The Ultimate Guide to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep canyons, the New River is among the oldest rivers on Earth

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

More on New River Gorge: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

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 National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.)

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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).

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.
New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping

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.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

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

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun Facts

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.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Denver

BASE-Jump Off This Bridge on Bridge Day

The New River Gorge is special in that it is the only high bridge in the world to be celebrated precisely because of its height

Every year on the 3rd Saturday of October (October 15, 2022), an official “Bridge Day” is held and the span is completely closed to vehicles. Nearly 200,000 people are then allowed to walk on the bridge for a one-day festival that is centered around the spectacular view of the New River and BASE jumping. Vehicular traffic on the Bridge is closed from 7 am until approximately 5 pm.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you walk out onto The New River Gorge Bridge during Bridge Day, you’ll be standing over one of the oldest river gorges on Earth. By most accounts, the New River Gorge is about 345 million years old. That makes it the top contender for being the first river in North America.

876 feet. That’s the amount of vertical space that exists between The New River Gorge Bridge and the water.

Tunney Hunsacker Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The New River Gorge averages between 700 and 1300 feet deep. The gorge was formed solely due to erosion—there were no glaciers in the area like those that carved our similar gorges in other parts of the world. This part of the gorge is characterized by steep walls, huge boulders, and an exposed cliff band along the gorge’s rim.

The river itself is steep for its size. In the 85 miles of New River in West Virginia, the river drops a total of 850 feet. Most of that gradient is concentrated right in the gorge. It’s the drop in elevation that makes for the New River’s outstanding whitewater.

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One very unique feature of the river is its course. The new river flows north (which is not in itself unusual) and bisects the entire Appalachian mountain range separating north from south.

Related article: New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park

The distance you have to walk to get from one side of the Bridge to the other may astound you. The main span of the Bridge is 1,700 feet long and the total length of the Bridge is around 3,030 feet. That is quite a walk.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is also a walk that is special for yet another reason. The Bridge you are walking on is 876 feet above the rapids of the New River. That may not seem very tall since you just walked 3,030 feet across the Bridge but consider this fact. We could move the Washington Monument underneath the New River Gorge Bridge and still have 325 feet left of space between the two.

This makes the New River Gorge Bridge a perfect location for the BASE jumpers and rappellers that take advantage of the Bridge Day festivities.

New River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth. BASE jumpers leap from any of these four fixed objects with parachutes designed specifically for rapid deployment. Known around the world as the most extreme of extreme sports, BASE jumpers look forward to Bridge Day every year.

You can also just hang out and look at it, if that’s more your speed.

The New River Gorge is a lot of things. Wilderness. Park. Vacation. Home. It has a special meaning for everyone who visits. And they have Bridge Day to celebrate all of them.

This is the only day of the year that traffic is shut down and spectators can safely and legally walk across the world’s second longest single arch bridge.

New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hosted by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, the annual festival features food, vendors, and activities like BASE jumping, rappelling, and the High Line—a 700-foot ride down a rope from the bridge’s catwalk down to State Route 82. Courage (not experience) and early registration are the only requirements to ride the High Line.

Related article: New River Gorge National River: A River Runs Through It

Time is on your side—at least for six hours! Enjoy the view from the best overlook in the New River Gorge. Enjoy browsing through hundreds of vendor booths to find just the right souvenir for the day. Feeling Brave? Check out Bridge BASE Jumping or Rappel and Highline Information.

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Bridge Day?

Bridge Day is West Virginia’s largest single-day festival and one of the largest extreme sports events in the world. Held annually every third Saturday in October on the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County, West Virginia, this is the only day each year thousands of spectators can walk across the bridge and watch as serious BASE jumpers get their chance to fly 876 feet into the Gorge below and rappellers ascend and descend from the catwalk. 

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schedule of events

Kick off your Bridge Day weekend with Taste of Bridge Day on Friday, October 14.

Experience the High Line At Bridge Walk on October 14-16.

5:30 am: Vendors arrive at designated staging lots

7:00 am: Route 19 closes to traffic. Detour begins

7:15 am: ASWV’s Bridge Day 5K racers arrive at designated pickup spots

8:30 am: Buses begin transporting 5K racers to starting line

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8:30 am: Shuttles begin at designated lots

9:00 am: Bridge Day begins

9:00 am: Bridge Day 5K Race begins

9:00 am: Into The Gorge bus rides start (pre-sold tickets only)

1:30 pm: Into The Gorge bus rides end

2:00 pm: Bridge Day chili cookoff in downtown Fayetteville

3:00 pm: Bridge Day ends

5:00 pm: Route 19 re-opens. Detour ends

New River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Evening events happening at Adventures On The Gorge, River Expeditions, Ace Adventure Resort, and The Outpost at New River Gorge

Related article: The Wild, Wonderful Waters of New River Gorge! Round Out Your Trip with a Visit to Babcock State Park & Glade Creek Grist Mill!

New River Gorge National River is accessible by US-19 and Interstates 64 and 77 in south central West Virginia.

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Denver

New River Gorge National River: A River Runs Through It

A rugged, whitewater river the New River is actually among the old rivers on Earth

Located in southern West Virginia, New River Gorge National River preserves over 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of the New River between the towns of Hinton and Fayetteville from Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest Lake. The park and surrounding area are rich in cultural and natural history with an abundance of scenic and recreational opportunities. 

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A rugged, whitewater river flowing northward through deep and spectacular canyons, the New River is actually among the oldest rivers on Earth. It has carved and continues to carve the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Established in 1978, New River Gorge National River offers something for everyone. New River, estimated to be over 250 millions year old, is the second oldest waterway in the world after the Nile. Its meandering course through the Appalachian mountains hides many natural wonders that appeal to every type of outdoor enthusiast.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National River is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, birding, camping, picnicking, biking, and simply enjoying the solitude the natural world.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The upper part of the river (southern section) features rapids ranging from Class I to Class III and include long pools of steady water, whereas the Lower Gorge of the New River (northern section) is far more difficult in comparison with Class III to Class V rapids, littered with large boulders and strong currents. Commercial outfitters conduct trips down the river from April through October.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most begin their visit to New River Gorge at the Canyon Rim Visitors Center near Fayetteville. Inside are exhibits pertaining to the gorge’s history and recreational attractions, along with an auditorium. A walking path leads to a grand overlook of the New River Gorge and the New River Gorge Bridge. Other visitors centers are located at Sandstone, Grandview, and Thurmond.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An engineering feat, the New River Gorge Bridge is the largest single steel-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Its completion saved motorists well over an hour over narrow two-lane roads down into the New River.

A monumental steel arch built on a grand scale not often seen in bridge construction, the New River Gorge bridge opened in 1977 as the highest and longest arch bridge in the world with a height of 876 feet and a main span of 1,700 feet.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most unusual design element of the bridge was the decision to use a special type of steel that develops a brown colored rust coating that naturally protects the steel. It saves the West Virginia Department of Transportation a million dollars for every time they would have had to paint the bridge as well as giving the span a natural, rugged look that blends into the tree-filled surroundings.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before the arch design was chosen, other bridge types considered for the 3,030 foot long gap included a suspension bridge, a jackknife truss-arch, and a continuous truss. Luckily, the best design prevailed and West Virginia became the proud owners of one of the largest and most beautiful bridge structures in the world.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The New River Gorge is special in that it is the only high bridge in the world to be celebrated precisely because of its height. Every year on the 3rd Saturday of October an official “Bridge Day” is held and the span is completely closed to vehicles. Nearly 200,000 people are then allowed to walk on the bridge for a one day festival that is centered around the spectacular view of the New River and BASE jumping.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bridge Day has been canceled for just the second time in its history. Concerns with the Covid-19 pandemic and ability to safely stage the event led the decision to cancel the planned 2020 installment of West Virginia’s largest one-day festival which would have been held on October 17.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Before the New River Gorge was a natural attraction, it was known more for its coal. In 1863, the first railroad line was installed through the valley, bringing industry and a boom-town mentality to a region that was all but inaccessible. Coal mining camps and support towns, such as Thurmond, prospered for the latter part of the 19th century, but all of the towns are now just mere shadows of their former selves, and most cease to exist today.

New River Gorge National River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National River is accessible by US-19 and Interstates 64 and 77 in south central West Virginia. The Canyon Rim Visitor Center is located just north of Fayetteville via US-19. The Sandstone visitor center is off of SR-20 at I-64, exit 139. The Grandview region is accessible via I-64, exit 129 and SR-9. 

Worth Pondering…

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

—John Denver