The New River Gorge is known as the best East Coast climbing destination for a reason: there are more than 1,500 established climbing routes in the area. And even though parts of the preserve became a national park in 2020 (the 63rd national park, to be exact), New River Gorge climbing is still in full swing, unlike in other parks where climbing is mostly banned.
New River Gorge Park and Preserve has such fantastic routes because of the park’s massive gorge, carved out by the new River. Many millennia ago, the New River carved eroded a 1,000-foot-deep gorge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. The area is a mix of rugged and welcoming, which makes for a fantastic getaway.
The cliffs are made of nuttall sandstone (a hard sandstone), which is great for grip and won’t tear up your fingers. With an average wall height of 75-100 feet and most of the ratings at 5.9 or higher, you probably want to know what you’re doing before venturing here. However, if you’re new to outdoor climbing or haven’t started sport climbing outside yet, you still have options available to you.
An adventure in West Virginia brings challenging climbs, a slower pace, and fantastic scenery, plus fewer crowds that most other national parks (and stress-free camping and parking).
Where is New River Gorge National Park and Preserve?
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve covers about 70,000 acres of land in southern West Virginia. It’s one of only a few national parks on the East Coast, as well as one of the newest. The only downside of reaching the park is that you’ll need a car as there’s really no major airport anywhere nearby. The closest significant town is Charleston, WV, about an hour away from the park. It’s not a huge airport, but it connects to cities like Chicago, Orlando, DC, and four or five other eastern US destinations. You could also fly into Roanoke, which has roughly the same number of flights but is about two hours from the park.
DIY or hire a guide?
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Wanting to go the do-it-yourself route? If you feel good with routes rated 5.9/5.10 or higher and have the technical and safety knowledge to identify routes, belay, evaluate bolts, clean routes, etc., you should be able to manage going out on your own. If you aren’t sure you can handle this level of climbing on your own, don’t worry. There are plenty of amazing guides who know the area and can show you the ropes — both figuratively and literally. You’ll probably even learn a thing or two while you’re out with them.
One company is Appalachian Mountain Guides, which offers all kinds of New River Gorge climbing trips, including trips where you’ll climb on a lake from a pontoon boat or paddleboard. Blue Ridge Mountain Guides also offers a variety of courses or private guiding. You can personalize your trip for exactly the type of climbing you want. Another option is New River Climbing School, which has two-hour, half-day, and full-day trips, (plus weekend trips, family classes, and more). New River Mountain Guides also offers a bevy of programs related to New River Gorge climbing. In addition to classes, it has climbing trips, specialty classes, and events like women’s yoga and climbing weekends.
The top New River Gorge climbing routes
There really aren’t too many beginner routes in the New, but if you are still getting comfortable rock climbing, a good place to start would be Junkyard Wall. Its cave routes and Jumping Jack Flash routes are rated 5.7, which is considered less demanding. You’ll find more challenging routes in the Junkyard area as well, but because it has some of the easier routes, the Junkyard can get crowded.
To crank it up a notch, look into Mrs. Field’s Follies, ranked a 5.8. While the rock face is not as hard as it looks, you do have to contend with an overhang, so only consider this when you’re ready. At the hard end of the spectrum, the Toxic Hueco — where part way up you confront a big hollow, or hueco, and the overhang that follows it — is considered an excellent 5.10 route. Porter for the Recorder is a 5.11 that gets raves from the experienced climbers who tackle it.
Most of the 5.10 to 5.12 New River Gorge routes are for sport climbing, which means the bolts are already in place. Whichever route you take to make it up the wall, be sure to pause for a few minutes to look at the fabulous views of the gorge and the New River Gorge Bridge when you’re at the top.
How to prepare for New River Gorge
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Along with your climbing gear, you’ll want a guidebook to the area. A good option is the “New River Rock 3rd Edition“, or the Falcon Guide to rock climbing in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Additionally, pack clothing for all seasons because New River Gorge seems to have its own microclimate. It can rain unexpectedly or cool down more than was forecasted. Try to layer up, and bring waterproof footwear.
In the middle of summer, it can be extremely hot and muggy, and if you have any sort of outdoor allergies, be sure to pack plenty of OTC allergy meds.
Also, make sure you have enough water. If you need to fill your bottles, head to nearby Canyon Rim Visitor Center. There are four stores in the park with everything from souvenirs to snacks to camping supplies, but only the Canyon Rim one is open year-round. And remember: if you pack it in, you need to pack it out. This includes poop, chalk, and food waste like banana peels or nut shells.
Water Stone Outdoors is the best place to get any additional gear you might need and to ask about routes. It’s a cool gear shop nestled in an old house well-equipped for climbing and other outdoor activities. It even has a coffee bar inside.
Camping and seasonality
One of the best things about New River Gorge is that it’s one of the few national parks in the US that doesn’t require reservations for camping. In fact, it doesn’t even take them. All camping in the park is first-come, first-served, and it’s all in primitive (i.e. undeveloped) sites. Only a few have nearby pit toilets, but you’re on your own for the rest. Bring everything you’ll need, including water. All areas are next to the river and some are rather close to the popular climbing areas. Backcountry camping is also cool almost anywhere in the park (not too close to trails, etc.), and you don’t need a permit.
If you’re looking for a real bed, there are several hotel and inn options in historic Fayetteville or nearby Beckley. But one of the most unique places to stay around the park is Adventures on the Gorge. The cabin resort has a wide variety of cabins and tinyhomes from basic to luxurious, plus glamping tents and a few vacation homes. The hotel also has dozens of activities to pick from, including New River Gorge climbing, mountain biking, paddling, canopy tours, waterfall jumping and more.
The best time for New River Gorge climbing is September through October, since it’s less rainy and has comfortable temperatures, but you’ll have company. You can climb all year, but since spring brings lots of rain and summer carries high temperatures, people flock to the New during the early fall months.
If you go during peak season, expect to share the space with other climbers. The goods news? Because there are so many routes in the area, it doesn’t feel suffocating. You might have to hop on a different climb than you originally planned, but other climbers are generally respectful of not staying on a route for hours if they know you’re wanting to give it a try.
Things to do when you’re not climbing
Around New River Gorge (with the national park section and the national preserve section) are lots of trails, ranging from half-a-mile up to about seven miles. Many of them connect, so you can create your own route if you’d like to hike. The trails around Nuttallburg are extremely cool if you like history, as they wrap around the preserved remains of an old mining town that still has many buildings left standing. There are easy waterfall hikes around Glade Creek and more moderate and challenging waterfall hikes around the Glade Creek area.
If you need a day off from New River Gorge climbing, you could also go whitewater rafting in the park. The New River is a very popular whitewater river, and several area guides are licensed to operate in the park. Rapids range from Class I and II in some sections up to expert-only rapids on the Lower Gorge and on the nearby Gauley River.
To fuel up for your day of New River Gorge climbing, don’t miss a drive-thru breakfast on your way to the crag from Tudor’s Biscuit World. And if you’re looking for lunch to bring with you, check out Secret Sandwich Society. The scrumptious sandwiches are named after US Presidents like Van Buren and McKinley, and it serves craft beers with a decent happy hour in case you’re on your way out of the park. For dinner, head to Pies & Pints. It has the best pizza in town, with lots of vegetarian options.