As of December 27, 2020, the Appalachian Mountains’ largest gorge is officially a national park. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia is the 63rd national park and has some of the country’s best whitewater rafting and rock climbing. The ability to do both here, combined with the area’s outstanding natural beauty, speaks to why New River Gorge just got promoted to the majors.
This area just outside of Fayetteville, West Virginia, is renowned among East Coast outdoorsy types but relatively under the radar for the rest of the country. That is surely about to change. At the same time, even with more traffic passing through, the New River Gorge is unlikely to lose its appeal to diehards — given its 1,000-foot sandstone walls, challenging river rafting, and backcountry trails and pitches. Here’s how to get the most out of this new national park on a day trip or long weekend.
The New River Gorge itself was carved by the New River, a 50-mile stretch of water that was already, prior to the new national park status, a designated “national river” with National Park Service protection. The best way to tour the park is on a raft floating down this impressive river.
As you wind through the gorge, you’ll pass towering sandstone walls rimmed by open blue sky, perhaps a white cloud offering an accent but otherwise a pristine mountain view seen from below. Pine, willow, and aspen trees line the gorge valley, giving it a Colorado-esque aesthetic.
Be prepared for Class III to V rapids, including some bumps and spins. The Lower Gorge is lined with challenging rapids that include the risk of topping your boat and its supplies, while the section from Hinton to Thurmond offers a challenge for intermediate paddlers and a mellower experience for the hardcore river rat. Just be sure to pull out at Thurmond; the river below is tight, windy, and technical, suitable for experts only. Of course, you can hire a river outfitter like Ace Raft or Adventures on the Gorge to guide your crew through a challenging or intermediate run, with trips lasting from a couple of hours to multiple days.
The other magnet for mountain voyagers in New River Gorge National Park and Reserve is rock climbing. More than 1,500 climbing routes are established within or immediately surrounding the park, making it the East Coast’s best proving ground. In climbing speak, the big draws are 5.10 sport routes and 5.10 trad climbing routes, with some routes making for quicker ascents and others topping out at more than 100 feet of vertical and forming the bulk of a climber’s day in the park.
With so many established routes and a cult-like following that climbs them regularly, it isn’t tough to find where to go. Just be aware that beginner routes are few and far between at New River Gorge. Much like Yosemite in California, experienced climbers in the area base their hobby — and often their lives — around climbing in the gorge, and have established routes to accommodate that passion. The Junkyard and Bridge Buttress routes are among the most popular. You may feel more comfortable hiring a guide service like New River Mountain Guides or Blue Ridge Mountain Guides to lead you up and offer pointers on the routes.
Mountain biking and hiking
The Boy Scouts of America established the 12.8-mile Arrowhead trail system for mountain bikers inside New River Gorge, and this should be your first stop for biking inside the park. Located in Craig’s Branch section, the trails are flowy and quick, typical of East Coast riding, and are suitable for riders of all levels. For a more challenging ride, the 8.6-mile Kaymoor Trail runs past old coal mines and up several quick steeps (which of course mean you get the fun descents) and joins with the Craig Branch Trail if you wish to diversify your ride. Other popular biking trails include the Park Loop Trail and Fayetteville Trail.
The fall foliage is amazing inside the park, as the aspens turn bright colors come autumn. That’s a great time for hiking, but in fact walking this landscape is stunning most of the year. The New River Gorge Bridge is the park’s most iconic attraction, and the short-but-breathtaking Bridge Trail is the best way to see it. It’s a 0.86-mile jaunt to an overlook with an unrivaled view of the 3,030-foot-long, 876-foot-high steel mega-bridge stretching across the river from one side to the other.
For a longer day hike, the Grandview Area Trails lead you up to more overlooks while the Glade Creek Area Trails pass waterfalls and hint at the more meditative side of outdoor recreation. For solitude, head south to the trails of the Sandstone Brooks Area. These include the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk, which takes you out above the falls themselves to gaze down at what would be an unfortunate end to a rafting excursion. See the NPS guide to hiking in the park for trailhead locations and information.
Hunting and fishing
Few parks offer such a wide range of river fish. Here you’ll find walleye aplenty, along with bluegill, carp, channel catfish, crappie, and multiple species of bass. And there’s plenty of trout in the streams of the park. You’ll need a West Virginia Fishing License to fish in the park, and once you have that secured, it’s time to “seize the carp,” as fans of the 2001 cult classic Out Cold would say — though catch and release is preferred.
Start at Glade Creek to warm up, or head down to the Grandview Sandbar to angle for the above. For a unique experience, consider a guided kayak fishing expedition with Mountain State Kayak Anglers, where you’ll have the chance to move about the water taking in the surrounding mountain scenery while you fish. More than 65,000 acres of the park and reserve are open at various times for hunting. If you plan to hunt, follow all proper licensing and precautions and study the hunting maps provided by the National Park Service.
Where to stay near the park
Of course, accomplishing all of this in one day is impossible. So make a long weekend out of it and crash in a cabin at Ace Adventure Resort. If you plan to spend multiple days exploring New River Gorge National Park and Reserve but also prefer amenities like restaurants and markets, the nearby towns offer all types of accommodation. As an added perk, it’s generally pretty cheap unless you’re visiting on holidays. Rooms in Fayetteville, Lookout, or Oakville can be found for under $100 per night. Expect to pay $90 for a midweek stay, and go up from there. You’re in the high country, so we recommend fitting the mold and booking into a mountain motel such as the Glen Ferris Inn or the Hillcrest Motel.
Backcountry camping is available within the park itself. Multiple camping areas are located down in the gorge near the river, where you’ll sleep to the sounds of the water rushing by and wake up to the sun cresting over sandstone cliffs. If you plan to recreate in the south end of the park, consider the Grandview Sandbar camping area. Other easy-to-access, though still primitive, campsites are located at Stone Cliff Beach and Army Camp. You can also get further into the woods at other backcountry camping areas maintained by the park service. If you do plan to backpack, the park rangers recommend visiting a visitors center to check conditions and leave a note of where you’ll be going — and don’t camp within 100 feet of an established trail.