Established in 2020
The 73,000 acre New River Gorge in West Virginia offers myriad activities from rock climbing and whitewater rafting to hiking and mountain biking. This guide covers the best experiences in the National Park and Preserve.
During December of 2020, many US residents may have missed that along with the COVID relief bill, the country also received their newest National Park. Located in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia now lies the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the state’s first National Park. The protected region still spans 73,000 acres across the state with 7,021 acres, in the heart of the gorge, being designated as a National Park. The remaining 65,165 acres will stay a national preserve.
The creation of the New River Gorge National Park is largely thanks to West Virginia senators Shelley Captio and Joe Manchin. This upgrade, from National River, to National Park and Preserve, means that the region will be one of three units protected and managed by the National Park Service within the state. The other, already established regions, include Gauley National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River. A bill that proposed upgrading the New River Gorge to a National Park was introduced back in 2019 and was signed in December of 2020. National Park status will help ensure the region receives the highest level of protection, and finally put the state of West Virginia on the map for some of the most scenic areas in the country.
The land that the newest National Park sits on is rich with history. During the 1800s, leading up to The Great Depression, the New River Gorge was known as the wild land of coal mining. The region often experienced cave-ins, explosions, and numerous gunfights amidst the land. Coal and lumber exports help fuel the American economy. Today the park’s vibrant past is hidden throughout the forest and rolling hills. Numerous remnants remain of old coal mining structures. Ruins of nearly 50 coal mining towns are scattered throughout the region, there to remind tourists of what once was. Thanks to the establishment of the railroad in the 1870s, the New River Gorge region began welcoming those from across the country. Various railroad equipment and out of use bridges mark the influx of population that the region experienced.
While part of the New River Gorge is now a National Park, the surrounding New River Gorge Preserve was established back in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. The preserve was originally established to protect the wild and scenic New River Gorge and help preserve the New River that flows through West Virginia. The river is thought to be one of the oldest in the world with 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater in the preserve.
The New River Gorge is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. The gorge is both the longest and deepest river gorge within the entire range. The region is part of the larger Appalachian Plateau which gives it its distinct features. On either side of the gorge are over 1,000-foot-tall cliffs, mainly comprised of sandstone and shale. Massive boulders, often the size of a house, sit at the bottom of the gorge, surrounding the river. Prehistoric fossils are found throughout the gorge, often exposed by the falling rocks. The region’s history with coal is not by mistake. The New River has four separate seams of coal, and is known for being some of the best in the entire world. When the New River Gorge was a booming coal location, the coal fueled many of the trains, factories, and power plants of the entire nation.
While the waters within this new National Park may be known for whitewater rafting, they are also home to an abundant aquatic ecosystem. These ecosystems have more hydrologic features than any other waterways located in the eastern region of the United States. The riparian zone, located along the New River, is home to the most biodiversity in the entire park and preserve. Here native fish thrive amongst amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds. While the New River flows through the National Park, it spans much farther across the nation. The river spans 360 miles across North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia before it joins the Gauley River. Together these two rivers form the Kanawak River. The unique rock formations along the riverbed have led geologists to discover that the New River is the oldest river in all of North America, and one of the oldest rivers in the entire world. It is estimated the river has been flowing through its current path for over 65 million years.
“John Denver got it right. “Almost Heaven, West Virginia.” The New River Gorge has it all — trad, sport, bouldering, and enough routes to keep you climbing for a lifetime (more than 3000, to be exact).” — Aaron Gerry – Avid climber, adventurer and traveler
One of the most popular attractions in the area is the New River Gorge Bridge that towers above the whitewater below. This steel arch bridge is 3,030 feet long stretching across the canyon 876 feet below. The bridge boasts a 1,700-foot single span arch. The US Highway 19 crosses the bridge which makes it one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world and the third highest in all of the United States. The impressive height of this iconic bridge has led to the creation of an annual “Bridge Day”. During this event, hundreds of experienced individual’s cliff jump off of the bridge.
One of the reasons the region has been protected for numerous decades, is due to the vast amount of biodiversity in the animals that call the New River Gorge home. The gorge itself is often used as a migration corridor for various species. Because of this well-established migration corridor, animals often found in the south can travel to the northern stretches of the gorge and vice versa. The New River Gorge is also home to numerous endemic species, meaning they aren’t found anywhere else in the entire world. The steep cliffs of the gorge, along with the strong rapids of the New River, have led to the formation of these endemic species. Common animals throughout the gorge include beaver, river otter, mink, muskrat and snapping turtles. The region also boasts over 40 species of reptiles throughout the waterways and forested cliffs. While these species dominate the land, bald eagles, great blue herons, and osprey soar throughout the expansive sky.
One of the main draws for outdoor sports in the New River Gorge lies along the whitewater of the New River. Along the lower section of the New River lies miles of calm pools mixed with strong rapids. Paddlers from across the east coast come to visit these river rapids. The Lower New River is where these rapids come to life as the waterways narrow and elevation drops. This section, the Lower New River, is a 13-mile stretch that has both class IV and class V rapids throughout. The river used to be a multitude of rafting companies that were immensely popular during the early 2000s. While the number of whitewater rafting companies has decreased in the past decades, it is still a sought-after location for beginners and experts alike.
New River Gorge Rock Climbing: Location Review
The New River Gorge — or NRG, as it’s commonly known — offers diverse climbing and over 3,000 established routes total, which is why it’s one of the best places to rock climb in the USA. Read 57hours’ review on climbing in NRG.
The recreational sport of rock climbing is often associated with the western United States, yet the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is home to over 1,500 unique climbing routes. The region is home to one of the largest rock-climbing destinations on the east coast. Climbing within the gorge suits climbers of all skill levels though there are minimal beginner routes. Here many of the routes are quite technical and have bolts that are far apart. The towering cliffs of the gorge are composed of Nuttall Sandstone, thought to be some of the oldest and strongest in the entire world. Many of the popular cliff faces range from 50-150 feet. Technical faces are mixed in with dihedrals, technical slabs and even crack climbing. Because of the popularity of this climbing location, major routes can become quite packed during weekends and over holidays. While many of the routes can be climbed throughout the year, the best climbing is during the spring and fall months. Summer climbing is possible, though temperatures can get quite hot in the gorge. However, a warm day can easily be cooled down by a quick swim in the New River right nearby.
Like nearly every National Park in the United States, the New River Gorge is abundant with hiking trails. There are just over 100 miles of trails roaming throughout the protected park and preserve. Trails range from well-maintained walking paths to more remote hunting trails that can also be used for hiking. The trail network within the region helps connect visitors with the various features of the land. Some routes follow along the rapids leading up to waterfalls, while other routes take hikers high above the gorge along the steep forested cliffs. Many designated hikes range from half a mile up to seven miles in length, with just a few longer routes. One of the most popular hikes in the park and preserve is the Endless Wall Trail. This 2.3-mile hike has 288 feet of elevation gain. The trail begins in the dense forest as it climbs out to the edge of the gorge. Once there the trees begin to thin to reveal the New River rushing below and the seemingly endless wall of the ridgeline laid out before them. Other popular routes in the region include Long Point Trail, Kaymoor Miners Trail, and the Canyon Rim Overlook Boardwalk.
Between whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and hiking, it may be hard to believe that the New River Gorge is also a place to go mountain biking. Though the trail system is not as extensive as the other sports, the park and preserve still boasts numerous designated mountain biking trails. The Arrowhead Trail system for mountain biking was created by the local Boy Scouts of America. After nearly 80,000 service hours, the Arrowhead Trail system was created and comprises four major mountain biking loops. The loops range from beginner to intermediate with advanced trails being located elsewhere in the park. These four loops include the Clocis, Adena, Dalton, and LeCroy Trails. Other popular trails include the Kaymoor Trail, Craig Branch Trail, Fayetteville Trail, and the Timber Ridge Trail among others. Similar to the hiking trails, the routes through the forest offer a wide range of scenery, with some following along the cliffs, while others may lead to old mining towns or down to the river below.
While the core of the gorge has been transformed into the New River Gorge National Park, the surrounding land will stay a national preserve. While hunting isn’t allowed within the National Park, backcountry hunting is permitted within the reserve. For many people in Southern Appalachia, hunting is a family tradition. The National Park Service website is full of hunting maps, permit information, and hunting seasons for this region. While the creation of the New River Gorge National Park, slightly lessened the amount of hunting land, both hunters and hikers alike learn to have an immense appreciation for the land and the wildlife that gets to call it home.
The creation of the New River Gorge National Park is momentous in many ways. This protected land has become the nation’s 63rd National Park and West Virginia’s first. The rich history of the land can be seen throughout. Old mining equipment and abandoned towns are nestled within the steep forested hills of the gorge. While the rapids of the New River run through the land, the biodiversity and endemic species thrive amongst the landscape. While visitors have come to experience, see, and adventure throughout this land for many decades, the creation of this National Park is sure to bring more tourism and outdoor recreation to the state. Whitewater rafting, rock climbing, hiking, biking, and even hunting are just a few reasons why this breathtaking landscape was made into a National Park. The land and waterways are now under the gold standard of protection. Local officials, businesses, and communities are hopeful that this will help them ensure that the native species goes unharmed and that cleaner water is attainable. Both the Canyon Rim and the Sandstone visitor centers are excited for the influx of tourists to experience the beauty of the New River Gorge and all that it has to offer.
Guided Rock Climbing in New River Gorge
Gain individual attention for the range of multi-pitch, top-rope and classic climbing routes. The experts will design the day to match your skill level and objectives. How about trying Bubba City or Endless Wall? On the Nuttall sandstone, you’ll meet your goals and take away skills that you can apply on the crags back home.