En español | West Virginians have long loved New River Gorge for its 1,000-foot-high sandstone cliffs, its more than 70,000 acres of forested land and its 53 miles of churning river. But this under-the-radar gem is gaining new attention outside of the Mountain State. On Dec. 27, New River Gorge became America's 63rd national park — changing its longtime status as a national river at the urging of the congressional delegation from West Virginia, which had never been home to an official national park (California, with nine, has the most). It now boasts the title New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
While it certainly draws adrenaline junkies such as rock climbers and kayakers, you can enjoy its scenic delights on low-key hikes or even without leaving your car. Here are the wet and woodsy highlights at America's newest national park.
Visitors are reminded to stay 6 feet away from those outside their immediate household, particularly on popular trails such as Long Point and Endless Wall (consider trying less-traveled trails). Note that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is required to wear a mask inside national park buildings and on all forms of public transportation. Check the park’s website for updates.
Things to do
Take in the views. The park's overlooks are must-see spots for soaking in natural wonders. Perched among boulders at 1,400 feet, the main overlook at the Grandview Visitor Center reveals a U-shaped view of the river and gorge, and in spring you might see blooming rhododendrons (take Exit 129 on Interstate 64 and drive six miles north on Route 9). At the Canyon Rim Visitors Center (one mile north of Fayetteville on Route 19), an easy boardwalk stroll leads to two observation decks for gazing at the gorge and the majestic New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel arch span in the western hemisphere.
Cross (or rappel from) the bridge. Want to walk across the bridge? You can do it on Bridge Day, which occurs the third Saturday of each October. The event also attracts extreme sport enthusiasts who rappel and (gulp) parachute from the bridge. Drivers can cross it the remaining 364 days of the year, and another good car trip is twisty Fayette Station Road, where you cruise to the bottom of the gorge, cross the river on a narrow bridge and drive up the other side. To learn about the road's history and sights, download an audio tour.
Enjoy the water. New River Gorge is known for whitewater rafting, and many locals say that's the most scenic (and wildest) way to see the park. The park's website lists multiple licensed rafting companies. If you'd rather kayak or canoe on your own, the upper section of the river includes long pools and relatively easy-to-manage rapids. The lower section, however, is for experts only, with rapids in the treacherous Class III to Class V range. Fishing is popular in the river's quieter areas, and anglers will find multiple public access points. Spring and fall are the best times to catch everything from bass to walleye.
Biking and hiking
The park has 12.8 miles of easy-to-intermediate biking trails built by Boy Scouts in 2011. Popular hikes include the 1.6-mile Long Point Trail, which provides views of the gorge and the bridge, and the 2.4-mile Endless Wall Trail, known for its 1,000-foot-high views of the river below. For a more solitary experience, try the two-mile loop Big Branch Trail. You'll find a cascading stream, waterfalls and the remnants of an old homestead site, and it's abloom with wildflowers in early spring. Another less crowded hike is the 0.7-mile Headhouse Trail, which goes to the entrance of an old coal mine, now a protected habitat for bats. Throughout the park you might spot animals such as bald eagles, river otters and white-tailed deer. And yes, hunting is allowed in certain areas.
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Where to stay
You won't find lodges in the park, but camping is an option. These are remote, primitive campsites with no running water and spartan bathroom facilities (vault toilets — nothing else). The campsites are first come, first served and free of charge. Most of the park's campgrounds are closed because of COVID-19, but three remain open: Glade Creek, Grandview Sandbar and Stone Cliff. “Glade Creek offers a beautiful trail with fishing and swimming holes along the route,” says Lisa Strader of Visit Southern WV. Outside the park, nearby Hawks Nest State Park and Bluestone State Park have lodges, campsites and cabins, and you'll find independent campgrounds and cabins in Beckley, Glen Jean, Summersville and the Fayetteville area. Beckley, about 25 minutes south of the New River Gorge Bridge, has the most hotel choices, with chains such as Marriott properties (Courtyard and Fairfield), Holiday Inn & Suites, Country Inn and Suites, and Hampton Inn. Want something unique? In Fayetteville, just 1.8 miles from the bridge, Lafayette Flats features four stylish apartments in a historic building, and the Morris Harvey House is a cozy B&B in a 14-room, nearly 120-year-old Queen Anne-style house.
The nearest airport is in Charleston, roughly 70 miles northwest of the park. If you're driving, the park has so many entry points that the National Park Service hasn't counted them all (only about 50,000 of its 70,000 acres are federal land, so you'll find numerous state routes, access roads and towns in the park). Many travelers start their treks at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the Sandstone Visitor Center (take Exit 139 on I-64), or Grandview Visitor Center. There's no fee to enter the park.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 4, 2021. It's been updated to reflect recent COVID-19 developments.