic District.

While you’re in the park, ask any local who works there about the current hot spots—the best pub for music and craft brews, where to sample unique local cuisine, and where to settle down for a stay in, say, a luxury tree house. Tourism is the lifeblood of the communities near the park, and locals want visitors to leave happy—and return soon.

West Virginia resident Dale Ann Leatherman is a past president of the Society of American Travel Writers.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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