New River Gorge: Acing a visit to America’s newest national park

(CNN) — Sometimes all it takes is a little name change to bring attention to an underappreciated park. At least, that’s certainly the case with West Virginia’s New River Gorge.

Hidden within a 5,593-page omnibus spending bill in the final days of 2020 was a provision to reclassify this one-time national river as America’s 63rd headliner national park. The designation provides added protections — and new clout — to 7,021 acres of Appalachian forest (with another 65,165 acres protected as a preserve).

“These mountains are some of the oldest in the world, and despite its name, the New River is ancient,” says Lizzie Watts, superintendent of New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.

Estimates vary widely, but the New is at least 3 million years old. It could have formed up to 320 million years ago.

“As it travels north, it really cuts away at the mountains,” Watts says, “so you get to see the geology here that you don’t in a lot of other places.” There are also 1,500 plants and animals that call this 53-mile-long river corridor home, she notes.

The New River makes a horseshoe bend below the main overlook at Grandview in New River Gorge National Park.

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Watts says traffic on the park’s website is up 90% year on year, and state tourism officials predict at least 20% more visitors in 2021 than the record 1.4 million who came last year.

“We’ve certainly seen that as far as reservations and phone calls,” says Jerry Cook, co-owner of ACE Adventure Resort. “Because of where West Virginia is, it’s within a day’s drive of 60% of the US population, but it’s kind of unknown because it’s so forested.”

Cook says he’s starting to get interest from as far away as Chicago, New York and even abroad.

“I think the community has been hoping and waiting for something to replace the extraction business,” he adds. “West Virginia was pretty much discovered because of its giant timber and coal, which fed the Industrial Revolution. Now that coal in this county is just about out, they are looking for the next big thing.”

The New River Gorge is rich in natural and human history, but it’s also a world-class destination for rafting, mountain biking and rock climbing.

Below is a look at all the wild adventures and iconic sights that make America’s latest national park worthy of its new name.

Up-close New River Gorge Bridge tours are available through Bridge Walk, a company that will safely harness visitors to the massive steel structure.

Up-close New River Gorge Bridge tours are available through Bridge Walk, a company that will safely harness visitors to the massive steel structure.

Felipe Bascunan

Where to hike

The image most people have of the New River Gorge (if they can picture it at all) is its famous bridge, which links the towns of Fayetteville and Lansing. This engineering marvel is so striking that it’s come to symbolize the entire region.

Upon completion in 1977, the 3,030-foot-long, 876-foot-tall pass became both the highest and longest single-span arch bridge in the world. While others have since eclipsed it, the New River Gorge Bridge is no less impressive some 45 years later — particularly when viewed from within.

Bridge Walk offers guided tours where engineering buffs and avid photographers can slip into a harness (fastened to a safety cable) and walk across the massive steel structure along a catwalk 25 feet below the daily traffic.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve became the 63rd headliner national park in late 2020.

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve became the 63rd headliner national park in late 2020.

Felipe Bascunan

Back on solid ground, you’ll find the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, where you can take the classic bridge photo. A mile down the road is the Endless Wall Trail, a moderate three-mile loop along the cliff’s edge with soaring vistas from rocky outcrops such as Diamond Point.

The most kid-friendly trek in this sector is the Long Point Trail, an easy 1.6-mile stroll to a hilltop overlook of both bridge and gorge.

The Grandview Area, 45 minutes south near the city of Beckley, offers equally impressive gorge views with the added benefit of larger parking lots and fewer crowds.

Castle Rock Trail is the most dramatic option here as it passes beneath fortress-like rock walls with exposed coal seams.

To really get off the beaten path, Watts recommends the Stone Cliff Trail (2.7 miles one way), which follows the banks of the New River south of Fayetteville, and the Big Branch Trail, a two-mile forest loop in the southern Sandstone Area that’s known for its waterfalls and wildflowers.

Rafting is available through ACE Adventure Resort and other outfitters.

Rafting is available through ACE Adventure Resort and other outfitters.

Courtesy ACE Adventure Resort

How to raft the New and Gauley rivers

Perhaps the biggest allure of America’s newest national park is its whitewater. West Virginia is a major center for whitewater rafting, and the New and Gauley Rivers here are some of the frothiest in the world.

“West Virginia is called The Mountain State because it’s all up and down,” says Cook. “The mountains lend to rivers, and because it’s so mountainous, there is a lot of whitewater.”

The New is particularly special because it plunges 750 feet over 66 miles, creating advanced Class IV and expert Class V rapids as it flows through the park.

The Gauley, to the north, is dam controlled. It has a cliff-lined reservoir, Summersville Lake, which scuba divers have christened “the little Bahamas” thanks to the clarity of its water.

Whitewater enthusiasts flock to the Gauley over six long weekends in the fall when the Army Corps of Engineers releases the dam for flood control, creating world-renowned Class V rapids.

Most whitewater outfitters, including ACE, River Expeditions and Adventures on the Gorge, are based in and around Fayetteville and offer half-, full- and multi-day trips where you’ll quickly learn the difference between a chute and an eddy.
New River Gorge has some 1,400 established climbing routes as well as mountain biking and hiking.

New River Gorge has some 1,400 established climbing routes as well as mountain biking and hiking.

Felipe Bascunan

Where to climb and bike

Rafting may be the park’s biggest lure, but the rock climbing and mountain biking are among the most challenging this side of the Mississippi.

New River Gorge has some 1,400 established climbing routes, many of which lie along the Endless Wall. Made up of the robust Nuttall sandstone, which is 98% quartz, these cliffs are extremely reliable and offer climbs ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height — the majority of which are geared toward advanced and expert climbers.

Mountain bikers typical begin their adventure at the Arrowhead Trails in the Craig’s Branch area of the park. This stacked loop system has nearly 13 miles of choose-your-own-adventure mountain biking — most of which is rated moderate to difficult.

Arrowhead Bike Farm, a quick pedal away, rents gear, offers tours and runs mountain bike clinics to help newbies hone their singletrack skills.

Where to take a scenic drive

The drive down Thurmond Road to the Thurmond Historic District offers a time-traveling journey back to the boom times when dozens of coal mining towns along the New River helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.
Watts also recommends the newly developed African American Heritage Auto Tour, which uncovers the stories of black coal miners and railroad workers who helped shape the region. You can pick up a free CD at the visitor centers.

To get completely off the beaten path, follow the train tracks to the historic town of Hinton, at the southern terminus of the park. It’s one of the most charming outposts along the gorge and well worth the long detour off Interstate 64.

Cross the bridge here and head north down a winding country road to get panoramic views of Sandstone Falls, the largest waterfall in the New River.

Wood Iron Eatery is among a handful of casual restaurants in nearby Fayetteville.

Wood Iron Eatery is among a handful of casual restaurants in nearby Fayetteville.

Felipe Bascunan

Where to eat and drink

Regional hub Beckley is the only city near the New River Gorge, but it doesn’t have much to offer tourists. The best reason to stop here is to grab a cold brew and practice bouldering skills at the Chocolate Moose, a cafe attached to the Outside-In Climbing Gym.

Of all the portal communities, tiny Fayetteville (population 2,800) stands to gain the most from the boom in tourism. It’s one of those rare mountain towns that feels 100% authentic while also offering a yoga studio, two craft breweries and several cafes and art galleries.

“The food scene has definitely evolved since I first got here four years ago,” says Jeffery Toth, owner of Fayetteville’s Wood Iron Eatery, a small breakfast and lunch café with crispy rockfish sandwiches, trendy avocado toast and walls lined in local art. “You’ve got the national park, the vaccines rolling out and the mandates lifted here in West Virginia, so everything is just exploding at the moment.”
Across the street from Wood Iron Eatery is Cathedral Café, another breakfast and lunch hangout whose stained-glass windows are left over from when the building was a Methodist church.
The go-to dinner spot, Pies & Pints, is two blocks away. Its long menu of local brews and creative pizzas (think: Thai shrimp or Cuban pork) has made it so popular you’ll now find outposts across the region (this was the original).
On the far side of the bridge, in Lansing, no-frills Chetty’s Pub is known for its happy hour sunset views over the gorge. Come nightfall, locals flock to Freefolk Brewery to toss back hop-heavy IPAs and chat about the day’s adventures around a warming fire pit.

All the above offer outside seating.

A range of rental cabins is  available through ACE Adventure Resort.

A range of rental cabins is available through ACE Adventure Resort.

Felipe Bascunan

Where to sleep

There’s no upscale lodging near the park, but Lafayette Flats comes close with boutique vacation rentals in downtown Fayetteville that are brimming with West Virginia art.

The adventure outfitters near Fayetteville all offer affordable lodging — mostly in woodsy cabins with attached Jacuzzis. ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge are among the best for families, while Arrowhead Bike Farm has a sociable campground by its open-air craft beer bar.

While there are many private campgrounds in the area, you’ll only find primitive camping areas within the national park with no drinking water or hookups and limited restrooms.

The eight designated campgrounds are all free, lie along the New River and operate on a first-come, first-served basis.