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America's newest park is GORGE-ous

America's newest park is GORGE-ous

ONLY AN EIGHT-HOUR drive south of Toronto is America’s newest National Park, the New River Gorge National Park, in West Virginia, established in December 2020.  Railroads, coal mining, and logging were the original engines of growth in this frontier area of America, opening to settlement only in the late 1700s.  By the turn of the last century these industries were all in decline and the area was well on the way in transition to a new phase of economic growth. The new National Park is a significant contributor to this transition.


Above: The Sandstone Falls, above, are divided by a series of islands

.The New River is a sinewy, untamed river flowing through a mountainous, forested area of this state that is unusual in that it flows northwards.  About 85km of the river is within the park and the larger protected area around the park itself. The park offers an assortment of recreational opportunities, including hiking, mountain biking, rock-climbing, white-water rafting and kayaking. Accommodation is available in small communities surrounding the park, plus a wide variety of cabin and camping facilities. The New River Bridge, carrying U.S. (highway) 19 across the river between Fayetteville and Lansing was the highest and longest single-span arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1977.  It has since been surpassed but remains the longest steel span in the Western Hemisphere.  Tourists, harnessed in for safety, can walk across it on a catwalk  eight metres underneath the road surface above.  About 1.4 million people visited the New River Gorge and two other scenic areas nearby in 2019, according to the park service. More are expected in the post-COVID era.  

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Above: The New River Gorge carves its way untamed through a mountainous, forested area of the state. Outside the park you'll find Glade Creek grist mill, right.

The park offers four visitor centres. Visitors arriving from the north will stop at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center on U.S. 19, just before the bridge. This is the place to get your trail guide maps and info for the more than 160km of foot, mountain bike, and equestrian trails within the park. (Eighteen trails are designated to permit mountain bike use.) It also provides views of the bridge spanning the gorge, plus views of the gorge itself.  Accommodations are available at several locations on the north side of the river (I stayed at Adventures on the Gorge), with even more choices on the south side in and around Fayetteville.
I began my visit by hiking the Endless Wall Trail, a moderate 4km offering numerous views of the gorge and sandstone cliffs along the route.  After crossing Fern Creek on a wooden bridge the trail rises gently, passing through stands of Catawba rhododendrons (pink-purple in mid-May, white in July) and a variety of mixed hardwood forest cover.   Diamond Point offers one of the best views of the exposed rock walls of the gorge with the river some 300m below.  Along the way you pass access points to popular rock-climbing sites, considered by the park to be “some of the best rock climbing in the eastern United States.”  Cliffs along the endless wall offer climbs up to 35m in height, most of which are  appropriate for advanced, experienced climbers.


Above: Water sport enthusiasts find the New River Gorge a playful place.

Near the visitor centre I found West Virginia State Highway 82 leading down into the gorge to the old one-way Tunney Hunsaker bridge over the river that locals had to use before the new bridge was completed in 1977, reducing the 40-minute drive between Lansing and Fayetteville to 1-2 minutes. Pedestrians can walk across the old bridge, which affords scenic views of the river and of the new bridge from down below.
Early risers may want to follow Route 9 out of Fayetteville to Kaymoor Road and the trailhead to the Kaymoor Miners trail on the south side of the river for beautiful morning sunrises.  When I visited in May weather conditions filled the gorge with morning fog, adding a special quality to views of the gorge while it lasted.
Midway south in the park is the Grandview Information Station (open June through August) offering panoramic views of the gorge with the river 426m below.  Seven trails start in this area.


Above: The Tunney Hunsaker bridge, above, affords walkers scenic views of the river.

Anyone driving far enough to see New River Gorge could easily use another 2-3 days to see other historical attractions within an hour and a half drive of the park. Logistically speaking, Beckley, midway between the two main visitor centres (Canyon Rim and Sandstone), should be your next stop. Beckley is home of the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, formerly a commercially  active coal mine from 1905 until 1953. The city subsequently bought the site, dedicating it to educating the public about coal mining and the life of miners’ families. Coal mine tours (April 1-Nov. 2) are led by former coal miners and provide a vivid account of a typical Appalachian miner’s daily work routine.  
Also at Beckley, just off Interstate 77, is the Tamarack Marketplace, a showcase of Appalachian arts and crafts. The centre displays the work of 2,800 artists and artisans from all over the state, an incredible demonstration of West Virginia talent.  
Sandstone Visitor Center, near the southern end of the park, is less than 30km, or 25 minutes away. The centre is open spring, summer, and fall. This is at the largest waterfall on the New River. Though the river only drops some 8m, it is 457m wide at Sandstone Falls, divided by a series of islands. A fully-accessible boardwalk leads across the islands to viewing points. The falls mark the transition zone from broader, flat land into a narrow mountain V- shaped gorge.


Above: Cradled among the brilliance of West Virginia's Appalachian wilderness is where you'll find America's newest national park.

Over the next 85km the river will fall 228m, creating class I to III rapids north to Thurmond, increasing to class IV and V as it passes through the northern portion of the park. Whitewater rafting is no doubt the most exciting way to explore the New River gorge.  Most whitewater outfitters are located in and around Fayetteville and offer half-, full- and multi-day trips, May through October.
From the Sandstone Visitor Center it is only a 45-minute drive to “The Bunker” at the Greenbrier resort near White Sulphur Springs, an amazing relic of the Cold War era.  Built during the Eisenhower administration, this top secret underground facility was maintained in ever-ready status for 30 years, ready to house the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in case of an unexpected foreign attack. On May 31, 1992 a Washington Post story revealed its location and purpose.  Deprived of secrecy, the facility was phased out of use by 1995. Tours are offered today by the Greenbrier for visitors 10 years of age and older. (Reserve tickets online.)
Before proceeding to the Greenbrier, those interested in history might also want to make the 18km jog south of the Sandstone Visitor Center to Hinton, the southern gateway to the park. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the Hinton historic district contains more than 200 buildings within a 24 block area.  The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad purchased the land now occupied by Hinton in 1871, and the rail lines laid through the New River Gorge are still in use today.
There is no shortage of other historical and recreational destinations within an easy drive of the national park, like Lewisburg, shortly before White Sulphur Springs, which offers art galleries, antique and specialty shops, and the North House Museum, an 1820 residence where one can see the fifth oldest quilt in the United States, plus information about the daily life of a free Black family in West Virginia prior to the Civil War.  
Creation of the New River Gorge National park is sure to draw many more visitors to this area of West Virginia.  The challenge, however, will be for accommodation and eating facilities to meet the increased demands  that will surely arise.  
A boost to the economic life of the region is a certainty as an area formerly dependent on coal mining and logging transitions to new opportunities to serve a growing tourism market.
Go soon!




West Virginia


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