Follow the country roads south through West Virginia and you'll come upon the New River Gorge National River. As one of the oldest rivers on the continent, having been traced back 500 million years, this white-water river that cuts north through the Mountain State offers an abundance of scenic and recreational opportunities for people of all ages.
Although at the heart of this park are its white-water attractions, the New River Gorge is multi-dimensional, with great hiking and biking trails, climbing opportunities, camping, fishing, hunting, and plenty of wildlife viewing. All these activities are contained within the New River Gorge National River that conserves more than 70,000 acres of land stretching between the towns of Hinton and Fayetteville.
Flowing within that landscape are 53 miles of river for visitors to explore and enjoy, whether they're seeking white-water thrills, good fishing, or merely a place to cool off. The national river, which lures more than 1 million visitors a year, begins around Bluestone Dam and ends around Hawks Nest Lake. (The New River itself is more than 300 miles long, with headwaters near Blowing Rock, North Carolina)
Bookended By The Gauley And Bluestone
On either end of New River Gorge National River are two other units of the National Park System: the Gauley River National Recreation Area to the north, and the Bluestone National Scenic River to the south.
Within the Gauley NRA you'll find 25 miles of some of the East's most demanding white water, and six miles of the somewhat more placid Meadow River; together they pass through a variety of natural and cultural features making up the NRA.
The Bluestone National Scenic River, meanwhile, is a "preserved living landscape." As such, it's a haven for plants and wildlife while also protecting 10.5 miles of the Bluestone River, which runs from East River Mountain for 77 miles.
Either of these units, or both, make for a great pit stops before or after spending time at the Gorge.
Taking A Leap
While white-water is the main attraction of this national river, the New River Gorge Bridge high overhead also is an attraction in its own right. The bridge is the largest feature within the park. It was designed to cut a 40-minute drive down narrow and twisting mountain roads to less than a minute over a bridge. It makes traveling through the park by car much easier along with traveling to the park from near by towns or destinations.
But the bridge also is popular with BASE jumpers, those folks who like to jump from fixed structures and float to earth after opening their parachutes.
A huge event that attracts visitors from all over the country to New River Gorge is Bridge Day. October 19 of 2013 will mark the 34th anniversary of Bridge Day. Over the years this event has turned into West Virginia's largest festival, and one of the biggest extreme sports events in the world. Hundreds of jumpers participate annually, and thousands of spectators take part in the fun festivities that make this day so special.
If you enjoy thrill and adventure while getting wet, whitewater rafting on the New River is definitely one of the perfect activities for you. The water is always runnable, beautiful and very powerful; however, the best time for high water fun is spring, while the summer and fall take the flows down a notch. The river is separated into two sections: lower (northern) and upper (southern).
The Lower Gorge contains forceful rapids named Double Z, the three Keaneys, Dudley's Dip, and Greyhound Bus Stopper, rapids that can range in difficulty from Class III to Class V. There are many large boulders within the river that require deft maneuvering to endure the currents, crosscurrents, and hydraulics. Some of the rapids contain hazardous rocks and therefore safety is always a primary issue.
The Upper Gorge is very different and contains relatively easy rapids up to Class III. Because there are so many river access points, trips can run from several hours to several days, depending on the desire of the visitor. To plan a rafting trip, check out more information from the park's website on commercial white-water trips.
Pedaling And Hiking The Gorge
New River Gorge is growing more and more well-known for mountain biking. There are many trails ranging from difficult to less challenging for all ages to explore and enjoy. Some are just a few miles long, but the Arrowhead Trail built by Boy Scouts covers nearly 13 miles. Take some time to look at the numerous trails and their descriptions to figure out which ones are best for you. (More mountain biking can be found at Bluestone along the Bluestone Turnpike Trail.
Another fun activity to take advantage of the river’s beauty, especially during the autumn season, is hiking. Trails range from a short quarter-mile to 7 miles and can be as easy or as difficult as one wants. Fabulous overlooks down upon the river corridor and historic scenery all contribute to the overlooks and stopping points along each trail.
Within the park, there are seven different campgrounds, (and one at the Gauley River National Recreation Area). If you’re looking for a place to stay in the gorge, there are plenty of areas on the riverbanks that are meant for convenience and fun. The campsites are free and run on a first come first serve basis.
New River Gorge National River
On the Web: www.nps.gov/neri
Headquarters (304) 465-0508
Canyon Rim Visitor Center (304) 574-2115
Sandstone Visitor Center (304) 466-0417
The national river is roughly 70 miles southeast of Charleston, the state capital. By car, the river is accessed via Route 19, between Beckley and Hico, and from I-64, between Mossy and Sandstone.
Amtrak service is available to three locations in the park, three days a week. The Cardinal, traveling between Chicago and New York, NY, makes scheduled stops at Hinton and Prince, with Thurmond as a flag stop for passengers with reservations. Greyhound has a bus terminal in Beckley. Taxi services are based in Oak Hill and Beckley. New River Gorge National River is open year round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., expect for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Maggie Gonsiewski is an intern for the Traveler. She is a sophomore at West Virginia University pursuing a degree from the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism. She and her family have taken multiple roadtrips to many of America's national parks since she was very young, trips that definitely contributed to her love for outdoor adventure.