America’s newest national park has received lots of media attention since its designation was announced in January 2021. As long-time New River Gorge enthusiasts, we are thrilled to share our playground with a wider audience and are thankful for the well-deserved media coverage, but we’ve found that many of the stories miss the mark.
It’s understandable, in these days of 24-hour news cycles and ever-increasing demand for content (not to mention travel restrictions due to COVID19), that many stories are researched mainly by perusing the internet. We’ve been pleased that this blog has been used as a source for many national and international stories, but there’s just nothing as important as in-person experience to inform an article.
Since we spend most of our free time enjoying New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, and have for many years, we thought we’d lend our voices to the national narrative and maybe correct some erroneous reporting that we’ve seen in national stories this past year. The fact that we have visited many national parks – from Acadia to Yosemite – only lends to our credibility in reporting.
National Parks Come in Many Shapes, Sizes & Flavors
While national parks have been around for over 150 years, (the oldest being Yellowstone, established in 1872) New River Gorge National Park is a newborn. And like a newborn human, it hasn’t had time to develop. The infrastructure that was in place when it was “just” a national river is now being pressed to handle the increased visitor interest of becoming a national park. This is an inevitable and natural process in which we are very excited to be included.
Mature parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon can create a false expectation of how polished and user-friendly a national park is “supposed” to be. Most national parks we’ve experienced are much more understated. For example, earlier this year we visited Congaree National Park which was established in 2003. We found that some of the best features of the park were far removed from the main visitors center. These places were remote, harder to find, and had yet to be developed with adequate parking and signage, but they were just as interesting as the more accessible areas of the park.
There are many other differences among national parks that often get incorrectly reported. For example, some national parks charge fees for entrance, and some do not (New River Gorge does not). Some parks allow pets on the trails, and some do not (New River Gorge allows leashed dogs on trails). Some parks are centered around certain natural features, and some are more focused on history and culture (New River Gorge is centered around both – one of the oldest rivers in the world and the dying culture of coal mining).
Air Travel to New River Gorge National Park
Looking at a map it might appear that Beckley would be the natural choice of cities to target for air travel to the New River Gorge, but its small airport hosts only a few connecting flights from regional airports, and while it has several chain hotels and restaurants, its sprawl and travel time from the main attractions of the national park makes it a less than ideal choice for national park visitors coming from all over the world.
A better choice if you plan to fly to New River Gorge National Park is Charleston, WV, which is only about an hour’s drive from some of the national park’s best features. Charleston’s Yeager Airport has more flights and more amenities than Beckley and this is a small but very important detail the national media often gets wrong.
Entering the Park
Unlike some national parks, New River Gorge has no main entrance for visitors. There are four visitors centers scattered throughout the park where you can experience different aspects of the New River Gorge. We think you should try to visit them all, but don’t expect any of them to be a portal through which you will pass into the national park.
At the northern end of the park, accessed from U.S. Rt. 19, is the Canyon Rim Visitors Center. Here you’ll find a great exhibit about the people and culture of the New River Gorge in addition to lots of interesting information about the New River Gorge Bridge.
At the other, more southern end of the park is the Sandstone Visitors Center which is located just off Interstate 64. Here you’ll find whimsical and informative displays about the local environment and our human impact on the ecosystem.
There are two other visitors centers that are significantly more remote: Grandview and Thurmond. The Grandview Visitors Center is located just steps away from one of the most breathtaking and oft-photographed overlooks in the park, and Thurmond provides historical interpretation for visitors to a former bustling railroad town in the heart of the gorge.
The Gateway Town
Fayetteville is undoubtedly the gateway town to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Sitting on the rim of the gorge, adjacent to the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge, Fayetteville has direct access to the national park trail system. It is just minutes from the Canyon Rim Visitors Center and many of the park’s best attractions like The Endless Wall Trail, Long Point Trail, Kaymoor and Arrowhead Trail Systems.
You will find that the staff in Fayetteville restaurants and shops (both of which are plentiful in this charming small town) are extremely knowledgeable about the national park and eager to provide advice to visitors on the best places to go and see. This may be one of the many reasons Fayetteville is consistently named on lists of the best outdoor and adventure towns by important publications.
Because of the proximity of the Sandstone Visitors Center to the town of Hinton, many national publications have advocated this town as a gateway to the national park. While we are very hopeful that historic Hinton will soon reawaken as a lively town, its current amenities only lend themselves to a great side trip. Additionally, Hinton is only close to one of the major features of the park, Sandstone Falls. To reach the other popular areas of the park, you would need to drive another 45 minutes or so.
Understanding the Unique Geography & Topography
Because the park is formed by 53 miles of the meandering New River, the boundary is shaped like an elongated amoeba with tentacles that follow tributaries east and west. Additionally, the gorge through which the New River flows can be up to 900 feet deep, and there are many popular hiking areas and adventure activities on BOTH the high plateau and the low river.
This unique geography makes experiencing the entirety of the park a multi-day affair with significant stretches of road travel required between stops. Several main roads, including Interstate 64, pass through the park, but only 7 automobile bridges cross the New River inside the park boundaries, so sometimes driving to the other side of the river is an hour-long journey.
Also, important to note is that driving from one park attraction to another often means leaving the park boundaries and driving through a mix of rural and urban areas. Case in point is the official Scenic Drive that is promoted by the national park on its website. For much of its distance, the scenic drive is not terribly scenic at all, as it requires long stretches of 4 lane driving through the city of Beckley and other commercially developed areas to make the circuit. It’s not that the scenic drive isn’t enjoyable; it is. The stops along the way come together to tell the natural and cultural history of this area. It’s just important to understand what you are getting into before you embark on the journey.
The River Wild: Take Caution
The only way to go directly through the entire length of the park is on the river which is mostly wild and untamed; only people on guided raft trips and experienced whitewater kayakers may take this route.
Much of what we think that national media has gotten wrong involves the inaccurate portrayal of the New River. You should not think of the portion of the New River that runs through the national park as a place for swimming, tubing or casual canoeing.
There are numerous professional outfitters who can take you on a safe guided trip through the gorge on a raft, but unless you are an expert kayaker you should not try to navigate the river on your own. There are stretches of calm water, but dangerous rapids often lurk at the end of these pools. Additionally, fluctuating water levels due to frequent and heavy rainstorms change the river conditions almost daily.
You can enjoy more traditional water activities in plenty of other beautiful places in and around the New River Gorge National Park.
The National Park is Only the Centerpiece of a Spectacular Outdoor Recreation Area
While New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a worthy destination by itself, its proximity to other state and national recreation areas makes it a particularly attractive vacation spot.
Gauley River National Recreation Area and Summersville Lake are both a short drive from the northern end of the park, and just a short drive from the southern end of the park you’ll find Bluestone National Scenic River and Bluestone Lake.
Additionally, two West Virginia State Parks, Babcock and Hawks Nest, are adjacent to the national park and offer their own excellent camping, hiking and fishing opportunities. Numerous other small lakes and state parks add to the overflowing bounty of outdoor opportunity.
Climbing & Hiking Corrections
Of all the activities in which visitors engage in the New River Gorge, rock climbing brings more enthusiastic people here than any other. Long before it was a national park, “The New,” as it is known in the climbing community, was considered one of the top climbing areas in the country with over 1,000 established climbing routes. Whitewater rafting gets the press but climbing is king.
Some stories in the national media have wildly understated the miles of hiking trails in the gorge. We’ve seen numerous stories that state confidently that there are 35 miles of trails in the national park, which is not even close to being correct. According to the national park service, there are over 100 miles in the national park alone, and when you add the miles and miles in the above-mentioned state parks and national recreation areas, there are almost 300 miles of trails.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: We (Shawn & Amy) are native West Virginians, avid hikers and WV Master Naturalists who decided in 2013 to share our love of the New River Gorge with visitors who needed a unique place to stay. That’s when we created Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals in downtown Fayetteville, WV. Now we quite literally make it our business to know everything there is to know about this outdoor wonderland.
Interested in learning more from us about New River Gorge? Here are a few helpful links: