Our Visit to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve:
It was mid-afternoon on an October day, with a bit of crispness in the fall air, as we drove up to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Our legs were tight due to the long drive. They were desperate for a stretch. We were soon rewarded with not only a nice stretch, but our eyes feasted on the beautiful scenery.
We were very excited to visit this newest addition to the National Parks. Is it worthy of the National Park designation? The short answer is Yes!
The main attractions of New River Gorge are hiking, whitewater rafting, and coal history. The scenery is fantastic all around.
New River Gorge National Park is 53 miles long, generally along the banks of the New River. It takes a couple of hours to drive the length of the park along pretty country roads.
To get oriented, think of this park in three sections:
- Canyon Rim area in the north
- Grandview area in the middle
- Sandstone Falls area in the south
There is a visitor center at each section, but the main visitor center is at Canyon Rim.
For a summary of the top attractions and suggested plan for visiting, see the Guide to New River Gorge below.
The Canyon Rim area features the iconic bridge most often associated with New River Gorge, and a couple of old mines for history.
We stretched our legs at the Canyon Rim Boardwalk trail at the Canyon Rim visitor center. There were really three parts to this trail, all of them short. They gave us a view of the bridge from the height of the roadway, a view a bit below the roadway, and a view about a quarter of the way to the river. The lowest viewpoint required going down (and coming back up) 178 steps.
The top section and the middle section were accessible. All three sections gave great views of the bridge and the gorge, but this is not the best view of the bridge or the gorge. Read on for the place with the best views.
However, this was a fantastic first view of the park.
These trails were perfect for stretching our legs. We did our park business (collecting the stamps and talking to the ranger about what to do) and headed for our hotel near the town of Hinton, all the way on the other side of the park.
Canyon Rim Area
The Canyon Rim area is on the northern end of the park, near the very quint town of Fayetteville. The main sights at Canyon Rim are the bridge, class 3 and 4 rapids for whitewater rafting, and a historic mine.
New River Gorge Bridge
The New River Gorge Bridge was built in 1977 and reduced travel time across the river from 40 minutes to less than one minute. Before the bridge, you had to drive down a winding road to the bottom of the gorge to cross a bridge before driving all the way back up.
This drive is now a one way scenic drive.
This bridge was the largest single span bridge for 26 years. The roadway spans 3030 feet across and 876 feet above the New River. The arch is 1700 feet wide. It is still the longest single span bridge in the United States and the third highest.
To put that into perspective, it is taller than the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty stacked on top of each other.
Canyon Rim Visitor has good views of the bridge, but for the best view, you have to hike the Long Point Trail. The trail goes through some woodlands and ends at a rock outcropping that gives you a frontal view of the bridge. This is the best view of the bridge in the park.
We hiked this 3.2 mile out and back trail in the mid-afternoon after it rained all day. It was level until the last bit just before the end. The view was breathtaking. This is a must do trail for your visit but be sure to get there early since the parking lot fills up quickly.
If you are looking for some rattling and excitement, you can go on the Bridge Walk. Walk along the catwalk (with a guide) under the deck of the bridge, high above the New River.
Yes, there are railings for safety, and you are tethered to a steel cable. However, it is loud and terrifying if you are afraid of heights.
For a walk along the cliff of the gorge, and an excellent view of the gorge, hike the Endless Wall trail to Diamond Point and return the same way. While you can make this into a loop trail, the last portion of the loop is along a road, not very pleasant. You won’t miss much by doubling back instead of going around the loop.
Ready for some excitement? This region is known for excellent whitewater rafting. The river around Canyon Rim has class 3 and 4 rapids. Fayetteville is an excellent launch point to go on the river with a guide to experience the river.
Each year, on the third weekend in October, is Bridge Day. On this day, daredevils can jump off of the bridge and parachute their way down to the river.
We timed our visit to see Bridge Day, but it was cancelled in 2021 due to Covid. Hopefully, we can experience Bridge Day in the future.
Nuttallburg thrived with the arrival of the railroad in 1873. Henry Ford leased the coal mines in an effort to provide coal to his auto plants. The park service restored the town after taking ownership in 1998.
As of October, 2021, the road that leads to the town is closed due to a washout. Access to the town is available through the steep Conveyor Trail that starts from the top of the gorge and drops 1000 feet to the river in only 1.6 miles.
About 1/3 of the way from the top of the trail is the “headhouse”. This is well worth the visit. The headhouse is where the coal from the mine was transferred onto a conveyor belt that transported the coal to the rail terminal. It’s relatively well preserved and really gives you a sense of how things were done.
There are a couple of old mines in the park you can visit and the Kaymoor Mine is one of them. The Kaymoor Miner’s trail is only one mile each way, but it descends steeply, including 821 steps. While short, it is streneous.
Your reward is an old coal mine that was one of the most productive. At its peak, this mine employed more than 800 miners.
The Grandview Area is in the middle of the park, relatively close to Beckley, the largest town in the area. It features the best view of the park, and a historic railroad town.
The Grandview visitor center area has fantastic trails with a beautiful view of a horseshoe bend of the river. The Main Overlook is a short stroll from the parking lot that is accessible.
The view at the Main Overlook is the best in the park. The panoramic view of a horseshoe bend in the New River is breathtaking. This is a must visit sight in New River Gorge National Park, not to be missed.
The Grandview Rim Trail runs along the rim of the gorge, from Grandview to Turkey Spur. It’s a 3 mile out and back hike in relatively flat terrain with many great overlooks along the way. The first half mile is flat and smooth with some of the best views of the gorge.
Turkey Spur, at the end of the Grandview Rim trail, has a platform on top of a rock that has the second best view of the park. Simply mesmerizing.
Want to enjoy the view at Turkey Spur but don’t want to hike the 3 miles? No problem! There is a road that goes right to Turkey Spur with a small parking lot. To get the best view, you’ll still have to climb a few steps to the top of the rock.
New River Gorge and Preserve became the 63rd National Park in the United States in 2020. Before that, it was a National River.
The Tunnel Trail is a short, flat, half mile trail that goes to a baseball field the miners used for recreation, and loops back next to rock outcroppings with the trail under the rock. It’s a very pleasant stroll through the woods and under some rocks. This short trail is worth the half hour it takes to do.
In between Grandview and Canyon Rim is the historic district of Thurmond. Thurmond is a historic railroad town, and still has an Amtrak stop today. It served as an important stop for the steam locomotives because it was the only stop within 74 miles that can service them.
The trains were vital to getting the coal from the mine to the market and Thurmond rose and fell with the steam engine. When locomotives switched to diesel, the need went away to service the steam locomotives and the town was abandoned.
The rail depot serves as a visitor center, with well preserved town buildings and the coal tower. It’s a great place to visit, especially if you are a rail or history buff.
Near the Thurmond historic district is the Rend Trail. This trail follows an old railroad spur and because it was an old railroad spur, the hills are gradual. There are numerous bridges on this trail. As of October, 2021, one of the bridges was declared unsafe so the trail is closed about 2 miles from the Thurmond trailhead.
The Rend Trail is nice and wide, gradual, and well maintained. It’s a wonderful walk in the woods, with the historic town of Thurmond below.
Sandstone Falls Area
At the southern end of the park is the Sandstone Falls area. The Sandstone Visitor Center is just off of Interstate 64, but it is actually 20 road miles from the actual Sandstone Falls, even though its very close by river miles.
Route 20 is a scenic drive from the Sandstone Visitor Center towards the quint town of Hinton. Be sure to stop at the Sandstone Falls Overlook, which provides an excellent birds-eye view of Sandstone Falls. Another overlook for Brooks Falls provides the same birds-eye view of Brooks Island, a nesting site for bald eagles.
Hinton is the southern gateway to the park, with a railroad museum. After crossing the New River at Hinton, follow the River Road north. You’ll first come across Brooks Falls, which is a class 3 rapid, with a nice roadside overlook, a trail, and a picnic area.
River Road ends at Sandstone Falls. It is not particularly tall, but it is very wide, spanning most of the width of the river. The main trail here is the Sandstone Boardwalk, a short and easy walk to a viewpoint for the Sandstone Falls. While not very “grand” or “majestic”, Sandstone Falls has a mesmerizing feel to it. It looks a lot like Brooks Falls – not the one at New River Gorge, but the one at Katmai National Park in Alaska, where the brown bears catch leaping salmon.
Well, no leaping salmon here but the falls is just as beautiful.
At Sandstone Falls, there is the Island Loop Trail. This trail, combined with the Sandstone Boardwalk is only one mile and it’s flat. The Island Loop trail meanders around the woods, then parallels the New River before merging with the Sandstone Boardwalk.
New River Gorge is the 63rd National Park in the United States. It’s the newest as of October 2021. It was a National River before it became a National Park in 2020.
New River Gorge is actually a National Park and Preserve. The Preserve part of the park allows certain activities normally not allowed in a National Park such as hunting. It was a way to preserve activities like hunting that was already allowed when it was a National River.
Impressions of New River Gorge National Park:
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve belongs as a flagship National Park in the United States. The scenery is beautiful. The hiking is excellent. The history is compelling. The whitewater is world class. This is a National Park well worth visiting.
New River Gorge National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to New River Gorge National Park:
Top Attractions at New River Gorge National Park:
- Grandview Main Overlook
- Whitewater Rafting
- Long Point Trail
- Canyon Rim trails
- Turkey Spur
- Sandstone Falls
- Nuttallburg Mine and the Headhouse Trail
One Day Visit Plan:
- Center your visit at Fayetteville
- Go with a guide for whitewater rafting for 1/2 day
- Hike the Long Point Trail
- Walk around the short trails at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center
Three Day Visit Plan:
- Follow the One Day plan
- On the second day, visit the Grandview Main Overlook. Hike the Canyon Rim Trail to Turkey Spur. Hike the Headhouse Trail
- On the third day, visit the Sandstone Falls and the Thurmond Historic District
Practical Info for Visiting New River National Park:
- Stay in Fayetteville if whitewater rafting is your main activity. It’s on the northern end of the park
- Beckley is the largest nearby city, near the middle of the park, with lots of the typical suburban stores and restaurants
- Hinton is in the southern end of the park. It’s quiet, charming, and relaxing. It is a bit out of the way
- There is very limited camping inside the National Park, but the state parks nearby have good camping facilities to accommodate all types of camping
- For truly challenging whitewater rafting, visit the Gauley National Recreation Area, with class 5 and above rapids
- Bridge Day is usually the third Saturday in October, when people are allowed to jump off of the New River Gorge bridge. (when it was not cancelled due to the pandemic)
New River Gorge National Park Facts:
- Size: The National Park has 7,021 acres. The National Preserve has 65,165 acres. Combined, they rank 45th.
- Visitors: 1,054,374 in 2020, ranked 19th. 2021 saw 1,682,720 visitors, a new record and a dramatic increase after the National Park designation.
- Peak Month in 2021: 288,827 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2021: 33,856 visitors in January
- Entrance Fee: None.
Oct 15 – 17, 2021