by Melissa Martin
When John Denver penned his famous lyrics about country roads and mountain vistas in “Almost heaven, West Virginia,” there’s a good chance he was referring to the sights and splendor of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in Glen Jean in West Virginia.
Located between Beckley and Fayettville in the southwestern corner of the state, the 70,000-acre landscape has long been considered a secret playground. That is, until it received its official designation as the nation’s 63rd national park in December 2020.
“In 2021, we saw more than 1.6 million visitors,” Dave Bieri, district supervisor for New River Gorge National Park and Preserve said, noting the uptick accounted for a 60% increase from the previous year’s visitor total.
With its breathtaking views, scenic waterfalls and one of the oldest rivers in North America, it’s easy to see why. Just a day’s drive for half the U.S. population and roughly five hours from Northeast Ohio, the New River Gorge is the only place in the nation outside of Alaska that has the designation of being both a national park and nature preserve.
Thanks to the 53-mile-long New River, which has carved a system of canyons that are the longest and deepest in the eastern U.S., New River Gorge has a reputation of being an adventure-lover’s paradise. It is one of the nation’s most popular rock-climbing areas, featuring more than 1,400 established routes, and home to commercial outfitters that conduct rafting, kayaking and other river trips from April through October every year. Bieri noted the park’s Canyon Rim region offers some of the greatest white water rafting in the world, including Class 4 and Class 5 rapids.
The park also boasts more than 100 miles of hiking trails of various skill levels. Whether the trails are easy or more strenuous, Bieri said most lead to “magnificent views of the gorge and the winding river almost 900 feet below.”
Biking trails are just as popular in the New River Gorge National Park, as there is a 12-mile network of trails that has been constructed exclusively for mountain biking, according to Bieri. Wider, more graded bike trails also run alongside the area’s old rail trails with dozens of outfitters available to rent bicycles for the day or even the week.
“With the array of activities and scenic attractions in the area, it’s safe to say visitors are only limited by the amount of time they have to spend here,” he said.
Places to see
While New River Gorge National Park and Preserve cater to outdoor adventure lovers, the park is just as suitable for those in search of some good, old-fashioned relaxation and reflection. As the New River is estimated to be the second-oldest river in the world, a wide variety of plants and animals make the park their home. There are also many historic sites in and around the preserve that help tell the story of those who have called the area home for generations.
One of the first sights visitors encounter as they enter the park is the New River Gorge Bridge, which has a reputation of its own as one of America’s most photographed bridges, spanning 3,030 feet across and 876 feet over the river below. The bridge happens to be the longest steel span in the western hemisphere and the third highest in the U.S.
To get a true feel for the area, Bieri said visitors can travel the 100-year-old Fayette Station Road which features hairpin turns winding down through the gorge and across a narrow bridge before ascending up the gorge’s other side. Along the way, spectators get view panoramic vistas of the river and the gorge.
There are almost 50 New River Gorge communities that are now considered ghost towns after coal mining operations moved out of the area. Among those towns is Nuttleburg, a once prosperous mining town that offers guests a glimpse of what is considered the largest intact coal mining complex remaining in the nation.
Equally as popular to visitors, Bieri said, is the nearby town of Thurman, an old railway community which has been preserved from its heyday. Though its coal-fueled, steam-powered trains are now a thing of the past, several modern trains still pass through the depot daily, Bieri said.
If the area’s history isn’t compelling, there’s a good chance that the national park’s scenery will be. Bieri said Grandview is the one overlook all visitors to the area should see. Towering 1,400 feet above multiple bends in New River, spectators can take an easy walk to see into the heart of the gorge, including seven miles of its watershed on a clear day.
Also on the list of not-to-be-missed sights, he said, is Sandstone Falls, the national park’s largest waterfall, which extends more than 1,500 feet wide and drops 10 to 25 feet over large rock formations. The journey to view the falls requires some driving time, but the route takes motorists along two of the park’s most scenic roads, Route 20 and River Road, the park’s only riverside drive. Both feature overlooks, historic sites, natural areas, trails and river access points, Bieri said.
The cities of Hinton, Fayetteville and Beckley offer overnight accommodations, including hotels, cabins and bed and breakfasts. Bieri said there are also dozens of private campgrounds and state park campgrounds nearby or guests can stay at the national park’s primitive campgrounds, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis for now. Park officials, he added, are looking to unveil a new reservation system in the spring of 2023. ∞