Exploring the Parks: New River Gorge National River

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Almost heaven on the New River Gorge/NPS-John Petro

Deep in West Virginia, the New River has cut a 1,000-foot gorge that, in places, froths with whitewater. Its V-shaped mountainsides are covered in trees. Outcrops of Nuttall sandstone packed with quartz, the gorge’s bones, show near the tops of the cliffs.

Trails and old roads thread around the sides of the river, and the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere stretches over it.

Considered one of the oldest rivers in the world, the river runs 53 miles through New River Gorge National River along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains and may have lifted up with them. Now, its scenery and adventure also uplift park visitors.

Most people come to the New River Gorge for hiking and whitewater rafting, said volunteers Karen and John Anderson at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in Lansing, West Virginia, with rock climbing, history, fishing, and scenic drives also a draw.

I think it’s best to experience this National River from as many angles as possible. Here are a few.

On the River

Usually, I keep my travels on the sound footing of terra firma, but when offered a whitewater rafting trip, I had to admit my list of past adventures had a hole in it—my only rafting experience had been a tame one years ago. Its highlight was when a local wandered into the river and set down a bundle, unwrapped a skunk, and began scooping water over its back.

It was time to check out real whitewater.

Our day on the lower New started mostly flat, with a few “swimmers’ rapids” or riffles, and a big rock for jumping in the river. The real waves began after lunch.

As the river narrows and the flow squeezes through a smaller space, the intensity ramps up. It’s like putting your thumb over a garden hose, explained our guide Raymond “Ray-Ray” Fillpot. Here, the water grows more forceful, the riverbed rockier, the rapids stronger and closer together.

The stretch we floated has nearly 20 rapids, with six rated Class IV or above, with names like Surprise and Double Z and a hazard called the Meat Grinder.

We dropped over ledges and entered screens of water front, back, and sideways, swirling into the madness, Ray-Ray shouting the directions: “three fast,” “left side, forward, right side, back,” “go, go!” While the raft and waves make slapping sounds and the impact jolts the raft to weird angles, the ride felt bouncy. So did my heart beating in my throat, but in a good way.

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You don't stay dry on the New River/Adventures On the Gorge

For the history-minded, Ray-Ray pointed out former coal mining sites along the banks. But what stuck in my mind was his story that the empty coal trains trundling along the river carry the New’s water back upstream. (Though fascinating, it was a joke.)

Other options: Mild, family friendly rapids on the upper New River

From Above

Care to see the river from a dry spot? The New River Gorge Bridge, at 876 feet above the river, is so high that the Washington Monument and two Statues of Liberty would stack under it. It’s the longest single-arch steel span in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States.

The third Saturday of each October (this year, October 18, the bridge’s 35th birthday), the span is closed to traffic for a local festival. On Bridge Day, you can walk across the bridge top and watch hundreds of people BASE jump from it. Any other day, you can cross on a narrow catwalk below the bridge.

Our catwalk guide, Kelsey Mauritz, said they think of the bridge as a living, breathing creature. It’s easy to see why. Gear-like rockers let the steel move with heat and cold. Semis approach overhead with an animal’s howl, and the bridge rumbles as the catwalk and railings shake. Peregrine falcons, recently restored to the area, nest in the supports. Rafts slip through the rapids far below like yellow and black bugs.

And the bridge and the river seem in cahoots. For much of our walk, night mist remained pressed to the highest reaches of the bridge’s underside, a bit of river hiding in the sky.

Other options: Zipline through the nearby woods—and way above them

From the Sides

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Great views of the gorge and its river can be had from Diamond Point/Donna Childress

The National Park Service lists nearly 40 trails in the gorge and names the Endless Wall Trail one of the park's best "unknown" hikes.

Rising above the trees at the gorge’s rim, the Endless Wall outcroppings are smooth gray and rust-colored walls and blocks of rock averaging 80 feet high and extending four miles. The Fern Creek Trailhead is within minutes of the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. The trail’s vegetation is in scale with the gorge: tall, thin hemlocks and rhododendron higher than your head. The Diamond Point Overlook is about a mile in along the Endless Wall Trail, at a bend in the river, with good views of the wall and the rapids below.

Each year, thousands of climbers scale the area’s rock on more than 1,400 routes. While the Endless Wall is a good choice for advanced climbers, nearby Summersville Lake has the same solid rock, full of good handholds and footholds. We sampled it from a pontoon boat docked next to a cliff and relaxed with kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.

Other options: Bike or ride horses, take a scenic drive

If You Go

AdventuresOnTheGorge.com

A great base camp for activities ranging from rafting and climbing to horseback rides and mountain biking. Lodging ranges from tent sites and tent cabins to spacious rental houses. The Rustic Cabins offer little more than a cabin lined with bunk beds with bathrooms in a shared bathhouse a short walk away. Mountain Cabins with pine-plank walls have more substantial beds, kitchens, and bathrooms, while the Deluxe Cabins are fully finished with vaulted ceilings, kitchens, and a hot tub on the deck. You can even rent an entire house. All are in forested settings not far from the rim of the New River Gorge. You can sign up for an all-included vacation, or come for as few as two nights. The staff can set you up with a raft trip or afternoon of climbing, introduce you to a zip line, or show you where to catch small-mouth bass.

National Park Service

New River Gorge Information on activities, history, and nature, plus a smartphone app for planning and a driving audio tour. There are no park campgrounds, though there are seven "primitive camping areas" that handle campers on a first-come, first-serve basis. Nearby state parks offer front-country campgrounds.

New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau

Planning guides for activities, lodging, and events.

Amtrak

Come by train from New York; Washington, DC; Cincinnati; or Chicago.