New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia
by Cheré Coen, Contributing Writer
During the quiet holidays of 2020, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve became the United States’ newest member of the National Park Service, joining more than 400 sites in every state in the union.
The 53-mile section of New River between Bluestone and Hawk’s Nest dams in West Virginia was already part of the system as New River Gorge National River, administered along with the nearby Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River. Redesignation by Congress set it apart as a national park.
The breathtaking river flows freely through one of the largest gorges in the Appalachian Mountains. The combination of water, deep canyons and pristine nature offers outstanding whitewater rafting, rock climbing and mountain bike trails.
“New River is considered to be one of the oldest rivers in the world following the path of an ancient river system called the Teays,” says Eve West, the park’s chief of interpretation, visitor services and cultural resources. “The park is also considered to be one of the most botanically diverse river systems in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, with approximately 1,500 native species of plants.”
About two hours west of Lexington, Va., the park is primarily a rock-climbing destination for moderate to experienced climbers, West says, noting hikers will enjoy spring wildflowers, birding and fall colors, and cross-country skiers can tackle the trails when it snows. Whitewater rafting, kayaking and fishing are popular during warmer months.
For sightseers, Canyon Rim and its boardwalk offer great views of the river and the dramatic New River Gorge Bridge. The highest point of the park, and another excellent vista, is Grandview Main Overlook. For water lovers, Sandstone Falls is the largest waterfall on New River.
Camping is allowed within the park, but all sites are primitive, with no water or electricity. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Leashed dogs are permitted on all trails.
Park special events include the Spring Nature Fling, held primarily in April, and September’s Hidden History weekend, in which park rangers guide visitors to heritage sites.
“During the summer, we have guided ranger activities,” West says. “October is ripe with local festivals and there is, of course, Bridge Day, held every third Saturday in October.”
Sponsored by Fayette County Chamber of Commerce, Bridge Day offers pedestrians the unique chance to walk the 3,030-foot-long New River Gorge Bridge, the fourth-longest steel arch bridge in the world and one of the most photographed places in West Virginia.
Traversing the 24-inch-wide steel underbelly of the bridge is safe, but not for the faint of heart. New River Gorge is different from many national parks in that numerous entrances and state roads run through the park.
“The four national park areas are noncontiguous and are located from the southern to the northern end of the park,” West says. “Other major destination points are also scattered around the park.”
► For more information about the country’s newest national park, visit nps.gov/neri.
Cheré Dastugue Coen, originally from New Orleans, is a food and travel writer now living in the Atlanta area. She is a huge parks fan.