Traveler’s Checklist: New River Gorge National River
New River Gorge National River has a lot more than whitewater rafting and views of one of America’s most spectacular bridges. This West Virginia gem also offers auto touring, historic sites, primitive camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, rock climbing, and more.
You can’t do all of these things in one or two days, nor should you want to. Whitewater thrill-seekers excepted, New River Gorge visitors will want to savor this park at a leisurely pace, perhaps returning again and again..
Because it is a long and skinny park (about 50 times longer than it is wide) on north-south trending axis, New River Gorge has a northern gateway at Fayetteville and a southern one at Hinton, each with its own visitor center. A third town, Beckley, is situated about a 15-minute drive to the west near the junction of Interstate highways 77 and 64. Proximity to the interstates makes the park very accessible and helps to account for its high visitation (1.2 million visitors last year). The main visitor season is April through October. The park draws large numbers of visitors during the fall leaf-peeping season, which offers mild weather as a bonus.
The park’s string bean shape not only presents the Park Service with some managerial difficulties, such as the need to maintain two major visitor centers and several summer-only contact stations at widely separated locations along the river, but also demands careful planning on the part of visitors. You can’t just jump in your car and zip from one attraction to next like you can in “windshield touring” parks like Great Smoky and Yellowstone, so you need to be mindful of travel times between attractions and plan the site-visiting or activities sequence that best fits your travel schedule and interests. A good road map is essential.
There’s another important caveat. This is a greenline park with a lot of privately-owned inholdings. You need to respect the rights of the property owners, so don’t cross or otherwise use private property without the owner’s permission. Ignorance is not an excuse. Newbies should check with park management to get a good handle on the ownership of areas where they want to hike, camp, fish, climb, hunt, or enjoy the other pleasures of the park.
** You’ll want to get a good look at the New River Gorge and the remarkable bridge that spans it. The bridge, which was completed in 1977 and is owned by the state of West Virginia, not the Park Service, is located on U.S. 19 near Fayetteville at the northern end of the park. Stop at the nearby Canyon Visitor Center. This popular facility (300,000 visitors a year) has a back deck that affords you a two-mile view southward into the park. Descend into the gorge on the Canyon Rim Trail, a wooden boardwalk with two observation decks that provide unobstructed views of the bridge and the gorge. It’s about a 20-minute round trip and you’ll have to negotiate stairs. The views of the canyon and the bridge are truly spectacular, so don’t forget your camera. The bridge soars 876 feet above the water, making it the highest bridge in the country that carries auto traffic. The 1,700-foot long single arch span is the second-longest of its type in the world. The canyon itself inspires awe. The New River has a very steep gradient, falling 750 feet in the 50 miles stretching from Bluestone Dam to the Gauley Bridge, and has accordingly carved a narrow, V-shaped canyon through much of its length. It’s plenty deep, too. There are places where the river flows 1,200 feet below the canyon rim, and this has prompted some to call the New River Gorge “The Grand Canyon of the East.” Grandview, a fomer state park, is another good place to get sweeping views of this remarkable canyon.
** While at the Canyon Visitor Center be sure to check out the many photographs and exhibits on the people, towns, and industry of the gorge. There are also displays dealing with recreational activities and the natural history of the area. Visitors can watch two videos – one on the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, and one on the natural forces that created the massive gorge. An auditorium offers an orientation slide program on the park in addition to special features and programs such as films about Appalachian life.
** Rent the Fayette Station Road Audio Tour at the Canyon Visitor Center and take a narrated half-hour drive through history on a section of the National Coal Heritage Trail. The Fayette Station Road, a small, winding road that takes you to a bridge at the bottom of the New River Gorge, offers a good sample of regional history in the landscape. Many relics of the coal mining, coking, railroading, and logging industries that flourished in this area many decades ago can still be seen in the park’s landscape, including dozens of mining communities that were abandoned when the coalmines shut down. (Visitors need to exercise due caution around the many neglected and decaying structures and industrial remains that litter the area.) The still-active towns along the New have interesting historical features, too. For example, the little town of Thurmond, which is about 12 miles north of Beckley, was a railroading boomtown in its heyday (1900-1920) and still seems virtually untouched by modern development. The seasonally-operated Thurmond visitor center is ensconced in a restored 1904 railroad depot
** The New's tributaries have many waterfalls, but there is also a large and very attractive one on the main river near the park’s southern gateway. Sandstone Falls, which is only a short drive from the new Sandstone Visitor Center (opened 2003) at Hinton, is situated where the New River spills over a ledge of unusually erosion-resistant sandstone. There are actually two falls totaling over a quarter mile in width. The main falls are 25 feet high and extend about 800 feet from the east side of the river. The lower falls that extend from the west bank have a 10-foot drop and a width of about 400 feet. There is a short trail of boardwalks/bridges with observation decks. It’s a very nice photo op.
** Bring your hiking boots. The park has trails that range up to 10 miles in length and rate from easy to quite challenging. Most of the hiking trails follow old railroad grades, and some are unmarked. The Grandview Area has five trails (0.4 to 2.0 miles) with great scenic overlooks. The Kaymoor Trail (4 miles roundtrip) will take you to the site of the abandoned Kaymoor Mine. The Thurmond-Minden Trail (3.2 miles one-way) is an easy trek along an abandoned railroad grade. Glade Creek Trail is a five-miler along Glade Creek to a very nice camping/fishing spot on the New River.
** If you’ve got a mountain bike, you’ll want to use it here. Gorgeous scenery and fairly easy bike routes make New River one of the most popular mountain biking destinations in the entire Eastern U.S. The park, which is considering adding more bicycle trails, allows bikes on various trails and trail segments, including Brooklyn to Southside Junction, Cunard to Kaymoor Trail, Stonecliff Trail, and Thurmond to Minden Trail. There are bike shops near the park, and rentals are available. If you’re interested in guided biking tours of the New River Gorge, several outfitters in the region offer them in season.
** You’ll enjoy camping in the park (first-come, first-served, 14-day maximum), provided that you don’t expect anything fancy. All five of the park’s camping areas are for primitive camping only, and that means no drinking water, hookups, or hot showers. The camping areas are along the river, and while all five are served by gravel roads, most are more conveniently reached by boat. Backcountry camping is allowed elsewhere on park property, though not within 100 feet of parking areas, water sources, historic sites, or the cliff rims.
** Don’t forget your fishing gear and license. The park waters constitute what is arguably the single best sport fishery in the entire region, especially in the spring and fall. There are plenty of public access points, too. (Don’t cross private property unless you get permission.) The warmer water stretches of the New offer excellent fishing for smallmouth bass (the river’s trademark fish) as well as largemouth, rock, and striped bass, catfish, walleye, muskellunge, bluegill, crappie, and both flathead and channel catfish. Some park waters are designated catch-and-release, so check first. The New’s cooler tributary streams offer put-and-take trout fishing for goldens, rainbows, brookies, and browns; you’ll need a trout stamp. A caveat is in order here. The Lower Gorge of the New River is one of America’s very best smallmouth bass fisheries, but turbulent water and surges make it potentially dangerous. (Several fishermen drown there in a typical year.) Fishermen not familiar with the Lower Gorge should consider hiring a commercial fishing guide, at least for the first time out.
** Lots of this park’s most enthusiastic fans insist that the best way to see the park is from the water surface. The New, one of America’s most popular rafting rivers, gives you the option of a whitewater thrill ride or a peaceful float. About 20 rafting outfitters, most of them based in Fayetteville, take about 150,000 people a year down the New during the April to October rafting season. The upper (southern) part of the New is great for inexperienced paddlers and rafters because it offers trips of 8 to 15 miles through long pools and comparatively easy (up to Class III) rapids. The lower (northern) part of the river that begins in the Thurmond vicinity is much more challenging. There are dangerous Class IV and Class V rapids in some places along the 14-mile stretch of the Lower Gorge that ends at the renowned New River Gorge Bridge. By most accounts, the neatest thing on the river is the run beneath the bridge.
** If you’re a climber, you already know that New River Gorge is one of America’s most popular climbing areas. So far, more than 1,400 extraordinarily diversified routes have been put up for both traditional and sport climbing. The cliffs, which range from about 30 to 120 feet or more high, consist mostly of hard sandstone that is very featured and has abundant crack and face routes. The largest uninterrupted rock face in the gorge is a three-mile long section called Endless Wall. Most of the established climbing routes in the gorge are bolted for sport climbing. Routes tend to be quite challenging (5.9 and harder), and most are best suited for advanced and expert climbers. The majority of the sport routes are in the 5.10 to 5.12 range. More than a dozen climbing outfitters are licensed to take people on guided climbs in the park. The best climbing is in the spring (late April to mid-June) and fall (mid-September to late October). If you’re unfamiliar with the area, local climbing shops are very helpful, and so is a guidebook (highly recommended).
** If you’re a licensed hunter, you’re welcome to hunt in the park in accordance with the West Virginia fish and game laws. Because hunting has always been a popular recreational and subsistence activity in this region, the 1978 enabling legislation gave the Park Service discretionary authority to allow hunting to continue within the park. The NPS has allowed hunting in the park “from day one” with no significant problems, and in 2003, the NPS issued an Interim Final Rule ruling that codified the existing practice. Hunting has since been incorporated into the park’s General Management Plan as a managed recreational activity. Some 50 game species (14 mammals and 36 birds) could be hunted in the park, but if you’re a typical New River Gorge hunter you’ll be hunting in the fall and you’ll be going after migratory waterfowl (ducks and geese), black bears, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, or gray squirrels.
** Would you like to walk across the bridge? Would you like to watch hundreds of people parachute off the bridge? There’s only one day a year when it’s legal to do both of those things. It’s Bridge Day, an annual event that the Fayetteville community stages on the third Saturday of October. Authorities close one lane of the New River Bridge for a specified period of hours and allow BASE-jumpers to parachute from the span and try to land on a tiny sandbar (a feat that not all of them manage to pull off). Hundreds of BASE-jumpers take advantage of this rare opportunity, providing great fun for participants and spectators alike. In addition to the BASE-jumping, you can watch exhibitions of rappelling, Tyrolean traverse rescue techniques, and related mountaineering skills A public walk across the bridge is part of a big festival (attendance ca. 100,000) that features food vendors, music, games, and family fun activities near the bridge.
Postscript: Are you a railfan? If so, you might be interested in this option. The Cardinal, an AMTRAK train that travels between Chicago and New York, serves three locations in the park. Hinton and Prince are regular stops, and Thurmond is a flag stop for passengers with reservations.