New River Gorge might become your favorite National Park.
At the halfway point along Fayette Station Road—an eight-mile, century-old, predominately one-way stretch of hairpin turns that I hereby declare one of the best scenic drives in America—sits a through truss bridge of grey steel and brown wood. It’s down here, in the shadow of the towering New River Gorge Bridge, where Roger Wilson of Adventures on the Gorge Resort and his wife come with a table, chairs, and dinner. Their al fresco meal on the footpath is remarkably romantic, made even more so by the setting. They’re inside one of America’s most remarkable places, a place that, until the second COVID-19 stimulus, you probably had never heard of.
In addition to direct payments to Americans and funding for a myriad of financial hardships, December’s emergency stimulus did a few other surprising things. It expanded D.C.’s diverse museum offerings by setting money aside to build the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum and National Museum of the American Latino but, most surprisingly, the same bill that put $600 in bank accounts also created a new National Park. That’s right, tucked into 2,124 pages of legislation was language transforming New River Gorge, West Virginia’s mecca of outdoor activity, from a recreational area with a National River into a full-fledged National Park and Preserve.
It’s America’s 63rd National Park and, according to park ranger Dave Bieri, unmatched.
Located a stone’s throw from Fayetteville at its northern tip, but hundreds of miles from any big city, New River Gorge is more a destination than a day trip, which is good since you’ll need a few to enjoy even half of what there is to do.
The park’s 70,000+ acres are fragmented patches of jungle, with one of the oldest rivers in the world carving out its twisted spine. There are 100 miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, class one through five whitewater rafting, more than 1,000 climbs up Nuttall sandstone rock, a varying number of waterfalls and cascades (depending on rainfall), and one postcard-perfect arch bridge.
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Intrigued by the newest gem in the NPS crown, and one of America’s best river towns snuggled up against it, my wife and I threw our hiking boots into the boot of a silver hybrid RAV4 and made an equally gray, and very wet, seven-hour drive from Philadelphia to spend some of our stimulus money discovering New River Gorge.
We posted up at Hemlock Haven for two nights in a cabin just 13 minutes from the park’s Canyon Rim Visitor Center and its short boardwalk to a gorge and bridge overlook. This is the primo money shot, with an optional 178-step walk down (and, achingly, back up) for even more dramatic views. Thirteen minutes in the opposite direction is the well-photographed Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park. In short, we found the perfect spot from which to explore everything the area offers.
Like West Virginia itself, New River Gorge regulars have a separate but together attitude, says Wilson. This independent streak is evident in the number of trails and activities that can be enjoyed in solitude throughout the sprawling park. Wilson also says what makes it unique is the level of engagement between the park and its visitors. There are vistas abound but, to truly experience New River Gorge, you must get in it, be that on a mountain bike, with boots on the ground, or from a raft on the river which, Wilson tells me, reaches 82 degrees thanks to lakes in the South getting the water toasty before flowing north.
Back at the visitor’s center, Bieri adds that the region’s rich history also makes this a National Park like no other. He points out that the area was buzzing in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. Mining towns fueling the industrial revolution dotted every half-mile, as did one of the most prosperous rail towns of its time, Thurmond. That timber outpost, sitting mid-park, still stands and, Bieri says, still functions as an Amtrak station along routes heading to and from Chicago, New York City, and D.C. although, without a rental car office in sight, you best have a friend nearby to pick you up! Thurmond’s current population of just six shows that nature now rules the roost, with second and third-generation trees rising up, in no danger of ever being chopped down again. But the vivid history of America’s early days lives on and, together with the bevy of recreation, wildlife, and stellar views make New River Gorge a National Park for all.
The first thing my wife and I did at the park was find a trail. We picked Endless Wall, a popular haunt for avid hikers and families alike because the trailhead is near the visitor’s center, it’s rated easy/moderate, the elevation change over the 2.5 miles isn’t dramatic, and the view from Diamond Point is breathtaking. If you’re lucky, you may even catch rock climbers in action right below you.
The second thing we did was soak our tired, 40 and 45-year-old bones in our cabin’s outdoor hot tub. Because we’ve been stuck inside on the sofa for most of this COVID winter, our ankles and knees let us know they didn’t appreciate the sudden burst of physical activity.
To refuel after a long day of driving and hiking, we popped into Pies & Pints, sharing a half Mediterranean shrimp, half mozzarella caprese pizza with pints of craft root beer and a local pineapple cider. Because we’d burned our fair share of calories earlier, we hungrily said yes to our server Crystal’s peanut butter chocolate terrine temptation. Naturally, it proved the perfect nightcap to a perfect day in nature.
Before driving Fayette Station Road one last time, we devoured a veggie omelet and French toast croissants at Cathedral Cafe, a longstanding Fayetteville staple that still brings people together under a common belief that we all need delicious food and a sense of belonging.
On the drive home, I reflected on the times I got lost in the fog of Acadia, burnt in the unmerciful heat hiking Bryce Canyon, and soaked “going to the sun” in Glacier. It occurred to me that National Parks, while undoubtedly glorious, can be less so when conditions aren’t ideal. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, however, offers itself up as an all-weather destination that won’t cost you a penny to visit (there are many entry points and no entrance fees), whether bursting with autumn color, blanketed in pristine white snow, teeming with green, or, as we experienced it, moist and with wisps of dramatic fog cinematically rolling into the gorge and enveloping the bridge.
New River Gorge is the newest National Park and, dare I say, one of the best.
Thankful to see improvements in the National Park system despite all the negative reports and environment attacks rendered against those that actually made this possible.