Did you just give that title a double-take? It may be because you aren’t used to rivers flowing north; not many do. But the New River does, so head south from Fayetteville to explore the upper section of the New River Gorge. You’ll find a very different landscape upriver.
Immediately, you’ll see a much wider, less turbulent waterway and broader bottomlands. In addition to creating a unique ecosystem for plants and animals, these strikingly different physical features have allowed for different human endeavors throughout the years. In the south, you’ll find old farms along the river, not the coal camp remnants at the bottom of the steep cliffs of the north.
Since this southern portion of the national park is only about an hour from Fayetteville, we often recommend a day trip to our guests at Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals. Below is the itinerary we created for exploring the southern/upper New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Sandstone Visitor Center
Off exit 139 of I-64, you’ll find the gateway to the southern portion of the New River Gorge: The Sandstone Visitor Center. This sustainably designed building boasts native plant landscaping, a Monarch Butterfly waystation, and energy conservation elements. Inside you’ll find beautiful, informational, and interactive displays about the New River watershed.
Here you can take advantage of the clean restroom facilities and book/gift shop and grab a free map that will help you navigate the rest of your trip. Please note: Sandstone Visitor Center is only open Saturday & Sunday from January 1 – May 1. Check the NPS website when planning your visit.
Sandstone Falls & Brooks Falls Overlooks
After leaving the visitors center, head south on WV-20 and travel 3.4 miles to the Sandstone Falls Overlook where you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the widest waterfall in the New River Gorge. Jump back in your car and travel south another 1.8 miles to the Brooks Falls Scenic Overlook. From here you can see Brooks Falls and Brooks Island, the largest island in the New River Gorge National Park.
Camp Brookside Environmental Education Center was originally constructed in 1947 as a residential summer camp for the children of Union Carbide workers, the National Park Service renovated the facilities around 2016. It’s now (pre-pandemic) used for public programming and private rentals.
The river-facing section is home to a unique ecosystem: The Appalachian Riverside Flatrock Community. This ecosystem is found in only a few places along high-energy Appalachian rivers. It’s a result of centuries of intermittent flooding that stripped away soil from the flat, hard sandstone. This harsh environment ensures that only the hardiest plants survive.
Off the small public parking area outside of the fenced facility, you’ll find a trailhead. This very short trail is maintained as fisherman’s access in partnership with the WV Department of National Resources. We only recommend this trail to folks with sure footing, and we discourage families with small children or dogs from visiting. It would be very easy to disrupt this delicate landscape and even easier to fall into the river. The exceptionally active water in this area could swiftly carry anyone away.
Hop back on WV-20 heading south to the small town of Hinton, WV. Nestled between the New River and the Greenbrier River, this once-booming railroad town has a lovely historic district with beautiful views of both rivers. Stop at the visitors center to grab a self-guided walking tour pamphlet and then stroll to Lucky Rivers Café, Chestnut Revival or Market on Courthouse Square for lunch.
With a full belly, cross the New River and travel 8 miles north on New River Road to one of the main attractions of New River Gorge National Park: Sandstone Falls. This 1500-foot-wide waterfall is the largest on the New River.
The National Park Service has done a great job creating easy access to these falls through a series of bridges, boardwalks and trails that connect many small islands. Take time to walk the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk (.48 mile total) and Island Loop Trail (.62 mile total).
Historic Subsistence Farms
Travel back the way you came on New River Road (south) for 6 miles to the Richmond Hamilton Farm. Look for the break in the stone wall and the small NPS parking lot. This farm is one of two examples of old subsistence farms the National Park Service acquired in the 1980s.
This particular farm 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 second farm owned by the NPS: Trump Lilly Farm. The road to Trump Lilly Farm is a bit tricky. Check the NPS website or call the visitors center when planning your visit.
Trails Along the Way
There are two national park trails along this route that we highly recommend.
Gwinn Ridge Trail is a fairly difficult 3-mile loop. This quiet, lesser-traveled trail is a great place to spot wildlife. You can fit this hiking opportunity into your itinerary after visiting the Sandstone Falls Overlook. From WV-20, turn left onto Brooks Mountain Road (.3 miles past the overlook). At 1.5 miles keep left toward Three Rivers Avian Center. Continue for one mile. There is a gravel parking lot on the left.
Big Branch Trail is a difficult 2-mile loop. This trail boasts a mountain stream, waterfalls, and remnants of a 1930s homestead. You can fit this hiking opportunity into your itinerary after Sandstone Falls. From New River Road (3 miles from Sandstone Falls), pull into the Brooks Falls parking lot. The trailhead is across the road.
We recommend this trail guide for detailed information about all the trails in the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.
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