John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia “almost heaven” in “Country Roads”. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it gets one more notch on its belt—and a more recent decree heralding its scenic beauty than a 40-year-old country jam—with the designation of New River Gorge as America’s 63rd national park and preserve. If you listen closely, you can hear the thud of Mountain Mamma and Mamma Nature giving a loud high five.
It’s the third-such designation in two years, following induction of Indiana Dunes and New Mexico’s White Sands into the America’s Best Idea club. The New River has been designated as a National River since 1978 meaning only the river itself was protected by the National Parks Service. With its new designation as a Park and Preserve, 7,201 acres immediately surrounding the gorgeous not-so-new river will be a national park while an expansive 65,165 acres of neighboring land will be a National Preserve to allow for backcountry hunting.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. The New River has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.
This is just the sixth combo preserve and national park and it’s a very big deal for mountain climbers, hikers, rafters, and anyone else who enjoy the great outdoors. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world. White-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles are among the wildlife regularly spotted here. The park provides visitors with an opportunity to learn more about the cultural history of the area and visit some of the historic sites within the park. There are many possibilities for extreme sports as well as a more relaxing experience. The gorge itself is the largest in the Appalachian Mountains.
If you’re a big fan of whitewater rafting or climbing, you’re probably already familiar with the New. The 73,000-acre canyon has 53 miles of whitewater—considered some of the best in the country—while climbers enjoy 1,500 routes on sandstone walls throughout the gorge.
There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliffline on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread out holds and spread out bolts.
If you’ve extra hardcore, every year thousands of rock climbers scale the 1,500 or so hard sandstone trails above the river. Climbs range from 30 to 120 feet high and are considered hard with a rating of 5.10 to 5.12 (ratings 5.13 and above are for nutso elite climbers).
The Lower Gorge of the New River is a premier whitewater rafting location with imposing rapids ranging in difficulty from Class III to Class V, many of them obstructed by large boulders which necessitate maneuvering in very powerful currents, crosscurrents, and hydraulics. Commercial outfitters conduct trips down the river from April through October. The upper part of the river offers somewhat less challenging class I to III rapids for whitewater canoeing.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provides a variety of trails throughout the park. Peaceful forest trails, superb overlooks, and historic scenery are all found here. The trails available consist of park service trails that are marked and maintained, trails within lands administered by state parks, and undeveloped trails and abandoned roads. Trails range from ¼ mile to 7 miles in length. Several can be easily connected to make for longer excursions. Difficulty varies from flat, smooth walking to steep challenging terrain. Trail recommendations and maps are offered at Canyon Rim, Grandview, Sandstone, and Thurmond visitor centers.
If you’ve got two wheels and know how to use ‘em, the New River Gorge has 12.8 miles of Arrowhead Trails mapped by a tiny army of more than 1,000 Boy Scouts. And there’s also some fantastic fishing as well—you’ll find smallmouth and rock bass as well as walleye and trout depending on the time of year.
Other National Park Service programs include guided historic walks, nature programs, and an abundance of programs for kids too. In short, this huge park has activities for all shapes, sizes, and kinds. Don’t pass this one up if you’re in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. Get there now, before the crowds do.
Officially titled New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the formal changes should begin to take place throughout 2021.
Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, Mountain mamma, take me home, Country roads.