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Enjoying Nature in the New River Gorge National Park

January 18, 2023

Filed in: New River Gorge

A beautifully sunlit trail in the Appalachian forest that surrounds the New River Gorge National Park.
The Appalachian forest that surrounds the New River Gorge is one of the world’s richest in biodiversity. The variety and variability of life in these old mountains create a magical environment that is easily accessible. 

The New River Gorge National Park may be best known for its world-class whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and adventure activities but it’s the lush Appalachian forest that makes this place so enchanting.

This hardwood forest is ecologically diverse, rich in cultural and natural history, and packed full of recreational opportunities. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses more than 70,000 acres of this forest along one of the oldest rivers in the world, the New River.

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 self-guided nature activities in the Gorge.

Waterfall Chasing

The creeks and rivers that run through the New River Gorge create an abundance of breathtaking waterfalls – from the 60-foot tall Cathedral Falls in Gauley Bridge to the 1,500-foot wide Sandstone Falls near Hinton.

To guide your exploration, we highly recommend West Virginia Waterfalls: The New River Gorge by Ed Rehbein and Randall Sanger. We have a copy of this gorgeous book in all our vacation rentals at Lafayette Flats. It provides our guests with a great overview of this area’s most scenic waterfalls. The book contains beautiful photos, directions, and a handy map.

Cathedral Falls in mid-summer with great water flow surrounded by verdant flora.
The tallest waterfall in the New River Gorge is Cathedral Falls in Gauley Bridge, WV.

Wildflower, Mushroom, and Wildlife Viewing

April and May are the best months to view spring wildflowers, and Southside Trail is known for its amazing variety.  In September and October, Longpoint Trail has a great show of fall wildflowers including fields of goldenrod.

Mushrooms are plentiful throughout the New River Gorge but can be found in abundance during late summer after a good rain. The Fern Creek area of Endless Wall Trail boasts many unusual species of fungus. The Town Loop Trail at Fayetteville Town Park also has a surprising amount of mushroom varieties.

The best wildlife viewing is possible right after dawn and right before dusk in the more remote areas of the New River Gorge like Glade Creek and Nuttallburg.

Foraging

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 welcome. The Fayetteville Visitors Center offers several foraging events every year at Arrowhead Bike Farm and a pick-it-yourself blueberry farm is open seasonally in Mount Hope.

Shinrin-Yoku/Forest Bathing

The New River Gorge National Park has many quiet, beautiful trails where you can practice Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese art of using all your senses to connect with nature 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 the book Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.

A lovely purple mushroom on the forest floor wet with dew.
Take time to admire all the tiny treasures on the forest floor like this purple Cortinarius mushroom.

Trail Running

The New River Gorge provides a challenging terrain for serious trail runners. But moderate trails are also available for those seeking a less strenuous workout. To see the most highly recommended running trails in this area visit TrailRunProject.com.

Fayette Station Road

Before the New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, the only way to the other side of the river was to drive down windy Fayette Station Road to the bottom of the Gorge and then back up again. This 100-year-old road is still in service today and we highly recommend driving it. Download the National Park Service’s Fayette Station Road Audio Tour for an extra special experience.

This 45-minute trip offers breathtaking views of the forest from every elevation, and you can stop at several different trailheads along the way. Once you reach the bottom of the Gorge park and get out. You can put your toes in the river and watch rafters, kayakers and even standup paddleboarders come through Fayette Station rapids.

Swimming

There are many opportunities to enjoy the fresh water in the New River Gorge. You can snorkel in crystal-clear Summersville Lake (sometimes called “The Little Bahamas of the East” by SCUBA enthusiasts). Enjoy a dip in a secluded swimming hole like the one below Glade Creek Falls. Or find a calm stretch of the river where you can cool your feet on a hot day. But please take note: even the small rapids along the New and Gauley Rivers can be dangerous.  The currents well above the rapids are very strong and can pull you into the whitewater.

Amy & Shawn preparing for the Miner's Trail in the New River Gorge National Forest.
We easily made it down the 800 steps of the Miner’s Trail near Fayetteville, but then we had to go back up!

Hiking in the New River Gorge

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 all the trails in this beautiful part of West Virginia including how to find the trailheads and important points of interest.

The New River Gorge contains seven defined hiking areas. Each offers unique ways to explore the natural, cultural and historical components of this area.

1. Fayetteville Area

Twelve trails including the most iconic in the New River Gorge: Long Point Trail and Endless Wall Trail. Trailheads for all 12 are within minutes of downtown Fayetteville. A few are even accessible from Fayetteville Town Park, including our go-to mushroom viewing trail, Park Loop Trail.

2. Nuttallburg Area

Seven trails that allow you to explore the remains of a historic coal-mining complex. Remnants of the Nuttallburg community have been preserved by the National Park Service with markers, maps, and walking trails. The headhouse, conveyor, tipple and coke ovens are still standing in this long-abandoned area that is slowly but surely being reclaimed by nature.

3. Thurmond/Stone Cliff/Cunard Area

Six trails that take you along the New River and/or provide beautiful views of 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 endless ephemeral wonders. The variety of wildflowers in April and May is amazing and the diversity of mushrooms in July and August is equally impressive.

A footbridge crossing Glade Creek along the Glade Creek Rail Trail.
A footbridge that crosses Glade Creek along one of our favorite rail trails in the New River Gorge.

4. Glade Creek Area

Four trails in one of the most secluded areas 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.

5. Grandview Area

Seven trails with views so spectacular they once comprised their own West Virginia State Park.  The National Park Service incorporated the area into the New River Gorge National River in 1990. 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.

6. Sandstone/Brooks Area

Five trails in the southern section of the New River Gorge 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 for an incredible up-close view of the widest waterfall on the New River.

7. Summersville Lake

Four 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 Long Point overlook.

The best way to truly experience the New River Gorge National Park is to take the trails less traveled.  By avoiding the most popular hiking areas – and other humans – you are much more likely to see wildlife, find undisturbed flora, and experience the natural rhythms of the forest.

A beautiful rock cliff surrounded by the crystal blue waters of Summerville Lake.
You can hike to the end of this cliff in the center of Summersville Lake on the Long Point Trail.

Nearby West Virginia State Parks

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 unique activities. From boating and swimming to ziplining and aerial trams, check the West Virginia State Parks website to see a full list of amenities offered at each park.

Hawk’s Nest

12 miles from Fayetteville. This state park is known for its iconic vista of the New River, aerial tram and jetboat rides.

Babcock

21 miles from Fayetteville. A fantastic place to view fall foliage, Babcock has a diverse trail system and a beautiful lake.

Carnifex Ferry

23 miles from Fayetteville. This state park and museum are rich in civil war era history. It also has great trails and a spectacular view of the Gauley River.

A waterfall below the Old Grist Mill at Babcock State Park in autumn. The surrounding foliage is vibrant shades of yellow, orange, red and green.
The Old Grist Mill at Babcock State Park

Little Beaver

36 miles from Fayetteville. A stocked fishing lake is the most popular attraction at this state park.

Twin Falls Resort State Park

44 miles from Fayetteville. This state park has a golf course, twin waterfalls, and a working pioneer farm.

Camp Creek

48 miles from Fayetteville. Beautiful and abundant stocked trout streams fill this state park.

Bluestone

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. Packed with amenities, this state park offers aerial and water adventures, stables, golf, and so much more.

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.

Thousands of pink water lillies in bloom at Plum Orchard Lake.
Plum Orchard lake in full bloom!

Annual New River Gorge Events that Celebrate Nature

New River Gorge National Park Wildflower Weekend

During the last weekend in April, the National Park Service celebrates spring’s arrival with a program of demonstrations, exhibits, guided hikes, and activities in the New River Gorge and surrounding WV State Parks.

New River Gorge Birding and Nature Festival

This weeklong event in early May features guided birding and nature excursions, world-class speakers, and the finest selection of guides for exploring the species-rich hardwood forests of the New River Gorge.

Trail Runs

There are many trail runs in Fayette County throughout the year. The most popular are 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; and Rim to River 100 ultramarathon in November.

Atop the sandstone cliffs of the New River Gorge looking down at the New River.
Looking down at the New River from the Endless Wall Trail.

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 Park and Preserve more enjoyable.

1. CHOOSE THE TIME OF DAY 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

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 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 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, 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 positive effects it has 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 which is always needed while adventuring.

Click here to sign up for our New River Gorge Photo Location Guide - a must-have resource for all visitors to the New River Gorge National Park.

Craving more insider info for your New River Gorge getaway? Learn about adventure in the New River Gorge and the small-town charm of Fayetteville.

Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, WV Master Naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals.

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