Few people truly understand what makes the New River Gorge one of the most special places on Earth.
Some folks are simply amazed by the deep cut of the river and the beauty of the gorge itself. Some are surprised by the whitewater and beguiled by the world-class rafting. Others are impressed by the engineering required to build the record-setting New River Gorge Bridge.
But the vast majority of people – heck, the vast majority of visitors to the New River Gorge National Park – never really understand the MANY natural and cultural components that make this place something extraordinary. Something worth preserving.
This blog post is our attempt to provide you with a broad overview of the fascinating history of the New River Gorge. At the end of each section, we have provided a trail suggestion so you can hike through the history yourself. We’ve also provided links to additional resources so you can explore more deeply the subjects that excite you.
The New River
The centerpiece of this magical place is the New River. But don’t let its name fool you, it’s one of the oldest rivers in the world.
Many scientists believe the New River is the one remaining part of the ancient Teays River which existed before the Appalachian Mountains were even formed.
According to the National Park Service website, “It is possible that the New River is older than ANY mountain range in the entire world.” The reason they suspect this is fascinating.
You see, most rivers flow at the base of mountains. They are an accumulation of the water – the streams – that run off the peaks. But scientists know that the New River once flowed at the TOP of the Appalachian Mountains. This route implies that the New River rose WITH the mountains millions of years ago. It has been slowly but surely eroding a channel through the mountains ever since.
Near Fayetteville, the river has created a channel that’s 900-1,500 feet deep. Just imagine, each foot took thousands of years to create.
When you’re deep in the Gorge, it’s easy to experience the energy still coming from the New River. You can see the whitewater, hear the roar of the rapids, and feel the spray of rushing water.
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the New River is the Southside Trail. This 7-mile (one-way) easy hike offers up-close views of the river, Surprise Rapids, and access to Red Ash Island. Reference and Additional Resource
The Appalachian Mountains
Did you know that the Appalachian Mountains are older than the Rockies, the Himalayas, and the Alps? Hundreds of millions of years ago, tectonic plates all over the world started colliding, and the supercontinent of Pangaea was created. The series of collisions and resulting friction pushed the land up creating the Appalachian Mountains.
Much later, Pangaea began to pull apart. What is now North America separated from what is now Europe and Africa and the mountain building stopped.
Erosion slowly wore away the extremely tall peaks of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Sediment filled the valleys and an almost flat plane remained.
Then, about 20-60 million years ago, the whole region got uplifted again due to more shifting of the tectonic plates. This uplift – the creation of the Appalachian Plateau – rejuvenated the rivers and streams. The water started cutting through the rock at the same rate that the rock was rising.
Still to this day, the New River continues to create deep cuts into the mountain plateau. The cuts reveal millions of years of compressed rock, sandstone, shale, and coal.
One of the layers of sedimentary rock most visible in the New River Gorge near Fayetteville is Nuttall sandstone. Nuttall sandstone is 98% quartz, making it dense, exceptionally strong, and erosion resistant.
Cruising around Fayetteville, it’s easy to forget that you are sitting on top of an ancient mountain range. But take a hike in the New River Gorge and it becomes evident: You are IN the mountains, quite literally. Above and below, you can see and feel rock that is millions of years old.
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the Appalachian Mountains is the Endless Wall Trail. This 2.4-mile easy loop trail offers beautiful mountain vistas, accessible cliffs, and ladders to additional rock ledges. Reference and Additional Resource
The Forests of the New River Gorge
The mixed mesophytic forest of the New River Gorge is one of the most biodiverse in the world. There are two big reasons why.
First, the unusual north-south flow of the river creates a lone pass through the mountains. Plants and animals that would have a hard time moving over the mountains can migrate by water or land through the New River corridor. In fact, the corridor allowed northern species to escape the glaciers of the ice age by moving south. It may also allow southern species to escape to the north as the earth heats up.
Second, there is typically a 1,000 feet difference in elevation between the river and the top of the plateau. Temperature-wise 1,000 feet in elevation is equivalent to 300 miles of latitude. This means that the rim of the Gorge has a climate that is more like northern Pennsylvania. Stand on the rim of the Gorge in April and you can see this phenomenon – the forest around you will still be leafless while the riverbank below is in full bloom.
Within the park, you can find over 2,000 different plant and fungi species, 65 species of mammals (from black bears to chipmunks), hundreds of native and migratory birds, amphibians, reptiles, aquatic animals, and fish. All this life gathers in what biologists call forest communities – sub-sections of the greater forest that are loosely defined by topography, soil type, moisture levels, elevation, the direction of slope, and the presence of specific indicator species of plants.
The forest communities present in the New River Gorge include the following:
- Sunny, dryer forests on the southern-facing slopes heavy in oak and hickory trees
- Cool, damp forests on the northern-facing slopes heavy in beech, maple, and eastern hemlock
- River bottoms and flood plains heavy with sycamore and river birch trees
- Ridgelines with rocky soil heavy in pines and oaks
- Cove forests in the sheltered valleys that support rich soil, tulip poplars and basswood trees
- The unique Appalachian Riverside Flatrock Community with a rare group of plants that struggle to grow by the river on flat sandstone that is constantly being stripped of soil.
It was the abundance of life that resulted from these conditions that drew American Indians to this area to live and hunt 10,000 years ago. Ancestors of the people we know as the Cherokee and Shawnee lived off the land until the mid-1600s when the Europeans arrived.
When you visit the New River Gorge forest, stop, and sit quietly for a few minutes. You will get a greater sense of life all around. Sit a little longer and let your imagination go. Can you see the creatures and people from the past?
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the lush forest is the Butcher’s Branch Trail. This .8-mile (one-way) moderate trail offers rhododendron thickets, pine groves, deciduous forest, and a creek crossing. Reference and Additional Resource
Farming the New River Lowlands
In the southern part of the New River Gorge, near Hinton, WV, the river, mountains, and forest are quite different than in the deepest areas near Fayetteville. Instead of steep cliffs and a narrow river, you’ll find flat bottomland surrounding a wide river.
These bottomlands allowed for easier farming, hunting, and transportation. Several American Indian archaeological sites have been studied in this area. But make no mistake, even in the southern section living in the New River Gorge was never easy.
During the colonization of the United States, most pioneers in search of flat suitable farmland passed through West Virginia, heading west. But some hardy souls stayed and established subsistence farms, growing just enough to meet the needs of their families, unable to grow cash crops.
Most folks don’t know it, but in the 1980s/90s the National Park Service acquired two old subsistence farms you can explore.
On the bottomland near Sandstone Falls, sits the Richmond-Hamilton Farm. This land was granted to William Richmond in 1796 as part of the Revolutionary War veteran land grant program. Today you can walk around the farmhouse, barns, and outbuildings tucked up again the mountain overlooking the now wild fields.
High on the side of the nearby mountain, sits the Trump Lilly Farm. Established around 1880, the beautifully maintained remnants of this farm including the main house, spring house, meat shed, and granary are ready for your visit.
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the southern lowlands is the Big Branch Trail. This 2-mile strenuous loop trail offers ruins of an old hillside farmstead near a mountain stream with great views of Brooks Falls and the southern lowlands below. Reference and Additional Resource
Coal Mining in the New River Gorge
Around the same time the Trump Lilly Farm was getting established in the southern section of the New River Gorge, coal mining was starting in the northern section.
In 1870 an English-born miner named John Nuttall started buying land in the New River Gorge with the intention of coal mining. When the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad completed its track through the Gorge in 1873, the coal mine and community of Nuttallburg was established.
Some of the most sought-after bituminous coal on the planet was found in Nuttallburg.
Bituminous coal is relatively soft coal of good quality that lends itself to coking. Coking is the process of heating the coal in the absence of oxygen to remove volatile components, leaving a hard, strong material primarily used to manufacture steel.
In Nuttallburg and throughout the New River Gorge, 1-4 feet tall coal seams were found hundreds of feet above the river on the mountainside. The seams were accessed through drift mines which have entrances that are the same level as the coal seam, and tunnel into the mountain horizontally.
A diverse workforce of many races and nationalities worked together in the Nuttallburg mine, but African Americans, who according to the 1900 US census made up 55% of the miners living in New River Gorge mining towns, were segregated above ground and forced to live in different places.
During the 1950s life started to change in coal country. Mechanization increased and miners started losing their jobs. Ultimately, production at Nuttallburg ended in 1958. The Nuttall family transferred ownership of the land to the National Park Service in 1998, and now it’s one of the most intact examples of an early coal mining complex in the United States.
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the rich coal mining history is the Nuttallburg Trail System. These 7 trails with interpretive signage ranging from easy to strenuous offer exploration of an old coal mining complex (headhouse, conveyor, rail trail, tipple, and lost community homesites). Reference and Additional Resource
The New River Gorge Bridge
After coal mining ended in the 1960s, the community that remained in the northern section of the New River Gorge was separated from the southern communities by the Gorge itself.
Getting from one side of the New River to the other involved driving down a steep, narrow road to the bottom of the gorge, crossing a small bridge, and traveling back up the other side. You can still drive Fayette Station Road today and we highly recommend the adventure!
But in 1977, what once took 40 minutes began to take less than one minute! The construction of the New River Gorge Bridge that started in 1974 was complete.
Michael Baker Company designed the bridge and U.S. Steel constructed it of Cor-ten steel. Cor-ten is designed to rust as it weathers. The protective rust eliminated the need for painting and the deep orange-red color blends in with the natural environment.
The engineers and ironworks that constructed the bridge faced major obstacles because of the enormous size of the bridge and its remote location. Even getting the heavy steel beams (too heavy for trucks) to the site was a challenge that required the construction of a cable-way system from the trains to the bridge. And just imagine the innovation required to tie back the arch pieces during construction before it could support itself.
The New River Gorge Bridge is 3,030 feet long and the arch measures 1,700 feet. At the time of its construction, it was the longest steel arch bridge in the world and remains the longest single-span bridge in the western hemisphere.
The bridge sits 876 feet above the New River below; it’s the third-highest bridge in the United States. To celebrate this engineering marvel, Bridge Day is held every October. The event features food, fun, and hundreds of skilled BASE jumpers hopping over the side of the Bridge with parachutes on their backs.
Our New River Gorge hiking recommendation for best experiencing the New River Gorge Bridge is the Long Point Trail. This 1.6-mile (one-way) easy trail offers the best view of the New River Gorge Bridge. Reference and Additional Resource
Preserving the Natural & Cultural History of the New River Gorge National River
One year after the New River Gorge Bridge was completed, in 1978, the New River Gorge National River was established by the National Park Service. Legislation passed by Congress on December 21, 2020 designated the New River Gorge the 63rd national park in the United States! It is now known as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Today the park comprises 53 miles of the New River and about 74,000 acres of Appalachian forest.
In the New River Gorge, the National Park Service has done a great job achieving their often-misunderstood mission which is to preserve the natural AND cultural resources of our country for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations:
The natural resources of this area are enjoyed by many. Whitewater rafters and kayakers paddle the ancient river. Climbers flock to the area for the strong Nuttall sandstone of the pre-historic mountains. And hikers and mountain bikers explore the lush forests on over 100 miles of trails.
The cultural resources are interpreted well. The stories of subsistence farming in the south are harrowing. The display of coal mining remnants slowly being reclaimed by nature is fascinating. And the New River Gorge Bridge is one of the great engineering marvels of our time.
This is a place of amazing beauty with a rich supply of natural resources and a deep cultural history. Everything from colliding continents to extractive industry has shaped the New River Gorge into what we experience today. But don’t take our word for it, step onto a New River Gorge hiking trail and see for yourself.
Need a helpful guide for all the trails listed in this post plus a few bonus recommendations? Get your Hiking Through History Guide here.
Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, WV Master Naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals.