America’s Newest National Park Will Lure You to an Underrated State

·11 min read
Sky Noir Photography
Sky Noir Photography

When I first visited West Virginia in October 2020, I didn’t know quite what to expect beyond the stereotypes I’d seen on TV and heard about on the radio. I was visiting a friend in Ohio and the arrival of unseasonably warm weather inspired us to head to West Virginia for a few days in the woods. We spent the next few days hiking and backcountry camping and I saw my first wild bear running through the woods. Our trip was the perfect mixture of lonely wilderness and small-town charm and I knew I wanted to return to explore more of the state. Just a few months later, I was given new motivation.

In December 2020, the United States designated the New River Gorge as its newest national park. West Virginia may be known to much of the world as coal country (and as the home of a certain senator that continues to hold up Democratic proposals) but their new national park just might update the Mountain State’s reputation to better reflect its lush landscape.

As a national park enthusiast and obsessive national parks passport stamp collector, I was thrilled, particularly because so few national parks exist in the eastern part of the country, where I live. By the time national parks became a thing, most of the East Coast had been so developed that it was harder to find areas that would meet the (somewhat subjective) criteria required to earn national park status, which is why most national parks exist out West, in areas that weren’t so developed early on.

I set out to explore New River Gorge on a warm, sunny week in late summer, beginning with one of its best-known treks, the Grandview Rim trail. The densely wooded trail wound through the forest, occasionally popping out to offer a view of the New River, dotted with kayakers, and the massive gorge that bears its name. It was the perfect day for hiking—calm and comfortable—but I was shocked to only encounter four other people during my two-hour hike.

Given the weekday crowds of visitors I witnessed in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park in May—while most trails were still closed and covered with snow—I was surprised there weren’t more people here during prime hiking season.

Adventure-seekers have sought out the New River Gorge since before Nixon was president but the region still remains relatively under the radar as far as national parks go. Nature lovers from surrounding states and the District of Columbia have long come for hiking, rafting, and rock climbing, but until the former National River transitioned to become the nation’s 63rd national park (signage is still being updated in the park), this scenic southwestern section of West Virginia was something of a secret, and sort of still is.

West Virginia has one of the best state mottoes in the country: “Wild and Wonderful,” which is proudly emblazoned on license plates, welcome signs, and mom and pop shops across the state. New River Gorge reinforces this motto, giving visitors a sense of wonder and of wilderness that’s also fairly accessible. The park is about an hour southeast of West Virginia’s capital city, Charleston, and a five-hour drive from DC.

What Makes New River Gorge Unique

When I think of national parks (with the exception of a handful of Arctic or desert parks), I think of wide expanses of forested land blanketed with hiking trails and campsites. This is not the case with New River Gorge, a long and narrow park that essentially follows the river. Remember that before it was a national park, this was a national river, so the main attraction here is the New River (“the New” to locals). The park does have a handful of gorgeous hiking trails (Grandview Rim and the Endless Wall trails are stunning), but when compared to other national parks, there are relatively few options for hiking and camping. If you do want to camp, know that most of the camping options are primitive and quite a drive from any services or amenities.

What this park has that others don’t, however, is accessibility to activities that are usually unavailable—or outright prohibited—in most national parks. Unsurprisingly, BASE jumping is banned at all National Park Service sites and one could reasonably assume that it would also be banned at the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel arch span in the Western Hemisphere and the third-tallest bridge in the United States. However, West Virginia celebrates an annual event each October called Bridge Day that allows jumpers to parachute the 876-foot distance from the bridge down to the river. It’s pretty much an official holiday around here so the park-creating legislation included a provision that would allow the event to continue.

<div class="inline-image__title">EJE6FG</div> <div class="inline-image__caption"><p>BASE jumpers throw themselves off the New River Gorge bridge in Lafayette, WV on Bridge Day.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Cavan Images/Alamy Stock Photo</div>
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BASE jumpers throw themselves off the New River Gorge bridge in Lafayette, WV on Bridge Day.

Cavan Images/Alamy Stock Photo

While many—dare I say “most”?—national parks are great for road cycling, almost none have single-track mountain bike trails on official park land (Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is another exception). Since I am relatively new to mountain biking, I took a mountain biker “skill building” class at nearby Arrowhead Bike Farm, which also has a great bike shop, a good restaurant, and lovely campsites for rent. I wanted to have someone help me improve my form (and minimize the risk of my flying over the handlebars and crashing face-first into a tree) so I also signed up for a guided ride through some of the farm’s trails and on to national park land. If you don’t want a guide, you don’t need to have one and you’re free to explore the trails on your own. You can also check New River Gorge’s events calendar to see when ranger-led bike rides may be scheduled.

Like BASE jumping and mountain biking, rafting is another activity that’s both possible and allowed in only a handful of national parks. The same stretch of wilderness appears different depending on your vantage point— hiking, biking, driving, or paddling—and the most thrilling way to experience the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is definitely by whitewater rafting down the New River.

The river is divided into upper and lower sections and 8-13 mile rafting trips are available May through October on both. The lower section is a bit wilder (it includes some class 4 rapids) so rafters must be at least 11 years old. In case you want to bring your little ones—or avoid someone else’s— the upper section is a bit more chill (class 1-3 rapids) so you may be joined by kids as young as 6.

Overnight rafting trips (where the outfitter provides the tent, food, and most gear) are available on both the upper and the lower trips. The calmer upper river option basically does the same distance as the day trip, but stretches it into an overnight trip by breaking it up with lots of swimming, rock jumping, campfire games, and s’mores. The lower overnight trip actually starts out rafting the more mellow upper section of the river on the first day then tackles the more substantial rapids in the lower section on the second day. Either way, expect pretty decent camp food at all the meals, plenty of hot coffee in the morning, and refreshingly cold beer in the evening. Don’t you just love it when someone else handles the food situation at camp?

If you’re looking for an even more adventurous river packed with pretty petrifying class 5 rapids, plan to raft the nearby Gauley River during a much-anticipated four-week window in September and October, when the dam-fed river is at its strongest. I did the two-day overnight Gauley rafting trip and I was thoroughly terrified at times—but I also had the time of my life.

Support for and Resistance Against the Park

Last December, Congress passed a spending bill that included a proposal put forth by West Virginia Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin that would reclassify 72,186 acres of the New River Gorge National River (and 53 miles of the New River) as a national park and preserve. More on the “preserve” part of it later. The senators saw the passing of the bill as a real victory, both in terms of the prestige associated with federal status, but also in terms of the influx of tourist dollars that typically follow such a designation.

A handful of coal miners now work in the tourism sector, leading ATV, fishing, and airboat history tours in the western part of the state, but West Virginia has not yet recovered from the significant loss of coal mining jobs and the state has one of the lowest job growth rates in the country. Given the potential for tourism dollars the new national park status would afford, there had been a strong local push for the status for years but there was also some local resistance.

<div class="inline-image__title">1313769972</div> <div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A park sign marks the abandoned coal mining town of Kaymoor One Mine, now overgrown with forest and part of America's newest National Park, April 7, 2021, in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images</div>
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A park sign marks the abandoned coal mining town of Kaymoor One Mine, now overgrown with forest and part of America's newest National Park, April 7, 2021, in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Not everyone is excited about the idea of an influx of tourists and some worry the area could become as crowded as other national parks. While this was far from my experience in the park, considering it’s within a day’s drive of 40 percent of the population of the United States, overcrowding is a legitimate concern. In addition to the tourism debate, hunting was another point of contention among locals for and against the new designation.

The New River Gorge’s updated title does not just designate it as a national park, but also a preserve, making it only the second site outside of Alaska to receive the designation (the first was Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado). Around 7,000 acres of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve consist of the New River and its surrounding gorge (this is the “park” part of the “National Park and Preserve” designation). The majority of the park’s land—just over 65,000 acres—was designated as preserve, not park.

West Virginians have been hunting deer in this area for generations but the 7,000 acres designated as national park land prohibit the activity. Because hunting is prohibited in all national parks, the majority of the New River Gorge was designated as a preserve precisely because it does allow hunting. Like all compromises, both sides give and both sides take. Hunters reserved the right to hunt on 65,000 acres of land but lost 7,000 acres of land they previously hunted on.

<div class="inline-image__title">1313770002</div> <div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Steep steps lead to the abandoned coal mining town of Kaymoor One. Mine is now overgrown with forest and part of America's newest National Park, April 7, 2021, in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images</div>
1313770002

Steep steps lead to the abandoned coal mining town of Kaymoor One. Mine is now overgrown with forest and part of America's newest National Park, April 7, 2021, in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Regardless of one’s stance on hunting, I find it interesting, and somewhat encouraging, that the National Park Service can be flexible enough to accommodate the local communities that surround the spaces they’re hoping to bring into the NPS fold. Personally, I’d prefer there would be zero hunting in the area, but if banning hunting would prevent the park and preserve status from going through, meaning the hunting would continue anyway, then it seems preferable to me to secure the national designation and all of its accompanying protections.

Basecamp in Fayetteville

Cabins, campsites, and resorts exist throughout the region but you’ll find the most accommodations, entertainment, and eateries around the park’s gateway town, Fayetteville. Fayetteville also had some of the best food options that I encountered across the state. Grab a coffee (or green juice) and a sandwich to go from Cathedral Café, or snag a table in front of two gigantic stained-glass windows in this church-turned-café. For dinner, grab pizza and beer at Pies and Pints and hit up Freefolk Brewery for a brewery tour and beer tasting,

For overnight digs, I stayed at the ACE Adventure Resort because my overnight rafting trip was through them so it was really convenient to just wake up and stroll over to the meeting point. If cozy cabins and rustic glam chalets aren’t your style, they also offer tent camping, which several of my friends told me was amazing. Yes, I sure did sleep (quite comfortably, in fact!) in a cabin (with a hot tub!) while my friends slept outside on the ground. I wilderness camped on my last trip to West Virginia so this time, I opted for the wild and wonderful experience of the indoor variety. Either way you go, you’re in for a treat.

Cassandra Brooklyn is a writer, travel expert, and group tour leader. She runs EscapingNY, an off-the-beaten-path travel company, and is the author of the guidebook Cuba by Bike.

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