Wild and Wonderful West Virginia: Getting to know New River Gorge National Park

October 30th, 2022 – Part I

Ready for more adventures in heavenly West Virginia, my mom and I fueled up on coffee and started our journey of exploration in the heart of New River Gorge National Park.

While I had some idea of the park’s size and travel time between park overlooks and interpretative centers, I will say the online park maps don’t really reflect the scope of travel time between various park attractions.

While you can cover a lot of ground in New River Gorge NP in one day – to really savor the park and see the major highlights without feeling rushed you need a few days in the park.

If you only have one day in the park – fear not, you can still experience amazing views and the beauty of the gorge. My tip is that instead of trying to see it all – focus on a few key spots in the park and really savor the moment.

My mom and I covered a ton of ground in one day, but still fell short of a few amazing spots in the park – which means I will have to make a return trip (a good excuse for some more WV scenery).

To plan your own trip, I recommend leveraging the NPS website, which has digital maps, itineraries and the wonderful park overviews.

Getting the lay of the land:

* View a map of the area here.

  • The New River Gorge National Park is over 70,000 acres, and subdivided by various access points, each with a unique perspective on the Gorge. It can take an hour or more to get from various access points – even if the mileage isn’t high because you are making a ‘portage (remember that from Minnesota adventures)’ to navigate the deep chasm and rushing waters of the New River cutting through the gorge. This is a park to enjoy without rushing – just enjoy the winding roads and dramatic vistas – don’t rush to get from point a to point b as ‘the journey is the destination’
  • Each access point in New River Gorge is breathtaking and provides a unique natural and historical perspective on the gorge.
    • History:
      • The New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world – some estimate it has flowed this same path for 365 million years, cutting and creating the scenery we see today.
      • The river is unique in that it flows south to north, versus east-west or west to east (depending on the Contintenal Divide)…
        • It’s headwaters are near Blowing Rock, NC…those familar with American Nomad know that BR is a popular destination on the blog and I’ve visited the New River in NC many times – but this is my first time near the mouth of the river (terminus) in WV
        • The New River flows 320 miles through NC, VA, WV – The New River is known for it’s exhilarating and heaven meets hell rapids.
      • Native Americans first inhabited the area around NRG over 11,000 years ago…it was prime hunting grounds….in the 1800s with the advent of rail, prospectors started taking over the gorge to mine for coal. While coal helped power the country and provided resources, the greed of the ‘Company’ left the river polluted and many of the workers in the coal mines fighting for a better life.
        • In the 1900s efforts to conserve the beauty of the Gorge and undo the pollution started. In the 1970s, The New River Gorge was named a National River and Preserve. It transitioned to a National Park in 2020 to forever ensure this wild and wonderful West Virginia and American treasure is protected and preserved.
  • Main Sections of the Park
    • Sandstone Falls: Located at the southern tip of the park, this area boasts dramatic sandstone rock formations, breathtaking waterfalls and serenity…The nearby historic town of Hinton is a good spot to grab lunch and take in the region’s railroad history.
    • Grandview: The name says it all – this provides a sweeping view of the gorge, along with forest trails and serenity.
    • Thurmond Historic District: A historic town that allows you to go back in time to the height of New River Gorge’s boom in the Industrial Revolution.
    • Lower Gorge: In spite of the name – this section is actually at the northern tip of the park…but gets it’s name because it is the ‘lower’ part of the river – nearing it’s mouth/terminus. This section includes the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge, Canyon Visitor Center and extraordinary recreation.
  • What to do:
    • The New River Gorge provides unlimited recreational opportunties from miles of hiking trails, camping and scenic drives…The area is most famous for it’s whitewater rafting opportunities. This is some of the best rafting in the world and attracts river runners from all over who want to brave the rapids. I personally prefer to picnic by the overlook and enjoy the rapids from a distance, but I know whitewater rafting is a favorite pasttime of many adventures. If are interested planning a whitewater trip in NRG – there are tons of expert guides – I personally recommend Adventures on the Gorge – an outdoor adventure resort that also provides day trips on the river.
    • History: Learn about the Native American and Pioneer History…visit Thurmond and learn about WV’s industrial revolution and the importance of railways in developing the land. Visit Nuttallburg – a park historic site, where you can learn about the mining history on the gorge.
    • Scenic Drives – with each byway and park road you’ll encounter views breathed down from heaven…
    • New River Gorge Bridge – It is the Western Hemisphere’s longest arch bridge and a feat in engineering – this is the icon of the park – a crossroads of industry and natural beauty. You can explore the bridge area from the Canyon Visitor Center
    • Visit surrounding cities and towns: The New River Gorge is surrounded by historic WV towns from Hinton to Fayetteville and larger Beckley. Fayetteville is known for it’s artsty outdoor vibe. It was named ‘Coolest Town’ for blend of history, culture and funky groove.
  • Where to stay: We made the decision to stay in Beckley – a college town with major hotel chains like Hampton Inn, but there are numerous lodging options in Gorge Country – from Hawks Nest State Park to rustic camping at Babcock State Park – or you can aim for a bit of luxury (Adventures on the Gorge) or a bed and breakfast or locally run cabin. WV Tourism’s website is a great place to get started.

Our adventure:

With only one full day in the park, my mom and I knew we would have to bypass a few important spots. In reviewing the park guide, we decided to focus on:

  • Sandstone
  • Canyon Rim

As well as driving just north of the park to neary by Gauley National River, which is an extension of the NRG Park environs.

In the next few posts, I’ll detail the various sections…

So grab an energy bar (or your snack of choice) and let’s hit the trail…

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