(CNN) – Sometimes a small name change is all it takes to draw attention to an underrated park. At least that’s the case with the New River Gorge in West Virginia.
Hidden in a 5,593-page omnibus expense report in the final days of 2020 was a provision intended to classify this one-of-a-kind national river as America’s 63rd Headlining National Park. The designation offers additional protection – and new clout – for 7,021 hectares of the Appalachian Forest (another 65,165 hectares are protected as a nature reserve).
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“These mountains are some of the oldest in the world, and despite its name, the New River is ancient,” said Lizzie Watts, superintendent of New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.
Estimates vary widely, but the new one is at least 3 million years old. It could have formed up to 320 million years ago.
“When it travels north, it really cuts off in the mountains,” says Watts, “so you can see geology here that you don’t see in many other places.” There are also 1,500 plants and animals that call this 53 mile long river corridor home, she notes.
While the New River is ancient, it meanders through America’s newest national park. The prestige associated with the name change to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has sparked a boom in travel there.
Traffic on the park’s website is up 90% year over year, according to Watts, and state tourism officials are forecasting at least 20% more visitors in 2021 than last year’s record of 1.4 million.
“We’ve certainly seen that when making reservations and making phone calls,” says Jerry Cook, co-owner of the ACE Adventure Resort. “Because of the location of West Virginia, 60% of the US population is only a day’s drive away, but it’s kind of unknown because it’s so forested.”
Cook says he’s starting to get interest from Chicago, New York, and even overseas.
“I think the community was hoping and waiting for something to replace the extraction business,” he adds. “West Virginia was pretty much discovered for its huge wood and coal that fed the industrial revolution. Now that the county’s run out of coal, they’re looking for the next big thing. “
Rich in natural and human history, New River Gorge is also a prime destination for rafting, mountain biking, and climbing.
Below is a look at all of the wild adventures and iconic sights that make America’s newest national park worthy of its new name.
Where to hike
The image most people have of the New River Gorge (if they can even imagine it) is the famous bridge that connects the cities of Fayetteville and Lansing. This technological marvel is so impressive that it symbolizes the entire region.
When completed in 1977, the 3,030 foot long, 876 foot high pass became both the tallest and longest single-span arch bridge in the world. While others have since dwarfed it, some 45 years later the New River Gorge Bridge is no less impressive – especially when viewed from the inside.
Bridge Walk offers guided tours where technology fans and avid photographers can slip into a belt (attached to a safety cable) and walk over the massive steel construction on a catwalk 25 feet below the daily traffic.
Back on solid ground is the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, where you can take the classic bridge photo. One mile down the road is the Endless Wall Trail, a moderate, three-mile loop along the cliff with breathtaking views from ledges like Diamond Point.
The most kid-friendly hike in this sector is the Long Point Trail, an easy 1.6 mile walk to a hill overlooking the bridge and gorge.
The Grandview Area, 45 minutes south near the town of Beckley, has equally impressive views of the canyon with the added benefit of more parking and less crowds.
The Castle Rock Trail is the most dramatic option here, as it runs beneath fortress-like rock walls with exposed coal seams.
To really get off the beaten track, Watts recommends the Stone Cliff Trail (2.7 miles one way) that follows the banks of the New River south of Fayetteville and the Big Branch Trail, a two-mile loop of forest in the southern Sandstone Area This is known for its waterfalls and wildflowers.
How to Raft the New and Gauley Rivers
Perhaps the greatest allure of America’s newest national park is the whitewater. West Virginia is a major center for white water rafting, and the New and Gauley Rivers are some of the foamyest in the world.
“West Virginia is called The Mountain State because everything goes up and down,” says Cook. “The mountains give rivers and because it is so mountainous there is a lot of white water.”
The New is especially special because it tumbles 750 feet over 66 miles and creates advanced Class IV Rapids and Expert Class V rapids as it flows through the park.
The Gauley to the north is controlled by the dam. It has a cliff-lined reservoir, Summersville Lake, which divers have dubbed “the Little Bahamas” thanks to the clarity of the water.
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Whitewater enthusiasts flock to Gauley for six long weekends in the fall when the Army Corps of Engineers clears the dam for flood control and creates world-famous Class V rapids.
Most whitewater outfitters, including ACE, River Expeditions, and Adventures on the Gorge, are based in and around Fayetteville and offer half, full, and multi-day excursions that quickly help you learn the difference between a slide and a vortex.
Where to climb and ride a bike
Rafting may be the park’s biggest bait, but climbing and mountain biking are some of the biggest challenges on this side of the Mississippi.
There are around 1,400 established climbing routes in the New River Gorge, many of which are along the Endless Wall. These cliffs are made of the sturdy Nuttall sandstone, which is 98% quartz. They are extremely reliable and offer inclines from 30 to 120 feet in height, most of which are geared towards intermediate and experienced climbers.
Fayetteville Equipment Store Water Stone Outdoors is a popular stop for information, equipment, and guides.
Typical mountain bikers begin their adventure on the Arrowhead Trails in the Craig’s Branch area of the park. This stacked loop system offers nearly 13 miles of mountain biking at your own discretion – most of which are rated as moderate to difficult.
Arrowhead Bike Farm, a short pedal away, rents equipment, offers tours, and operates mountain bike clinics to help newbies improve their singletrack skills.
Where can you take a scenic drive?
The drive along Thurmond Road to the Thurmond Historic District offers a time-traveling journey back in time to the boom when dozens of coal mining towns along the New River fueled the Industrial Revolution.
Watts also recommends the newly developed African American Heritage Auto Tour, which unravels the stories of miners and railroad workers who helped shape the region. You can pick up a free CD at the visitor centers.
To be completely off the beaten path, follow the train tracks into the historic town of Hinton at the south end of the park. It’s one of the nicest outposts along the gorge and well worth the long detour from Interstate 64.
Here, cross the bridge and head north on a winding country road for panoramic views of Sandstone Falls, the largest waterfall on the New River.
Where to eat and drink
The Beckley regional center is the only town near the New River Gorge, but it doesn’t have much to offer. The best reason to stop here is for a cold brew and bouldering at Chocolate Moose, a café in the outside-in climbing gym.
Of all the portal communities, tiny Fayetteville (2,800 inhabitants) will benefit most from the tourism boom. It’s one of those rare mountain towns that feels 100% authentic while also having a yoga studio, two craft breweries, and several cafes and art galleries.
“The food scene has definitely evolved since I arrived four years ago,” says Jeffery Toth, owner of Fayetteville’s Wood Iron Eatery, a small breakfast and lunch café with crispy rockfish sandwiches, trendy avocado toast, and walls of local Art. “They got the national park, the vaccines are going in and the mandates are being lifted here in West Virginia, so everything is exploding right now.”
Across the street from Wood Iron Eatery is the Cathedral Café, another breakfast and lunch meeting place with stained glass windows that are remnants of the Methodist church era.
The place for dinner, Pies & Pints, is two blocks away. The long range of local beers and creative pizzas (think Thai shrimp or Cuban pork) made it so popular that you can now find outposts across the region (this was the original).
Across the bridge, in Lansing, the no-frills Chetty’s Pub is known for its sunset happy hour view of the gorge. When it gets dark, locals flock to Freefolk Brewery to throw back hoppy IPAs and talk about the day’s adventures around a warming fire pit.
All of the above offer outdoor seating.
Where to sleep
There aren’t any upscale accommodations near the park, but Lafayette Flats offers boutique vacation rentals in downtown Fayetteville that are filled with West Virginia art.
The adventure outfitters near Fayetteville all offer affordable accommodations – mostly in woody huts with attached hot tubs. ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge are some of the best for families, while Arrowhead Bike Farm has a cozy campsite at the open-air craft beer bar.
While there are many private campsites in the area, in the national park you will only find primitive campsites without drinking water or connections and with limited toilets.
The eight designated campsites are all free, are located on the New River and are operated based on availability.
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