West Virginia's New River Gorge was recently named the United States’ 63rd national park. “The New,” as it is commonly referred to, has been a national river since 1978, and it was upgraded to national park and preserve status on December 27, 2020.
West Virginia has a national historic site (Harper’s Ferry), a national scenic river (Bluestone National Scenic River), and a national recreation area (Gauley River), but the New River Gorge in Fayetteville is its first full-fledged national park.
Already a popular destination for outdoor lovers and adventurers, the New River Gorge sees almost one million visitors every year. Now, with its new designation shining the light on all this West Virginia national park has to offer, such as hiking, rafting, and camping, more people are sure to consider a visit.
National parks have been extremely popular in 2020, and travel experts predict this trend will continue through 2021. Now might be the perfect time to plan an upcoming trip to visit America’s newest national park, New River Gorge.
Where Is New River Gorge National Park And Preserve
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is located in a once-remote area of West Virginia in the southeast corner of the state, just north of Fayetteville in Fayette County, West Virginia.
“The New” is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It has carved a beautiful canyon out of the Appalachian Mountains. It reaches approximately 1,600 feet at the deepest point and exposes layers of 300-million-year-old rock.
The nearest major cities to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve are Roanoke, Virginia; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
How To Get To New River Gorge
Driving is the best option to get to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve on U.S. Route 19. With a car, you can drive to various destinations within and around the park.
America’s newest national park is easily reached from interstates 64, 77, and 79, and from U.S. Route 60 (Midland Trail). By car, it is approximately 30 minutes north of Beckley, 70 minutes south of Interstate 79, and 70 minutes east of Charleston.
The closest major airport is in Charleston, West Virginia. Some flights are also available at nearby Beckley. If flying to those airports, you would most likely need to rent a car or take a taxi to the park.
By train, Amtrak runs from Charleston to Thurmond, and then you would need to either drive or take a taxi to the New River Gorge area.
How Big Is New River Gorge
The newest national park includes the area surrounding the gorge, as well as preserved land for hunting. It is considered a combo park, since it consists of 73,000 acres with about 7,000 acres devoted to the park area and 65,000 additional acres classified as a natural preserve for hunting. There are only four other “combo parks” in the nation, and they are all in Alaska.
Things To Do In New River Gorge
There are numerous things to do at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. You are only limited by the amount of time you have to spend in this “Almost Heaven” West Virginia park. “The New” boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the United States and also offers excellent climbing and hiking trails.
Whether you are excited about outdoor adventures or just like to enjoy a picnic, a scenic drive, or watching the river roll by, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has much to offer.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular activities:
Fifty-three miles of free-flowing white water make “The New” a popular destination for whitewater rafting enthusiasts. The upper (southern) section of the river consists of some long pools and relatively easy rapids up to Class III. The lower (northern) section of the river, known as “the Lower Gorge,‘ showcases some Class IV and V rapids, considered to be some of the best rapids in the state.
There are numerous river access points. April through October is the ideal time for rafting.
You can run the river on your own or book a guided trip. Trips vary in length and offer various degrees of difficulty, from peaceful, relaxing floats and fishing trips to exhilarating whitewater excursions.
New River Gorge has numerous hiking trails at all levels of difficulty. All offer spectacular scenic views. Depending on the trail, you will see waterfalls, overlooks, and historic sites.
Scenic views and over thirteen miles of mountain bike trails make New River Gorge one of the most popular eastern U.S. destinations for mountain biking trips. Guided tours are available.
If you are an adventurous traveler, rock climbing might be something you will enjoy. With over 1,600 established climbing routes, New River Gorge is one of the country's most popular rock-climbing areas. The cliffs are a very hard sandstone and range in height from 30 to 120 feet. Be aware that most of the routes are for advanced and expert climbers.
Anglers can enjoy an excellent fishing experience at New River Gorge.
Numerous river access points are available within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. There is a wheelchair-accessible fishing area in a catch-and-release area at Glade Creek Campground. Public parking is available next to the campground entrance.
Spring and fall are the best times of the year to fish the New River.
Many scenic drives are available throughout the area. Some drives take you along the river, others along the rim for panoramic views of the gorge. One road trip not to miss is the New River Gorge Scenic Drive (PDF). This three-hour, 83-mile trip will take you around the river. You get to see a bit of everything: the park, the river, the gorge, and more.
One day of the year, the state's largest festival is held on the New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, pedestrians are invited to walk on and across the bridge. The celebration includes vendors, food stands, entertainment, and bridge jumpers.
Bridge Walk Tour
If you can't visit during Bridge Day, then book a Bridge Walk tour to walk the mile-long catwalk running under the bridge. You have views of the gorge and the New River from over 850 feet above. The tour lasts approximately two and a half hours and moves at a leisurely pace. Plenty of time and opportunity to take those scenic photos.
Note: The New River has powerful currents, rocky banks, and sudden drop-offs. Swimming is NOT recommended.
What Will Change
New River Gorge’s classification as a national park will add national significance and make it an even bigger tourist destination. Whitewater tourism is expected to increase, as are parking options at popular trailheads. It’s also possible that adjacent land will be purchased and added to the preserve.
To accommodate hunting and fishing for future generations, the new park doubles as a national preserve.
What Will Stay The Same
There will not be massive changes. Since the river was already a national river, it was serviced and maintained by the U.S. National Park System.
All the available activities before becoming West Virginia's first national park will continue to be available. Some activities may be expanded upon in the future.
Lodging Options In And Around New River Gorge
There are several primitive camping areas available within the national park. Other more developed campsites are available in the surrounding areas.
If you enjoy more space, consider a cabin or vacation rental, there are a number available.
Best Time To Visit
Areas of the park are open year-round. Spring through fall are the best times to visit, when the majority of activities are available. The warmest month of July also has the most precipitation.
Editor’s Note: Find out why TravelAwaits writer Jill Dutton includes New River Gorge in her roundup of three bucket-list national parks to visit this winter.
Regardless of when you travel, the weather can be unpredictable and change quickly in the Appalachian Mountains. Be prepared for storms and cooler temperatures.
National parks across the county will likely see another banner year in 2021. New River Gorge’s national park and preserve designation should excite mature travelers who are fans of outdoor adventures and scenic views. Consider adding New River Gorge National Park and Preserve to your bucket list.