This article was produced in partnership with West Virginia Department of Tourism
If a master planner set out to design the perfect national park, it would look a lot like West Virginia’s New River Gorge. The Gorge is the longest and deepest canyon cutting through the Appalachian Mountains and the river is one of the only waterways in the country that flows south to north. The unique geography connects the coast and inland, the subtropics and temperate forests, encouraging incredible plant and animal biodiversity. There’s rich coal and railroad history here too, with mining ghost towns lining the railways that parallel the river. Today the region is a world-renowned recreational hub for rafting and rock climbing as well as mountain biking, hiking, hunting, and fishing.
In 2020, U.S. Congress recognized all of these unique qualities by establishing the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve—the nation’s newest national park.
“The national park designation didn’t change the Gorge,” says Haynes Mansfield, marketing director at ACE Adventure Resort, located just outside the park. “It just put a gold seal on it and introduced it to the world.”
Protecting 53 miles of the New River and over 70,000 acres of surrounding forests and canyon, the park stretches from the quaint town of Hinton in the south to the hip streets of Fayetteville in the north. Bookended by state parks and other protected areas, the national park is the core of one of the largest blocks of forest in the east.
“It’s really hard to tell where one park stops and another begins,” says Lisa Strader, director of Visit Southern West Virginia. “It’s such an eye-catching place to visit.”
Planning your trip
It only takes an hour to drive from one end of the park to the other, but Strader recommends setting aside at least two days to tour the four sections of the park and more for adding one of the world-class activities like rafting, rock climbing, or hiking.
The best place to stay depends on taste and itinerary. Beckley is central to both ends of the park and is the largest town in the area, with great dining options and the best selection of hotels and motels. It’s also home to the Exhibition Coal Mine, where visitors can ride real mine cars into the shafts of a retired mine and learn about the region’s coal history.
For camping and cabin rentals, the smaller towns and rural areas are better. Rafting companies are mostly based out of the Fayetteville area, and are home to many other adrenaline-pumping adventures. The southern area of the park around Hinton has the easiest access to the river for swimming and fishing. In between, there are many small communities along the edges of the park, as well as cottages and cabins to rent in the forest, and campgrounds near the river. They feel remote as they’re closer to the quieter parts of the park.
Wherever you make your base, the park is mostly accessed along scenic backroads. Highway 20 provides a stunning introduction from the south, with birds-eye views of the New River that swoop down to run right beside the river into Hinton. Full of revived character buildings and boutique shops, it’s worth a walk around the village before following Highway 26 north. It’s one of the only roads in the park at river level. But Sandstone Falls is the reason to go. A boardwalk trail wanders past unique river-side ecosystems and crosses a couple islands to an up-close views of the falls, where the river tumbles 25 feet, marking the shift from placid stream to roaring rapids.
New River Gorge highlights
South of Beckley, the park begins at Hinton. Full of revived character buildings and boutique shops, the charming riverside village is worth a walk-around before heading north along Highway 20—the only road in the park at river level, providing easy access to fishing, swimming, and spectacular Sandstone Falls. A boardwalk trail wanders past unique riparian ecosystems and crosses a couple islands to an up-close views of the falls, where the river tumbles 25-feet, marking the shift from placid stream to roaring rapids.
Heading north from here, several roads dip in and out of the park—but “the best way to see the forest and gorge is on foot or by raft,” advises Chelsea Bricker, from Adventures on the Gorge, another outfitter and resort serving park visitors. “The New River Gorge is known for its rafting, but I think the hiking is underrated,” Bricker adds.
Warm water, huge waves, dozens of rapids and dependable flows make the New River one of the best rafting destinations in the country. There are two main river sections. The Upper is more relaxed and family friendly—perfect for a first whitewater experience. The Lower is world-famous for its big, challenging rapids and epic scenery. For six weeks in September and October, on the nearby Gauley River, scheduled dam releases create some of the most challenging rafting in the country.
As far as hiking possibilities, more than 100 miles of trails weave through the park and some of the old rail lines are accessible on bikes. They range from easy to hard, forest walks to cliff-top viewpoints. Bricker’s favorite is Glade Creek, which follows a pretty stream to a beautiful waterfall.
The Gorge’s sandstone cliffs also attract climbers from around the world. There are at least 1,400 climbing routes in the region, including some of the nation’s hardest climbs.
Both ACE and Adventures on the Gorge offer guided rock climbing, along with rafting and several other trips. They both offer a range of accommodation, from camping to luxury cottages. Adrenaline seekers won’t even have to leave these properties.
Adventure on the Gorge has its own zip line system that culminates in aptly-named, 3,150-foot Adrenaline—one of the longest and fastest zip lines in North America. ACE’s property extends from the river to mountaintops, furnished with its own lake, waterpark, and a zipline tour with views of the national park.
“There really is the full gamut of things to do here,” says ACE’s Mansfield—and not just on the river. Mountain biking is growing fast, with two main networks and new trails under construction. Summersville Lake is the area’s best kept secret, adds Mansfield. Its blue water lined with cliffs “makes for a great place to go for a swim or SUP.”
Ultimately, what makes the New River Gorge so special is more than the sum of its parts, says Visit Southern West Virginia’s Strader. There’s the local culture, including regionally inspired food, drinks, and crafts. There’s the small town feel and friendly vibe. But what she hears the most from new visitors is that it was even more beautiful than they were expecting.
“The New River Gorge isn’t that far from Cincinnati or Washington, but people are always amazed at how lush and green it is,” she says. “It’s such a special place.”
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