Before visiting the New River Gorge for the first time, I’ll admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I knew it was in West Virginia coal country and I knew that it had a famous bridge over a river. And that was about it!
But this just meant that each discovery—of an amazing view or adorable town or interesting tidbit of history—was both surprising and exciting. I love to be surprised by destinations and the New River Gorge is certainly delivered.
Despite its name and although it was only recently designated as a national park, New River Gorge is anything but—this incredible gorge, similar to the Grand Canyon or Columbia River Gorge of the west has been carved out over the eons by the soft but persistent power of flowing water. Along with the mighty New River itself, this West Virginia wilderness encompasses a vast and vivid 70,000-acre stretch of countryside and offers a huge array of both lands- and water-based recreational opportunities.
Tucked into south-central West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (which was upgraded from National River status at the end of 2020) is located about an hour from Charleston, West Virginia, and close to small towns such as Beckley, Beaver, and Hinton. It’s also only a short distance from the Virginia border and towns in that state like Roanoke.
New River Gorge is characterized by its carved-out river canyon which is populated with beautiful Appalachian greenery that paints the rolling hills that spread out from the water. As in most parts of the Appalachian Mountains weather can be unpredictable and quick to change but generally, you can expect temperatures between the 20s and 40s in winter, 30 and 70 in spring and fall, and pleasant summers that range from 50-80 degrees. Precipitation can occur year-round but the wettest month is July.
History of the Park
According to the National Park Service, the origins of the New River are almost as old as the Appalachian Mountains themselves. During the birth of the Appalachians 500 million years ago the North American and African plates collided forcing the earth up and forming mountains.
An ancient river, the Teays (once much larger, but then broken up by glacial action) drained from the steep edges of this new range and over time it got faster and bigger cutting through the mountains.
That process has continued until today and this section of the ancient river has now sliced through 1,500 feet of rock to create the picturesque canyon that still contains powerful waters. All of this history might make it the second-oldest river on the planet.
Before Europeans arrived in the area in the 1600s, Indigenous peoples had been living there for at least 11,000 years, according to archeological evidence. Those native groups are the ancestors of the Cherokee and Shawnee peoples who fought the White settlers for over 150 years but were forced off their land by the early 1800s.
Because the New River had cut through so much rock during its history seams of good-quality coal were easy to access. The industry prospered and the area was connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1873 to facilitate the moving of mined coal. Soon, towns and settlements followed and for almost 50 years mining was a primary business with at least one mine surviving into the 1960s. Today, rail yards, bridge piers, the ruins of coal mining towns, coke ovens, rusted mine cars, and other remnants of the industry can still be found throughout the park.
New River Gorge Bridge history
Before 1977, if you wanted to cross the New River Gorge, you had to drive down into the canyon, cross a railroad bridge, and then drive back up again on the other side. The crossing could take up to an hour on narrow, twisting mountain roads.
This crossing time was reduced to less than two minutes once the New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977. Today, it carries US-19 across the gorge, 876 feet above the New River.
The bridge is a modern architectural marvel; when it was completed, it was the longest single-span arch bridge in the world spanning 3,030 feet (today it’s still the third-longest bridge of its kind).
You can learn a bit about the bridge and its history in a video at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and there’s also a boardwalk trail there that offers up some excellent vantage points of the bridge. (Just note that the lower observation deck does include lots of stairs.)
It all started with the Fayette Station Road, originally called the Gentry Road which was 1909. The bridge below the main arch bridge is the Tunney Hunsacker Bridge (often referred to as “the little bridge” by visitors.) It was the first bridge for cars to cross the New River Gorge. At the time that was the area’s engineering marvel.
In the 1960s, construction began on Route 19 also known as Corridor L. It needed to cross the New River Gorge and the only question was how. The answer was to build what was then the largest arch bridge in the world. Construction began in 1974 and was completed 3 years later in 1977.
The bridge is a structure of amazing statistics:
- 3,030 feet long
- 876 feet high
- 70 feet wide
- 88 million pounds of U.S. Cor-Ten steel and American cement
Opened and dedicated on October 22, 1977, the span has since become an iconic symbol of West Virginia.
More on New River Gorge: BASE-Jump Off This Bridge on Bridge Day
The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a national landmark in engineering and is celebrated on the third Saturday in October each year at Bridge Day when the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic and people BASE jump off the side.
White water rafting and rock climbing
New River Gorge is called by frequent visitors has long been a haven for outdoor recreationists from across the country. With 53 miles of undammed whitewater, there’s plenty of room for experienced water sports lovers including a 13-mile section of the Lower New River that has lots of class IV and V rapids (the most technically difficult and dangerous).
In the 1990s, rafting boomed in popularity with as many as thirty companies guiding tours along the park’s 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater. One of the most popular stretches is the “Lower New,” a 13-mile gauntlet of Class IV to V rapids. Seasoned companies like Adventures on the Gorge run a number of more relaxed, family-friendly outings as well.
It’s not all about the water at the gorge, though. The sandstone walls at New River Gorge National Park ranging between 30 feet and 120 feet in height feature over 1,400 routes for climbers. New River Climbing School hosts daily climbing and rappelling courses for the rock curious looking to try their hand at sending the gnar (A rock climbing term used to describe climbing a route without falling or resting on the rope).
Plus, The New’s Arrowhead section boasts 12.8 miles of Boy Scout–built mountain biking trails perfect for beginner to intermediate riders. Bike rentals (and local craft brews) are available at Arrowhead Bike Farm.
New River’s rugged canyon has been well-known as a world-class rock climbing and water sports destination since it was designated a national river in 1978 but there are other popular activities there, too.
Due to warmer waters than are typically found in the region as well as 12 public-access points in the park, it’s a well-known fishing destination for smallmouth bass, walleye, carp, and other native and non-native game fish.
Detailed maps show the specific areas where hunting is allowed in the park. In general, hunting is not permitted in safety zones near public areas and the Grandview section. Hunting permits, rules, and seasons are all governed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
Go hiking in the New River Gorge
Within New River Gorge National Park there are about 100 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to challenging. Most of the trails are fairly short but many can be connected if you’re looking for a longer hike.
More on New River Gorge: New River Gorge National River: A River Runs Through It
Since the park stretches along 53 miles of the river there are several different sections with trails. The most popular trails in the New River Gorge include:
- Endless Wall Trail: This Fayetteville trail is one of the most popular in the park offering up excellent views of the gorge and the “Endless Wall” which is an area popular with rock climbers. You can do this hike as a 2-mile out-and-back from the Fern Creek parking area to Diamond Point or you can do it in a 2.7-mile loop—but if you do the whole loop, note that you’ll have to walk a half-mile back to your car along a road.
- Long Point Trail: The other popular Fayetteville trail is the 3.2-mile Long Point Trail which leads out to a rocky outcrop that overlooks the New River Gorge Bridge. The trail is pretty tame until the last 0.3 miles when it gets a bit steep and filled with roots to climb over.
- Grandview Rim Trail: This 3.2-mile trail in the southern part of the park connects the Main Overlook at Grandview with Turkey Spur offering up some of the most stunning views of a horseshoe bend in the New River.
- Sandstone Falls Boardwalk and Island Loop Trail: Head down to the southern part of the park to visit Sandstone Falls, a 1500-foot-wide waterfall on the New River. A 0.25-mile boardwalk offers up great views and connects to the half-mile Island Loop Trail just below the falls.
Scenic drives at New River Gorge
Visiting New River Gorge National Park and Preserve by vehicle is an up-and-down experience. While some roads travel along the rim and some along the river, others wind up and down between the two. Vistas along the rim offer views of the sandstone walls of the gorge and the river below. At the bottom of the gorge along the river, there is relatively little flat land but it provides an opportunity to view the New River and its plants and animals.
Encircling the heart of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the scenic drive is an estimated three-hour trip. The 83-mile route includes interstates, divided highways, and two-lane roads. The scenic drive is an opportunity to experience the park—its gorge and its river. Along the way are broad vistas as well as small glimpses of both the past and the present. Two park visitor centers, Canyon Rim and Sandstone supplement the tour with the interpretation of the natural and historic resources of the park.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve provide opportunities for primitive camping only. Camping areas are located along the river. These primitive camping areas have no drinking water or hookups and limited restroom facilities. All sites are managed on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations are not accepted. There are NO FEES for camping.
Stays are limited to 14 days in the same area. Developed campgrounds are available at state parks and private campgrounds throughout the surrounding area.
From the tantalizing glow of evening fireflies to the famous steel arc of the New River Bridge and the exhilarating splash of chilly river water below, there are a thousand reasons to smile about the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve.
Size: 46,766 acres
Date established: December 27, 2020 (designated by President Jimmy Carter as a National River on November 10, 1978)
Location: Southern West Virginia
Park Elevation: 702 feet to 3,970 feet, average is 2,267 feet
Park entrance fee: Fee-free park
Recreational visits (2021): 1,682,720
The New River flows north as it winds its way through the Appalachian Plateau in West Virginia.
More on New River Gorge: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park
New River Gorge National Park is home to 1,383 different species of plants, 65 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, 50 species of amphibians, 89 species of fish, and countless migratory birds.
Almost heaven, West Virginia
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home
To the place, I be-long
West Virginia, mountain momma