Recently a host of national travel publications have included the New River Gorge National Park in their lists of the best parks to visit for fall foliage. We couldn’t agree more! With over 150 species of deciduous trees, the landscape of the Gorge becomes a tapestry of color in autumn. And because of its 1,200 ft elevation differential, leaf peeping season can be longer here than in many places.
Tip #1 – When to Leaf Peep in New River Gorge National Park
The most often-asked question about fall colors is also the most difficult question to answer: When will colors be at their peak in the New River Gorge? Weather conditions through the spring and summer can impact when leaves begin to change and how long they will remain vibrant. Biologists from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources prepare a forecast each year in August based on the temperature and hydrology of the previous months. Still, a late-summer cold snap or heat wave can radically change the reality. You can see this year’s forecast here.
The bottom line, though, is that most years the New River Gorge hits peak colors between mid-October and very early November. But one thing is consistent every year – it’s best to plan your trip mid-week if possible. Some of the best spots for leaf peeping can get a little crowded on the weekends but are blissfully serene on weekdays.
Tip #2 – Where in the Gorge to Go Leaf Peeping
Even though we can’t predict exactly when the leaves will be at peak color, we can safely say that because of the geography and topography of the Gorge, the window of time to see good color is expanded by the number of different places within this beautiful park you can visit. Since 1,000 feet of elevation is equivalent to about 300 miles in latitude, trees on the plateau surrounding the Gorge often begin to show color far ahead of those at river level. Sometimes this effect is dramatic. Standing at the rim of the gorge, in Grandview, you can look down and see still green foliage along the river and an amazing gradient effect as your eyes move up to the rim where the leaves might be at full peak color.
Key Elevations in New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
Northern Section, Fayetteville (on the plateau)- 1820 ft
Northern Section, Fayette Station (down by the river) – 919 ft
Central Section, Grandview (on the plateau) – 2485 ft
Central Section, Glade Creek (down by the river) – 1250 ft
Southern Section, Hinton (down by the river) – 1463 ft
These dramatic elevation changes also mean that if you aren’t seeing great color yet while hiking in the lower elevations, visit the higher elevations. Of course, the opposite is also true – if leaves are past peak on the trails of the higher elevations, head down closer to the river.
Tip #3 – Exploring the Northern Section Near Fayetteville
One of the great things about the Fayetteville area is that you can move from the top of the plateau to the bottom of the Gorge in about 25 minutes. And since there is a 900 ft elevation change between the two, you can find a colorful trail to hike throughout the leaf peeping season.
On the plateau, we recommend hiking the Burnwood Trail. This area was recently inducted into the Old Growth Forest Network and contains trees that date to the 1600s. Full of oak, hickory, black gum, hemlock, and many other species of trees, this trail will envelop you in fall color as few others can.
Down by the river, we recommend visiting Fayette Station by way of driving scenic Fayette Station Road. This narrow road with tight switchbacks takes you on the old route locals traveled to cross the river before the New River Gorge Bridge was finished in 1977. Make sure to park in the designated lots at the very bottom – Fayette Station – an old railroad stop directly below the big bridge and adjacent to beautiful whitewater rapids.
Tip #4 – Exploring the Central Section Near Grandview
Situated at the highest point in the park, the Grandview area usually sees the first colors of the season, first on the rim and then moving down into the Gorge. Whether hiking on the Grandview Rim Trail for magnificent sweeping vistas of the gorge and mountains beyond or moving through the dense forest on the Big Buck Trail, you will be surrounded by hardwood forests of beech, oak, hickory, maple, linden, and many other hardwood trees, each one with its own color scheme.
As the colors move past their peak on the Grandview plateau, the secluded area where Glade Creek meets the New River will come alive. Over its five miles, Glade Creek Trail passes through a deep and narrow canyon that in addition to evergreen hemlock and rhododendron, is heavily populated by birch, oak, and poplar trees. The effect is made more heady by the beautiful Glade Creek as it tumbles its way to a meeting with the New River, pausing along the way to provide reflecting pools that amplify the colors above.
Tip #5 – Exploring the Southern Section Near Hinton
In contrast to the deep narrow gorge near Fayetteville, the river valley near Hinton is wide and open. This allows for beautiful expansive views of the old Appalachian Mountains. Make sure to visit the widest waterfall on the New River, Sandstone Falls. Viewing its many beautiful faces against a backdrop of fall foliage on mountains beyond is breathtaking.
If you prefer a more challenging fall hike, the nearby Big Branch Trail provides it with a 2-mile loop past waterfalls and old farmstead ruins to a ridge with gorge and river views. Not up to a challenge? Then use this time to make the drive up the mountain to visit the Trump-Lilly Farm. The combination of open fields, edge forests, and nut and fruit trees makes for stunning contrasts of fall colors. Exploring this former subsistence farm, now preserved as part of the National Park, is worth the winding drive up the mountain from Hinton.
Tip #6 – Don’t Overlook Our Beautiful and Nearby State Parks
Glade Creek Gristmill at Babcock State Park (about a 25-minute drive from Fayetteville) is one of West Virginia’s most scenic spots. Photographers come from all over the world each fall to capture the beauty of this scene, so you won’t want to overlook it. From the gristmill, check out the Island in the Sky trail to a gazebo perched on a high cliff for more magnificent views over the treetops. After your Babcock visit, drive east on US Route 60 to the main overlook at Hawks Nest State Park, another of West Virginia’s great vistas.
Tip #7 – Get Out Early for the Best Leaf Peeping
Go as early as you can, because crowds are less likely and the sight of the morning mist rising from the Gorge is not to be missed! This is especially true if you are planning to visit the Endless Wall Trail. At Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals, our fully equipped kitchens can help you get on the road early by providing the opportunity to have breakfast and a few cups of our locally roasted coffee as early as you wish.
Tip #8 – Pack a Lunch
Many of the best leaf peeping sites are perfect for a picnic lunch and most are not convenient to towns where you can procure lunch, so consider using one of our local restaurant’s grab-and-go selections. Swiftwater General Store in Lansing (near Fayetteville) has a lot of great options and is open early so you can grab your provisions and get on the road. If you’re in Hinton, stop by Sandstone General Store and Eatery, and if you’re visiting Grandview, stop by Grandview Country Store & Market.
Tip #9– Bridge Day is on Saturday, Oct. 19
On Bridge Day, Fayetteville becomes the most populous town in West Virginia as hordes of people flock to the New River Gorge Bridge to watch BASE jumpers plummet 900 feet into the gorge. Depending on whether you love crowds or shy away from them, don’t forget to take this day into consideration when you plan your trip. The bridge is closed to vehicular traffic all day, so even if you are not interested in attending the party, it can still restrict your movements.
Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, WV Master Naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals in downtown Fayetteville, WV.