Like many people, we used to schedule most of our outdoor activities during the more temperate times of the year. Visions of verdant landscapes, blooming wildflowers and fruiting mushrooms are what most often lure us into the woods, and those things only happen during spring, summer and fall. A few years ago, though, we challenged ourselves to take at least one serious hike each month of the year and much to our surprise, we found that winter hikes were sometimes more enjoyable.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve takes on a completely different look in the winter. Sometimes it is like exploring a different place. Once the spectacular show of fall foliage is over, new vistas appear and take center stage. The bare trees and withering understory allow hikers to see things that often remain hidden through three seasons, like waterfalls, stunning rock formations, and views that go on for miles and miles.
We’ve also found some advantages of winter hiking that are less obvious: Strenuous hikes can be more tolerable when you don’t have to factor in dealing with overheating, and insect repellent is almost never needed from December through February. It’s also a great way to avoid cabin fever. Lastly, since far fewer people think of hiking as a wintertime pursuit, solitude is in far greater supply, even on the most popular trails.
Here are some of our favorite trails for wintertime hiking in the New River Gorge, and the reasons why we think you should experience them this winter.
Our Favorite National Park Trails in Winter
The Kaymoor Trail has a great deal to offer wintertime hikers. Near the beginning of the trail, there are two delightful waterfalls that are usually running at their highest volume in the winter. Just below the trail, you can hear the thunderous Wolf Creek Falls and a smaller, unnamed waterfall, is right beside the trail close enough for you to reach out your hands into the flow. Just after passing the waterfalls, the New River Gorge Bridge appears and – without foliage to obstruct any part of the view – it seems impossibly close. If you travel this trail in the summertime, you will hear the traffic but only catch rare glimpses of the behemoth structure.
After the trail bends around the end of Long Point (some 150 yards below the popular Long Point overlook) the Endless Wall comes into view and you can suddenly appreciate why it’s called “Endless.” With the view unobstructed by foliage, the imposing wall of Nuttall sandstone stretches for miles before you and around the next bend of the river as you wander along. Kaymoor Trail is mostly level and runs for over 8 miles, but go as far as you like. We recommend the 2.5 mile (5 mile round trip) section from the trailhead on Fayette Station Road to Craig Branch Falls.
Beautiful any time of the year, this popular trail takes on a new dimension when sightlines are unobscured by foliage. Looking across the gorge from the many overlooks along the trail, many formerly hidden details on the south side of the Gorge can be clearly seen: the waterfalls of both Craig Branch and Butchers Branch come out of the shadows, as well as the ruins of the ghost town of Kaymoor 900 feet below. With no leaves on the dense stands of Sycamore trees along the river, you can see passing trains and kayakers braving the chilly water as they run the Double Z, Kaymoor and Miller’s Folly rapids.
Two major trails run along the New River and take on a different character in wintertime. The Southside Trail (stretching 5 miles from Cunard to Thurmond) and the Stonecliff Trail (2.9 miles, out and back) both provide opportunities for you to experience the bottom of the Gorge and get up-close views of the river. In the winter, the river is in view for nearly the entire distance along both of these trails, increasing the likelihood of spotting wildlife, including Bald Eagles. Archaeological points of interest are also easier to spot, such as the remnants of towns and industry that once populated the depths of the Gorge.
Great WV State Park Trails Nearby
Those are just some of the National Park trails waiting for you to explore this winter. Don’t overlook our fantastic nearby state park trails like:
The Patterson Trail in Carnifex Ferry State Park. Just 25 minutes from Fayetteville, this trail meanders around the top of the Gauley River gorge and has numerous overlooks.
The Narrow Gauge Rail Trail, Manns Creek Gorge, or the Skyline Trail at Babcock State Park (also just 25 minutes from Fayetteville). Like those in the National Park, the vistas on these trails are far more expansive in the winter because they go through dense deciduous forests.
Hawks Nest Rail Trail (Hawks Nest State Park) runs alongside the last two miles of Mill Creek as it rushes toward its meeting with the New River. Wintertime hikers are treated to high water flow over the 25’ high Mill Creek Falls and icicle-covered cliffs all along the trail.
Precautions for Wintertime Hiking in New River Gorge
Winter hiking also has some drawbacks, but nothing that isn’t manageable with good planning. Here are a few common-sense examples:
- Keep an eye on the forecast to be aware of any incoming weather changes and always carry proper gear in case you need to adapt. A waterproof jacket can be a literal lifesaver if you get caught in a rainstorm during cold weather. Hypothermia is not to be taken lightly.
- Snow and ice mean slower and more deliberate hiking. Allow enough time to complete a trail, or set a time for turning back that is reasonable for a slow pace. In the summer we tend to average about 2-3 miles per hour, but in snow that might fall to less than 1 MPH.
- Cell phone service is available at some point on most New River Gorge trails but we always take our handy trail guide with us.
- Take enough water! When it’s cool, you might not feel like you need to carry much water, but cold air is dry air, so you actually lose just as many fluids when it’s cold outside.
If you enjoyed this post you might also like Top 5 Rail Trails in New River Gorge National Park.
Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, WV Master Naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals.