Travel

New River Gorge is the newest national park

By Katy Koontz
Photographs courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge

While the New River in West Virginia is (ironically) among the oldest rivers in North America, New River Gorge is our country’s newest national park.  Occupying a 73,000-acre tract of land stretching along a 53-mile segment of the river, the park received this designation in December 2020, after more than four decades of being classified as a national river.

The 1000-foot-deep gorge—the longest and deepest in the Appalachian Mountain range—is famous for its world-class whitewater rafting (available from April to October), not to mention being one of the most popular areas for rock climbing in the Eastern U.S.  Yet even in winter, there’s plenty more to see and do.

The Canyon Rim Visitor Center, just north of Fayetteville, is open year-round and is the perfect place to start your exploration.  Here, you can walk along the boardwalk path for spectacular views of the iconic New River Gorge Bridge.

At more than 3,000 feet long, the bridge is the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third-longest in the world.  It’s also 876 feet high, making it one of the highest bridges in the country.  You could stack the Washington Monument and two Statues of Liberty atop each other underneath the span, with 20 feet to spare.  Although it was built only about 45 years ago, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic resource, in part because of the clever engineering responsible for its construction.

Underneath the span runs a two-foot-wide steel catwalk, where you can take a “bridge walk” tour—while properly suited up with safety rigging, of course.  After viewing the bridge from the top of the cliffs, you can drive down the gorge and under the bridge by following Fayette Station Road, braving its many switchbacks.

After the road reaches the bottom of the gorge, it takes you through the remnants of a few of the 40 mining towns that once existed in this area, starting in the 1870s, thanks to its rich deposits of bituminous coal—among the best in the world.  Most of the coal seams gave out by the late 1940s, however, and all the mines have since closed.

Heading south, you can next explore the aptly named Grandview region.  The overview here is 1,400 feet above the New River, providing spectacular views of the deepest section of the gorge and a large oxbow named Horseshoe Bend.  To further steep yourself in the scenery, take the moderately difficult 1.6-mile Grandview Rim Trail from the main overlook to Turkey Spur.

Southeast of Grandview is the Sandstone Visitor Center (open year-round), the national park’s southernmost gateway.  From here, you can see Sandstone Falls.  The falls are 1,500 feet wide, although they’re only between 10 to 25 feet high.  For the best views here, stroll along the quarter-mile boardwalk.  It takes you across the river via two very unusual islands in the middle of the falls, created where the river breaks over and around sandstone ledges.

The historic railroad town of Thurmond is also worth a stop.  Thurmond was a boomtown in the early 1900s, thanks to all the coal being shipped out of the area from the nearby mines.  Fifteen passenger trains once came through here each day, serving 75,000 people a year.  In its heyday, the town supported two hotels, two banks, several types of stores and restaurants, a movie theater, and many offices.  Today, many of these structures have been fully restored or at least stabilized, and the Thurmond Depot now serves as a summer visitors center.

For more information, visit nps.gov/neri.

Katy Koontz is a freelance writer
living in Knoxville, TN.
She is the author of
Family Fun in the Smokies:
A Family Friendly Guide
to the Great Smoky Mountains.
(Great Smoky Mountains
Association, 2012).