Outdoor enthusiasts in West Virginia have been reveling in the natural beauty of New River Gorge for generations, but the secret is out. In December 2020, this 73,000-acre slice of paradise, encompassing a whitewater river, limestone cliffs and deep canyons, became the country’s newest national park — New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
The lifeblood of the park is the New River, and despite its name it is believed to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. For more than 260 million years, it has run northeasterly from the Blue Ridge Mountains near Boone, North Carolina, through southwest Virginia and into West Virginia, cutting through the Appalachian Plateau and joining with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River in south-central West Virginia.
The New River Gorge runs roughly 53 miles along the New River from Lansing to Hinton. Featuring spectacular canyons created by the rugged whitewater river, it is the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.
For centuries, this part of the New River was virtually inaccessible. However, when the railroad came through in 1873, it opened the region to coal mining, and the area prospered. Although many of those boom towns have long been abandoned, the region has thrived as a mecca for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
In 1978, Congress established the New River Gorge National River to protect the waterway and help preserve the region’s 1,400-plus plant species and diverse wildlife. In addition to the rich natural and human history found in the New River Gorge, it also offers exceptional whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing.
Located within 500 miles of 60% of the U.S. population, the park is poised to flourish with tourism.
“The designation is giving our corner of ‘Almost Heaven’ its time to shine,” says Becky Sullivan, executive director of the New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau, referring to the John Denver lyric extolling the beauty of West Virginia.
The best place to start an exploration of the gorge is at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Perched nearly 1,000 feet above the New River, it offers spectacular views of the New River Gorge Bridge. Linking the towns of Lansing and Fayetteville, it is believed to be the longest single-span arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest in the United States. An architectural wonder to behold, it is one of the most photographed places in the state. From the Visitor Center, guests can access two observation decks for unobstructed views.
The Visitor Center is filled with interpretive exhibits and videos focusing on the history and recreation of the gorge and surrounding areas. It’s also a good place to get maps, books and information on ranger-led activities and hikes.
The New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau Visitor Center is an excellent source of information on outdoor adventures and outfitters for a host of activities including whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, fishing, rock climbing, biking and hiking.
A one-stop shop for outdoor activities, Adventures on the Gorge bills itself as a whitewater rafting resort, but it’s much more than that. Located in Lansing along the rim of the New River Gorge, it was started by a group of friends who have been rafting the New and Gauley rivers for nearly 50 years.
In addition to hosting a variety of river trips from mild to wild via raft, kayak and paddleboard, the resort also offers rock climbing, rappelling, zipline canopy tours, horseback riding, bridge catwalk tours and more. Accommodations range from camping to luxury cabins and everything in between, and there’s a variety of on-site dining options.
The commercial center and gateway of the New River Gorge is Fayetteville, population 3,000. Referred to as “America’s Coolest Small Town,” it is packed with outfitters, touring companies and retailers. It’s also the place to get a massage, go shopping, hit a local brewery or two and dine at Cathedral Café, located in a former Methodist church.
Nearby is Arrowhead Bike Farm, offering bike rentals, tours and clinics, as well as the eclectic Handle Bar + Kitchen, serving a German-leaning menu and beer selection.
Other nearby towns give a glimpse into the once burgeoning coal mining industry. At the turn of the century, Thurmond was a thriving boom town on the northern rim of the gorge, but its heyday ended as the Great Depression loomed. Today, Thurmond is all but a ghost town untouched by development, offering visitors a peek into America’s past. The historic railroad depot serves as a seasonal Visitor Center for the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Hinton, on the southern end of the gorge, is on the National Register of Historic Places and boasts more than 200 churches, storefronts and private homes representing American Gothic, Classical, High Victorian, American Foursquare and Greek Revival architectural styles.
There’s no denying the many charms of the towns that dot the rim of the gorge, but the natural beauty of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the reason to visit. Here you can admire the scenic overlooks at Grandview and see Sandstone Falls, the park’s largest waterfall spanning 1,500 feet. The New River Gorge is all about being outside and immersing yourself in nature, and there is no shortage of opportunities to do just that.
IF YOU GO:
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is 450 miles northeast of Atlanta via I-85 to I-26 to I-40. Direct flights are available from Atlanta to Charleston, West Virginia, a one-hour drive from the national park.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Free. 104 Main St., Glen Jean, West Virginia. 304-465-0508. www.nps.gov/neri/index.htm
Adventures on the Gorge. Whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, zipline tours, rock climbing and other outdoor activities, $49-$199. 219 Chestnutburg Road, Lansing, West Virginia. 855-379-8738. www.adventuresonthegorge.com.
Arrowhead Bike Farm. Bike rentals $35-$75 per day, clinics $20-$380, tours, $35-$95. 8263 Gatewood Road, Fayetteville, West Virginia. 304-900-5501. www.arrowheadbikefarm.com.
Grandview. Open daily year-round. Route 9, Grandview, West Virginia. 304-763-3715. www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/grandview.
Sandstone Falls. Open daily year-round. Route 26, Sandstone, West Virginia. www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/the-sandstone-falls.
Handle Bar + Kitchen. Brats, tacos, salads and more, $3.75-$11. Arrowhead Bike Farm, 8263 Gatewood Road, Fayetteville, West Virginia. 304-900-5501. www.arrowheadbikefarm.com.
Cathedral Café. Breakfast plates, salads, sandwiches and quesadillas. Entrees $4-$12. 134 S. Court St., Fayetteville, West Virginia. 304-574-0202. www.thecathedralcafe.com.
Adventures on the Gorge. Accommodations range from tent camping to luxury cabins, $39-$529 per night. Smokey’s serves soups, salads, sandwiches, barbecue and upscale entrees, $12-$69. 219 Chestnutburg Road, Lansing, West Virginia. 855-379-8738. www.adventuresonthegorge.com.
Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals. Four modern rental flats in a historic building. $165-$225 per night. 171 N. Court St., Fayetteville, West Virginia. 304-900-3301. www.lafayetteflats.com.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Canyon Rim Visitor Center. 162 Visitor Center Road, Lansing, West Virginia. 304-574-2115. www.nps.gov/neri.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Sandstone Visitor Center. Free admission. 330 Meadow Creek Road, Sandstone, West Virginia. 304-466-0417. www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/sandstone.
New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau/Visitor Center. 310 W Oyler Ave., Oak Hill, West Virginia, 304-465-5617, www.newrivergorgecvb.com.
Historic Fayetteville Convention and Visitors Bureau. 310 N. Court St., Fayetteville, West Virginia. 304-574-1500. www.visitfayettevillewv.com.
Thurmond Visitor Center. Route 25, Thurmond, West Virginia. 304-465-8550. www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/thurmond.
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