The New River Gorge may be best known for its world-class whitewater rafting, rock climbing and all of the other adventure activities it offers, but it’s the lush Appalachian forest that makes this place so magical.
The New River Gorge National River encompasses more than 70,000 acres of land along one of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River. This hardwood forest is ecologically diverse, rich in cultural and natural history and packed full of recreational opportunities.
In this post, you’ll find all the information you need to experience nature’s majesty in the New River Gorge. Once you get here, you’ll truly understand why West Virginia is referred to as almost heaven.
Self-Guided Nature Activities in the New River Gorge
There are plenty of opportunities for group and guided activities in this area but experiencing nature at your own pace is always a treat. Here’s a list of our favorite ways to engage in the Gorge.
The creeks and rivers that run through the New River Gorge create an abundances of breathtaking waterfalls – from the 60-foot tall Cathedral Falls in Gauley Bridge to the 1,500-foot wide Sandstone Falls near Hinton.
We highly recommend West Virginia Waterfalls: The New River Gorge by Ed Rehbein and Randall Sanger. We provide a copy of this gorgeous book in all our vacation rentals at Lafayette Flats because it gives our guests a great overview this area’s most scenic waterfalls with beautiful photos, and maps and directions to each.
While the National Park Service expects visitors to obey the “leave no trace – take nothing and leave nothing” creed while visiting the New River Gorge National River, there are other locations in the area where foraging is welcomed. The Fayetteville Visitors Center offers several foraging events every year at Arrowhead Bike Farm and there is a pick-it-yourself blueberry farm in Mount Hope.
The New River Gorge has many quiet, beautiful trails where you can practice Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese art of connecting with nature with all your senses during slow contemplative walks in the woods. In fact, we lead a Shinrin-Yoku experience each summer during Fayetteville’s Wild Weekend.
But you don’t need us to reap the emotional and physical benefits of forest bathing. Check out Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing and Bryan Simon’s Hiking and Biking in the New River Gorge: A Trail Users Guide for trail suggestions.
The New River Gorge provides challenging but rewarding terrain for serious trail runners as well as more moderate trails for those who seek a less strenuous workout. To see the most highly recommended running trails in this area, and avoid those that might be too challenging for you, visit the TrailRunProject.com.
New River Gorge Scenic Drive
The National Park Service has charted out a three-hour scenic drive encircling the heart of the New River Gorge National River. Both visitors’ centers – Canyon Rim near Fayetteville and Sandstone in the southern area of the park – are stops on this 83-mile journey and are well worth a stop for their educational displays, gift shops, sustainable architecture and well-maintained facilities.
Go snorkeling in the crystal-clear water of Summersville Lake (sometimes called “The Little Bahamas of the East” by SCUBA enthusiasts) or take a dip in the secluded swimming hole below Glade Creek Falls. There are also calm stretches on the New River where you can hop in an cool off on a hot day.
New River Gorge Hiking Areas
By far, our favorite way to experience nature is by hiking and the New River Gorge offers over 100 miles of well-maintained trails. When we explore, we use Bryan Simon’s “Hiking and Biking in the New River Gorge: A Trail Users Guide“. It contains so much great information about the hundreds of miles of trail in this beautiful part of West Virginia.
Trailheads for all 12 are within minutes of downtown Fayetteville. A few are even accessible from Fayetteville Town Park, including one of our go-to mushroom viewing trails, Park Loop Trail.
Another notorious trail in the Fayetteville area is the Kaymoor Miner’s Trail. It’s only ½ miles long, but it goes straight down 821 stairs from an old mine entrance to the New River. Getting back up is the hard part!
7 trails that allow you to explore the remains of an old coal-mining town. This road to this area is currently closed due to poor road access caused by a hill slip, but it is accessible on foot via the Headhouse Trail.
When the National Park Service acquired the land that is now the New River Gorge National River, they left in place many remnants of the coal mining operations that once dominated these mountains.
There is no better place to see the past come alive than in the old town of Nuttallburg. The headhouse, conveyor, tipple and coke ovens are still standing, and the Park Service has created educational markers, maps and walking trails throughout the long-abandoned area.
Thurmond/Stone Cliff/Cunard Area
6 trails that take you either along the New River or provide beautiful views from above the once-bustling railroad town of Thurmond.
One of our favorite trails in this area is the Southside Trail. This seven-mile stretch from Cunard to Thurmond runs alongside the New River and provides ephemeral natural wonders with every season. The variety of wildflowers in April and May is amazing and the diversity of mushrooms in July and August is equally impressive.
Glade Creek Area
4 trails in one of the most secluded sections of the New River Gorge.
The Glade Creek Trail is a rail-road grade trail that follows its namesake, allowing you to explore beautiful waterfalls and exceptional swimming holes. High above the creek, the Kates Plateau Trail and the Polls Plateau Trail offer opportunities for quiet exploration and wildlife viewing.
7 trails with views so spectacular they made up their own West Virginia State Park before the National Park Service incorporated the area into the New River Gorge National River.
It’s easy to spend the day in their area exploring the beautiful rock formations, hiking the woodland trails and enjoying the iconic view of the New River’s horseshoe bend.
5 trails in the south end of the park near Hinton, WV that center around the powerful Sandstone Falls.
The ¼ mile, handicapped accessible Sandstone Falls Boardwalk takes you out into the New River over a series of small islands to get an incredible up-close view of the widest waterfall on the New River.
4 trails around West Virginia’s largest and most beautiful lake.
The crystal-clear water of Summerville Lake is a sight to behold and there is no better place to behold it than from the overlook on Long Point (not be confused with Long Point Trail near Fayetteville).
West Virginia State Parks In and Near the New River Gorge
There are eight state parks within an hour’s drive of Fayetteville, ensuring that you will never run out of amazing nature to explore.
Every park offers trails, picnic areas, vistas and playgrounds but they each have many different activities. From boating and swimming to ziplining and aerial trams, check the West Virginia State Parks website to see a full list of amenities and activities offered at each park.
12 miles from Fayetteville this state park is known for its iconic vista of the New River, aerial tram and jetboat rides.
21 miles from Fayetteville. You have probably seen photos of Babcock’s iconic gristmill that attracts photographers from all over the world, but it also has a diverse trail system and a beautiful lake. A fantastic place to view fall foliage.
23 miles from Fayetteville this state park is rich with civil war era history and features a museum. It also has great trails, some that provide spectacular views of the Gauley River.
36 miles from Fayetteville this state park is most known for its fishing lake and trails.
Twin Falls Resort State Park
44 miles from Fayetteville this state park has a golf course, trails to its namesake waterfalls and a working primitive “pioneer farm” on its premises.
48 miles from Fayetteville this state park is home to picturesque waterfalls and seasonally stocked trout streams.
64 miles from Fayetteville this state park sits along the Bluestone River where it becomes Bluestone Lake. Boating and fishing opportunities are nearby.
Pipestem Resort State Park
66 miles from Fayetteville this state park offers aerial and water adventures, stables and amenities.
Plum Orchard Lake
18 miles from Fayetteville. This 202-acre reservoir near Pax, WV is managed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. We visit this fishing lake every summer to see the abundance of pink and white water lilies in full bloom.
Annual New River Gorge Events that Celebrate Nature
New River Gorge National River Wildflower Weekend
During the last weekend in April, the National Park Service celebrates spring’s arrival by presenting a program of demonstrations, exhibits, guided hikes and activities in the New River Gorge and at surrounding West Virginia State Parks.
This weeklong event in early May features guided birding and nature excursions, world-class speakers and the finest selection of guides for exploring the upland, hardwood forests of the New River Gorge.
Fayetteville’s Wild Weekend
In early August, the Fayetteville’s Visitor’s Center invites you to discover nature by participating in the many activities they have planned for children and adults. From forest bathing to wildlife workshops, there is something wild for everyone.
There are many trail runs in Fayette County throughout the year. The most popular are the following: Gristmill Grinder (13 mi) in April; New River Gorge-ous (13 & 8 mi) in August; Spartan Race (21 & 10 k) in August; Sticks & Stones (15 k) in October; Canary in the Cave (25 k) in November.
Tips for Enjoying Nature in the New River Gorge
We have always appreciated the New River Gorge’s natural beauty and we spend most of our free time hiking, forest bathing and mushroom hunting. But it wasn’t until we completed the West Virginia Master Naturalist Program (a two-year program of classes, fieldwork and volunteer hours) that we were able to articulate what we truly enjoyed and how we enjoyed it.
It is with this experience that we offer you five tips for making your time in the New River Gorge National River more enjoyable.
1. Choose the time of day for our outdoor excursion wisely.
In the fall, winter and spring it’s nice to get outside in the late afternoon. It’s generally a little warmer and the light in the forest is magical as the sun starts to set for the day. But in the middle of summer, late afternoon is always hot and super humid in the forest. You may want to consider hiking in the early morning or early evening.
It’s also helpful to remember that the forest canopy is dense in the New River Gorge. It will protect you from the harsh rays of sunlight and light showers of rain, but the summer canopy will also cause the trails to go dark earlier than you’d expect, especially at the bottom of the Gorge.
2. Be a smarty pants. Seriously, wear smart pants!
For short jaunts in the forest, you don’t need any gear, and you certainly don’t need expensive hiking boots, but you do need to be comfortable to really enjoy the experience.
Good lightweight nylon pants will run you $45-$99. In exchange, they will keep you cool or warm appropriately (it’s magical). They will also protect your legs from the inevitable bug bites and scrapes without incurring any damage to the fabric itself. These pants are much lighter and more comfortable than denim, and the specialized nylon is both soft and quiet. It’s hard to experience a contemplative walk through the woods if your thighs are swooshing with every step.
3. Take time for both micro and macro viewing.
Sometimes we get so focused on the ground, admiring wildflowers or hunting for mushrooms, that we forget to look up and enjoy the beauty surrounding us.
Take time to admire the big stuff too: the sunlight filtering through the tree canopy (called “komorebi” in Japanese), the patterns and natural fractals on the distant hillsides, and the breathtaking view of the old, deep gorge.
4. Make it a mission.
When the seasons change, and especially when we travel to new areas, we almost always have a checklist of things we want to see and experience. This generates anticipation and makes our adventures feel a bit like a scavenger hunt.
You certainly don’t need a reason to experience nature, but sometimes it makes it more fun! Here are a few seasonal suggestions for the organisms of interest in the New River Gorge.
Winter – frozen waterfall, teaberries, old-growth trees
Spring – lady slipper orchid, peregrine falcon, morel mushrooms
Summer – ghost pipes, blooming rhododendron, red fox
Fall – sugar maple foliage, chicken-of-the-woods mushroom, liverwort
5. Listen for water.
Not only is the sound of naturally flowing water soothing, but it’s also very alluring. When you are in the forest and you hear the call of water, answer by following it to the source. Discovering rivers, streams, creeks and springs can be very satisfying on a primal level.
If you are lucky enough to come upon a waterfall, let yourself enjoy the positives effects it will have on your mind and body.
Waterfalls release negative ions: oxygen atoms with extra negatively charged electrons. They are believed to increase serotonin levels which helps alleviate depression and stress. Negative ions also give us a little boost of energy.
Fuel Your Exploration: Planning a Picnic or a Feast
Several of the State Parks have restaurants and grocery shopping for picnic items is possible in Summersville, Fayetteville, Oak Hill, Beckley and Hinton. But if after a full day of exploring you want to experience some of the delicious food Fayetteville is known for, we’ve got just what you need.
We’ve compiled all the information for Fayetteville’s restaurants into one helpful flier – location, contact info and hours, special diet offerings, alcohol availability, our favorite entrees and more – so you can make the most satisfying decision.
Get your Fayetteville Food Guide and additional New River Gorge insider info by signing up for our email list.