Photo: George

New River Gorge National Park Essentials

Seek multi-sport adventure in America’s newest national park.

America’s newest national park sits within a day’s drive of the East Coast’s biggest cities, offering millions of adventurers a new playground in their relative backyard. Not that there’s anything particularly “new” about this park (other than its status). The New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world, carving a dent into the Southern Appalachians for the last 300 million years. The New River Gorge, which runs for 53 miles and reaches depths of 1,000 feet, has even been protected by the National Park Service since 1978 as a National River, but the 72,000-acre unit was upgraded to a full-fledged park and preserve early in 2021.

With the new status comes new attention. And all of that attention is well-deserved because the New River Gorge is stunning, whether you’re looking for a scenic drive or a heart-pumping adventure. At the heart of the new park is the river itself, which offers more than 50 miles of whitewater with sections that range from “family friendly” to “wild and wonderful.” Meanwhile, tall sandstone cliffs rise from the water, attracting climbers who have established more than 1,500 routes over the last few decades. More than 100 miles of hiking trails surround the gorge and mountain biking is even allowed on certain sections of the trail system. Unlike many national park units, which center around hiking through pristine landscapes, the New River Gorge National Park is truly about the adventure.

The Human History of the New River Gorge 

Forget about the national park ideal of protecting a pristine wilderness, the New River Gorge shows many signs and scars of its inhabitants. The oldest artifacts found in the gorge are 11,000-year-old Clovis points used by Paleoindian nomadic hunter/gatherers as spearheads to hunt mammoth and mastodon. Their offspring settled in the area and lived in primitive villages for thousands of years, the ancestors of the Cherokee and Shawnee tribes that would live and hunt in and around the gorge by the time European settlers started poking around. The New River Gorge was considered the western edge of the frontier in the 1600s, when rugged fur traders traversed its slopes. 

Later, the town of Fayetteville, W.V., which sits on the rim of the gorge, was battled over four separate times during the Civil War. But things didn’t really pick up until coal was discovered in the late 1800s. Once the C&O Railroad was built, a wave of immigrant labor began flooding the area and a steady stream of coal began leaving. At one time in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the New River supported more than 60 individual coal towns. Most of those coal companies paid its workers in their own individual script, which was useless outside of the company store. Miners fought for decades for better pay and working conditions, to varying degrees of success, but eventually the coal ran dry and the mining towns dwindled through the first half of the 20th century until the last of them shuttered in the early ’60s. Fortunately, some adventurous paddlers discovered the rapids of the New in the same decade and founded rafting companies that carried guests down the New’s Class IV-V whitewater. Rafting boomed and climbing picked up in the ’80s and ’90s. 

The New River Gorge’s popularity has only grown over the decades. It has become a haven of multi-sport adventure, boasting more than 1,500 established climbing routes (not to mention countless bouldering problems), rapids that are now etched in whitewater lore and a burgeoning mountain bike trail system. Adventure companies have sprouted expansive campuses just outside the park, offering guided trips and on-site adventures with lodging digs that range from primitive campsites to deluxe homes. The American Alpine Club operates one of its few campgrounds next to the gorge, and Fayetteville, the “western outpost” that both sides of the Civil War battled over, is now a bustling trail town. 

Visiting the National Park 

New River Gorge National Park is within a day’s drive of some of the most densely populated cities on the East Coast. While some parks in the national park system have moved to a reservation system to handle crowds, accessing the New requires no reservation. There is also no fee charged to enter the park. Depending on the season, you will likely find crowds at popular trailheads or climbing crags. Showing up midweek is always your best bet if you’re looking for solitude. 

Photo: Billy McDonald

Seasons

Winter 

Rafting operations shut down during the winter, but mild temps make visiting the park to hike, ride or climb perfectly feasible. Climbers, in particular, should take advantage of the warm winter days on routes that can be overrun during the summer. 

Spring 

Highs in April hover around the low 60s, but spring showers bring higher water levels to the New, making it attractive to paddlers who don’t mind being chilly. Guided rafting trips typically start on April 1, but the crowds don’t show up until school is out in June. Spring also means peak wildflower season as trillium, rhododendron and flame azalea are blooming in April and May. 

Summer 

School is out, the temps in the Southern Appalachians are high, and everyone wants to raft the New, so expect crowds, shuttle-bus traffic jams and full parking lots. If you’re rafting, the guides will handle the logistics for you; just book your trip early to ensure a raft. If you’re climbing or hiking, a dawn start is your best bet to avoid the crowds. 

Fall 

The New River Gorge has plenty of sandstone cliffs, but its slopes are also covered in a dense, hardwood canopy, which turns into a technicolor dream during October. Fall is also peak climbing and mountain bike season, thanks to the cooler temps. If you want to see the New at its wildest, show up for Bridge Day, where hundreds of BASE jumpers leap from the 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge.

More info: officialbridgeday.com

Things to Do

Unlike many national parks, where hiking reigns supreme, the New is a hub for multiple sports. Bring all of your gear and plan on knocking out a different adventure every day. 

Take a Hike 

Hiking doesn’t get top billing at the New, but the trails will deliver you to some stunning landscapes.

Long Point Trail

This easy, 3.2-mile out-and-back rolls along the edge of the gorge before ending dramatically on the rim of a cliff with views that encompass the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the longest steel arch bridges in the country. It could be the park’s signature view. 

Endless Wall Trail

The Endless Wall is a tall sandstone cliff that has become an epicenter of climbing within the park. This 2.4-mile trail (one way) runs along the upper rim of that cliff, oscillating between a lush hardwood canopy and exposed rock outcroppings with dramatic views of the 1,000-foot-deep canyon. 

Glade Creek Trail

The New is packed with the remnants of forgotten coal mining operations, and the 5.6-mile, one-way Glade Creek Trail follows an abandoned narrow-gauge railroad that was once used to haul coal out of the gorge. The trail also delivers you to a series of small waterfalls, swimming holes and trout fishing pools as it retraces history. 

Go Rock Climbing 

You could argue that the park’s climbing is even better than its rafting. There are more than 1,500 established routes traversing the sandstone walls hanging above the river, ranging from single-pitch top-rope lines to multi-pitch sport and trad routes, which top out at 5.14b. Your best bet for avoiding the crowds and climbing something within your grade is to hire a guide from New River Climbing.

More info: nps.gov

Go Whitewater Rafting 

The 53 miles of whitewater that runs through the gorge has attracted paddlers since the ’60s and offers something for every member of the family, regardless of the experience level. A handful of rafting companies will guide you down the river with trips ranging from a few hours to a multi-day adventure that will have you camping on a riverside beach. For a milder run, look to the Upper New, which has 13 miles of Class I-III rapids. Meanwhile, the Lower New is more adventurous, with Class III-IV+ rapids. The mostly rain-fed river runs year-round with the high-volume rapids at their largest in the spring.

More info: nps.gov

Go Camping

There’s no established car camping inside the national park, although there are a number of developed campgrounds on private land surrounding the park, including the American Alpine Club’s New River Gorge Campground. If you’re dead set on pitching a tent inside park boundaries, you’ll find some primitive campsites accessible by gravel road and boat, which are first come, first served.

More info: nps.gov

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.