What to Know About the Newest National Park: New River Gorge

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In addition to rolling hills, vast swaths of forests, and the Appalachian Mountains, West Virginia is also home to America’s newest national park. Funded by the coronavirus relief and spending bill, New River Gorge officially became the 63rd national park in the United States in December 2020.

Although New River Gorge has long been a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, its new status as a national park is likely to attract nature lovers and adventure seekers from across the country. With 72,000 acres of protected land and 53 miles of gorge to explore, there’s a lot to learn about New River Gorge National Park.

A Geological Wonder

Sandstone Falls in West Virginia with fall colors.
Credit: Patrick Jennings/ Shutterstock

Although its name would imply otherwise, the New River is much older than you’d think. In fact, it predates the Appalachian Mountains, and geologists believe the New River to be one of the oldest rivers on the continent. As it was once the headwaters of the Teays River, an ancient waterway that flowed in North America millions of years ago, New River Gorge is a fascinating trip into geological history.

Over millions of years, erosion formed the V-shaped gorge that surrounds the river on either side. Famous for its steep canyon walls and sheer cliffs, the gorge exposes 3,200 feet of old sandstone, siltstone, and shale that comprises the Appalachian plateau. Much of the lower gorge features Nuttall sandstone, a rock that is 98% quartz and forms many of the cliffs, overlooks, and rapids in the park.

From Coal Miners to Rock Climbers

View of the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia from the Fayette Station bridge.
Credit: Eifel Kreutz/ iStock

From the late 1800s until the 1950s, New River Gorge was primarily used for coal mining, as the canyon made the rich deposits of the region’s coal easy to extract. English miner John Nuttall, for whom Nuttall sandstone is named, quickly prospered after being one of the first entrepreneurs to start a coal-mining business in the gorge in 1873.

Others followed suit, which prompted the creation of boom towns throughout the gorge. Some of these mining ghost towns, like Nuttallburg and Thurmond, can be visited in the park today. When coal production petered out, logging became the region’s primary source of industry, resulting in much of West Virginia’s pristine forests being stripped bare.

Despite the damage incurred from the mining and logging industries, New River Gorge made a comeback in 1978 when it was declared a national river, receiving federal protection from the Department of the Interior. It wasn’t long before outdoor aficionados began flocking to the region to partake in the gorge’s many offerings, such as rock climbing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, fishing, and hiking.

Adventure Sports Abound

A pair of climbers rappelling down into the New River Gorge.
Credit: TempleNick/ Shutterstock

Today, New River Gorge provides no shortage of activities for nature lovers with a sense of adventure. The canyon’s walls, which soar up to 1,600 feet tall, are ideal for rock climbers looking for challenging ascents. With 1,400 different routes along the sandstone cliffs, the park is a premier destination for advanced and expert climbers. New River Gorge also features 12.8 miles of mountain bike trails and a wide variety of hiking trails. At certain times of the year, hunting is also permitted in designated areas of the park.

While the gorge is ideal for climbers and hikers, the New River is a playground for water sport enthusiasts. With over a dozen public river access points on the 53-mile waterway, the New River is a draw for anglers looking to catch smallmouth bass, walleye, and muskellunge. Since the river falls 750 feet in a mere 50 miles, the New River is most famous for its whitewater, with rapids that range from Levels III to V. While expert rafters and kayakers are permitted to raft on their own, there are several licensed commercial whitewater outfitters available for tours and rentals.

Of all the adventure sports offered in the New River Gorge, however, perhaps the most extreme is BASE jumping. Adrenaline junkies flock to the New River Gorge Bridge annually on Bridge Day, the only day of the year when BASE jumping is permitted in the park. Held every year on the third Saturday of October, Bridge Day finds thousands of spectators congregating to watch daredevils jump off the bridge, which spans the gorge and stands 876 feet high.

How to Get There and Where to Stay

Panorama of New River at the main overlook at Grand View in New River Gorge National Park.
Credit: Steve Heap/ Shutterstock

Located in Fayetteville, West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park can be accessed from Route 19. There is also Amtrak service available to three locations in the park, and a nearby Greyhound station in the town of Beckley.

The New River Gorge’s 83-mile scenic route circumnavigates the park and takes roughly three hours to complete. The route covers highway, interstate, and two-way roadways, and provides ample scenery of the gorge and river, including Grandview, which offers some of the best views in the park. The route also passes both the Canyon Rim and Sandstone Visitor Centers.

History buffs may enjoy the African American Heritage Tour, a self-guided audio tour that directs users to 17 historic sites in the region. Each stop tells a different story of the Black coal miners, railroad workers, and members of the community who once resided in the gorge.

If you’re looking to stay overnight, the park does not offer lodging facilities, but it does provide many primitive campsites. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis, and there is no fee for camping.

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