There is so much to do and see at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, that it’s kind of hard to fit it all in. The nation’s newest national park is perfect for thrill seekers, nature enthusiasts, and history buffs.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is named for the narrow gorge that was cut through the Appalachian Mountains by the New River. It plunges up to 1,500 feet. Don’t be fooled by the river’s name, the New River is thought to be one of the oldest river systems in the world.
In addition to the natural beauty of the region, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is steeped in history. With a nearly perfectly preserved historic coal mine and a boom town, it allows you to explore the past. The river also offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the United States. Along with miles of hiking trails, some of the best rock climbing in the East, and hunting, there is a lot to do at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Places to see at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
The New River Gorge is an amazing geological wonder so there are so many places where you can take in and learn about the scenery. There are a few overlooks where you can stand on top of the Appalachian Plateau and see how the New River has cut its way through the rock.
Canyon Rim Visitor Center
The Canyon Rim Visitor Center has amazing views of looking down on the river and gorge. With a large window and deck, there’s plenty of room to take in the views. A three-dimensional map of the gorge rest right in front of the picture window, so you can visualize the entire area.
Outside the visitor center, you can walk along the Canyon Rim Boardwalk. There are two overlooks along the boardwalk, which is an out-and-back stroll. The first overlook is accessible for those of all abilities. Those wanting a good stretch of the legs can descend the 178 steps down to the second overlook. But remember, this is an out-and-back walk, so you have to come back up those steps. From both overlooks, you can see take in the sights of the gorge and the New River Gorge Bridge.
Fayette Station Road
The Fayette Station Road leaves from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and is a great way to see the New River Gorge Bridge from a different perspective. The drive is also a fun way to see how people used to have to cross the river before the New River Gorge Bridge was built. This eight-mile, one-way drive, is not recommended for larger vehicles. It has many hairpin turns as it descends down the river.
At the bottom, you cross the Tunney Hunker Bridge over the New River. Safety rails allow you to walk out across the river for an up-close look. A parking area is about 0.1 miles past the bridge. The road also takes you through the historic town sites of Fayette and South Fayette. The road then winds its way back up the gorge.
While driving to the Sandstone Falls, I noticed the river was wider and had fewer rapids than it did downriver at Fayetteville. Sandstone Falls stretches across the entire width of the river and is the transition zone from a broad river running through bottomlands to a narrow swift-water river being channeled through a narrow gorge. The falls are almost like a starting line as the water is pushed through the New River Gorge.
Sandstone Falls is the largest waterfall along the New River and spans 1,500 feet across the entire river. A boardwalk takes you out across a series of islands created by the falls. This allows you to see them from many different angles.
The Grandview is another amazing view from high up on the Appalachian Plateau overlooking the river. With one of the most dramatic views, it shows a horseshoe bend in the river from 1,400 feet above it. From this point, you can really see how the river cut through a plateau to make the deep New River Gorge.
If you look closely you can watch trains transport coal and see the town of Quinnimont. Quinnimont was where coal was first shipped out of the New River Gorge in 1873.
The Thurmond Historic District is one of the must-sees at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. During the early 1900s, the town was a classic coal boomtown and has remained mostly untouched by modern development. It was you can step back in time and see how life was lived.
The first thing I need to say about Nuttallburg is not to rely on your GPS to take you there. I was not able to find it. And by the time I got back to cell phone service to look up written directions, we were tired, and it was getting dark.
Nuttallburg is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most intact examples of a coal mining complex in West Virginia. The mine and the town have an extensive history, Nuttalburg is one of the nearly 50 towns that sprang up in the New River Gorge when the nation found hunger for coal.
Richmond Hamilton Farm and Trump-Lilly Farm
For a peek into what life was like for an Appalachian subsistence farmer, visit the Richmond Hamilton and Trump-Lilly Farms. Living off the land was hard for the harsh regions of West Virginia.
Exploring these two historic homesteads will show you what life was like when you didn’t have Walmart right down the road, or even over the holler.
Glade Creek Grist Mill
Ok, so this one isn’t actually in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It’s a part of Babcock State Park, but it’s worth visiting. Babcock State Park is adjacent to the national park and is a beautiful park on its own. The Glade Creek Grist Mill is a replica of the original Cooper’s Mill that once stood on its grounds. It is comprised of parts from other West Virginia mills and is in operation for visitors to learn how these types of mills were once used.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has hiking trails for all levels. Trails vary in distance from a quarter of a mile to seven miles.
I did not do a great deal of hiking while I visited the park for one reason – time. The New River Gorge covers a large area. And while the national park and preserve protect the river corridor, you still have to drive out and around on curvy mountain roads to get around. I wanted to see as much as possible, and with a full day devoted to rafting there just wasn’t time.
I highly advise whitewater rafting while visiting the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. We had the best time on our rafting adventure, even though we did fall out of the boat. The New River is also one of the top rafting destinations in the United States. It’s also a great way to see the river from the bottom of the gorge.
There are many adventure companies that operate guiding services throughout the area. I was a little overwhelmed when it came to choosing a company – as well as a rafting trip. Because the area is such a great whitewater spot, there are many trips to choose from.
I ended up choosing Adventures on the Gorge and went with their “most popular trip.” We thoroughly enjoyed our trip, and our guide was awesome.
When we floated, the area had seen a lot of rain so the river was up. We went through some gnarly rapids and even got to experience some class V rapids.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has more than 1,400 established climbing routes and is one of the United State’s most popular climbing areas. The hard sandstone cliffs above the river are featured with cracked and face routes available. The majority of the climbs are for advanced and expert climbers.
Campgrounds within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve are all primitive first-come, first-serve sites. There are nine campgrounds. All are on maintained gravel roads, but far from services, so you’ll want to come prepared. All of the campgrounds except one give you access to the river for fishing or boating. The national park does not advise swimming in the New River as it has powerful currents and undercut rocky banks.
For those who might want more than a primitive campground, there are several options just outside the park. When I visited the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, I camped at Babcock State Park. This state park is adjacent to the national park. It offers all the amenities, like bathrooms with showers and electricity hookups.
Little Beaver State Park and Pipestem Resort State Park are not as close as Babcock but offer full hookups. There are also several privately owned campgrounds in and around the town of Fayetteville.
Getting around the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
As I stated above, do not completely rely on your GPS to get you places. Keep park brochures in your vehicle, so that when your GPS fails you, you can refer to written directions. Or just simply go on the directions given by the visitor centers to find locations.
You will also want to budget plenty of time for travel to destinations as the rugged terrain of West Virginia does not make for the quickest roads. And few places have direct paths between them.