Wild and Wonderful –
West Virginia’s New River Gorge
Like the license plate of West Virginia explains, the state is “Wild Wonderful”. Especially so is the southeastern portion, which holds several tracts of land managed by the National Park Service. The largest, most notable, and most exciting of which is the New River Gorge National River (NRGNR). Others are the Gauley River National Recreation Area (GRNRA) and Bluestone National Scenic River (BNSR). Babcock State Park is also located in the area and has many attractions for the visitor.
The part of the New River Gorge set aside as a National River is a 53-mile section that covers nearly 70,000 acres and offers fabulous whitewater adventure, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, wildlife watching, and camping. It is the combination of the fast-moving river and the resulting gorge that provides such a beautiful backdrop of all the activities.
Grandview Overlook at New River Gorge National Park 014
The New River has its beginnings in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina near Blowing Rock, flows through Virginia’s Appalachians, and passes through this Southeastern section of West Virginia. It joins with the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River, which eventually empties into the Ohio River.
Actually, it is believed that the New River is among the oldest on the continent. So, its “new” name is a misnomer. The New achieved the designation of an American Heritage River in 1998. It is one of only fourteen in the country. The American Heritage Rivers Initiative of 1997 has three objectives: natural resource and environmental protection, economic revitalization, and historic and cultural preservation.
On average there is a one thousand-foot difference in the elevation between the river bottom and the land above the gorge. Because of its extremes in elevation and the moisture gradients, it supports a much greater variety of plant and animal life. The New River has longed served as a migratory corridor for both plants and animals. As an example, animals more commonly found farther north make the Gorge the southernmost extent of their range. There are some animals found only in the New River area. But there are many common species of wildlife that a typical visitor will spot and identify.
The multitude of outdoor opportunities includes hiking, mountain biking, whitewater activities, fishing, wildlife and bird watching, and rock climbing. Of course, while hiking the many trails, wildlife and wildflowers are appreciated. Trails vary in length from one-quarter mile to seven miles, and can be combined for longer hikes if desired. Because wildflowers are numerous throughout the Gorge, they are a popular quarry during hiking outings. Many common ones are the several varieties of trillia, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Asiatic Day-flowers (Commelina communis), May apples (Podophyllum peltatum), and Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), just to name a few.
Asiatic Dayflower, Commelina communis P258
Mayapple plant with bloom P429A
There are also mountain bike and horse trails scattered throughout the National Park Service or state park lands. The Thurmond to Minden Trail is one of the most popular trails for hikers and bikers because it is an easy grade and is wide and smooth. The entire trail is 6.4 miles round trip, but only 2.5 miles round trip to the main overlook. This trail provides views of Dunloup Creek, the New River, and the community of Thurmond. It was formerly a railroad route which was used to haul coal from the mines in Minden to Thurmond.
One of the lesser known trails is the Endless Wall Trail. Obviously its destination is a site popular with rock climbers. Great views of the river a thousand feet below are afforded along this trail. In addition, the largest coal mine of the 1800s – the Nuttalburg – is in this section, which is the latest addition to the NRGNR.
Several outfitters can accommodate those wishing to experience the area via horseback. A stop at any of the visitor centers will provide the most current trail conditions, wildlife and wildflower species viewable, and other pertinent information during the visit. The New River Gorge visitor centers are in the Sandstone area in the southern portion, the Grandview and Thurmond in the central part, and at the Canyon Rim in the north.
White Knuckled Whitewater
One of the most popular attractions of the Gorge is its whitewater and the activities associated with it. Outfitters offer half and full day rafting trips and also rent kayaks and canoes. There are many put-in and take-out locations along the New, Bluestone, and Gauley Rivers. Hauling your own is also acceptable for those experienced in negotiating the class of whitewater found here. Many class III - V rapids give enthusiasts plenty of opportunities for thrills and probably spills. Generally, the rapids of the southern section of the New River are rated lower (class I – III). Those are ideal for beginner to intermediate boaters. The rapids north of Thurmond (class I –V) require more skill and experience. As an example for the reason of the appeal of its Gorge’s whitewater, the New River falls 750 feet in fifty miles from Bluestone Dam to Gauley Bridge (that is where the New River joins the Gauley). In comparison, the Mississippi river falls 1428 feet from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a distance of 2300 miles and the reason whitewater is not so popular on the Mighty Mississippi.
Kayaker at Fayette Station Rapids New River Gorge National Park 019C
Whitewater Rafting at Fayette Station Rapids New River Gorge National Park 030
The Bluestone NSR and the Gauley River NRA are all located in the southeastern section of West Virginia and are within a couple hours drive of each other. They provide opportunities to enjoy the scenery and partake in the outdoor activities in a similar setting as the New River Gorge. The Bluestone NSR is located south of the New River Gorge NR, but does not offer the whitewater action as the New and the Gauley Rivers. The Gauley is north of the New River Gorge and has numerous Class V-plus rapids. The New River Gorge is the largest of the three tracts and thus has more opportunity for a variety of activities.
Rocking Good Time
Rock climbing is another of the major attractions of the New River Gorge. Within the nearly 70,000 acres there are over 1400 established rock climbs. “The New”, as it is called by climbers, has become one of the most popular destinations in the country. Little wonder, as the sandstone cliffs range from thirty to one hundred twenty feet in height and have excellent features for climbing. Local climb shops or guidebooks will be helpful in locating a favorite climb. Climbers come here from across the country to experience the New River Gorge. There is a driving tour (Fayette Station Road Tour) beginning at the visitor center that passes this rock climbing area, goes under the New River Gorge Bridge twice, crosses the river on the Fayette Station Bridge, and affords great views of some of the best whitewater on the New River.
Rock climber in New River Gorge National River 01.jpg
Camping throughout the NPS tracts is all primitive with no drinking water or hookups, but it is free and available on a first-come first-served basis. Most camping areas are located along the river and require registration, which can be done with any ranger. There are four camping areas – all located between Thurmond in the central section and Glade Creek southward – Stone Cliff Beach, Army Camp, Grandview Sandbar, and Glade Creek. Get directions from any visitor center.
There are several private campgrounds surrounding the NPS land and the area state parks maintain campgrounds with full service facilities for RV’s. Consult the latest campground directory. Reservations are recommended during the summer peak season.
Fishing is another way to enjoy the New, Bluestone, and Gauley Rivers. Trout are present in several tributaries of the New River. West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources stocks these rivers and their tributaries each spring with golden, rainbow, brook, and brown trout. Trout are fishable on several creeks and streams within the NPS tracts. Within the New River are the Meadow, Glade, and Dunloup streams. Glade Creek is in Babcock State Park, and Mill Creek and Gauley, Meadow, or Little Bluestone Rivers also contain trout. Fishermen should be aware that there are several catch and release areas. Consult the fishing regulations before casting.
Babcock and Thurmond
Babcock State Park adjoins the New River Gorge NR and has a 52-unit campground, riding stables, Boley Lake for fishing, and a fully functioning grist mill. There are twenty miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, a couple of scenic overlooks, and a visitor center full of information. The Glade Creek Grist Mill at Babcock is an excellent photo op and is located next to the park headquarters. The grist mill has an interesting history. It was actually resurrected in 1976. It was built as a re-erection of one which stood at its present location. It was constructed using parts and pieces from several old mills across the state. Babcock State Park is located east of the New River and is accessible from SR 41 near the town of Clifftop.
Babcock State Park Grist Mill Southern West Virginia near New River Gorge National Park 14
Babcock State Park overlook Southern West Virginia near New River Gorge National Park 03.
The entire gorge area has much history associated with it. Coal and timber played an important role in the development and decline of the area. Coal became an accessible and popular fuel source in the late 1800s and timber was readily available for building and also fuel. Because the area was plentiful with both, the area began to grow, especially around the town of Thurmond, which sits in the center of the 70,000-acre NRGNR. Thurmond became the chief railway center for the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. At the town’s peak it had two hotels, two banks, restaurants, and a variety of stores and businesses.
The most impressive man-made feature of the NRGNR is the bridge across the New River along US 19. It is the highest vehicular bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and is the second longest steel arch bridge in the world. Completed in 1977, it is second only to the Millau Viaduct in France. It is 3030 feet in length and 876 feet above the river below. For local travelers, its completion changed the time required to get from one side of the gorge to the other from forty-five minutes to about one minute.
The Bridge over US 19 at Overlook Canyon Rim Visitor Center New River Gorge National Park 005
West Virginia’s largest one day event is Bridge Day, the third Saturday in October. What is Bridge Day? It is a day the New River Gorge Bridge is closed to vehicular traffic and opened to only pedestrians (it is closed to pedestrians for the rest of the year). BASE -- building, antenna, span, and earth -- jumpers gather from around the world and do their thing over the side of the bridge. Quite a sight!
The first Bridge Day was celebrated in 1980. Since then, it has become an increasingly large event with each year. The one-day festival includes demonstrations of rappelling, ascending, and BASE jumping of course. Bungee jumping is banned because of a deadly accident in 1993.
The southeastern portion of West Virginia is one of the most scenic and recreationally rich areas of the Appalachians and certainly in the state. With its rich heritage and abundance of outdoor possibilities, the New River Gorge and its neighbors are certainly a must visit destination. And then it will become evident as to the validity of the state’s license plate motto “Wild Wonderful”.
New River & Gorge from overlook at Class VI with Yours Truly in foreground in Southern West Virginia