By: Steven Sorrell
I have seen photos of the New River Gorge Bridge for years. It was a frequent stop for a friend of mine as he drove back and forth between family and work. I remember always being in awe and added it to my bucket list. I’m no stranger to the New River itself, though that was mostly tubing and camping further up the river. While the New River may have been a national river starting in 1978, it wasn’t until recently (this year, 2021) that the National Park Service made it into a National Park and Preserve. There are only five National Parks that have the designation of Park and Preserve, the other four are located in Alaska, making New River Gorge a unique find in the lower 48. The New River itself has rich history, as it is one of the oldest rivers in the world and is even more unique in that it flows from south to north, starting in North Carolina and heading into West Virginia.
We were somewhat ill prepared for the vastness of the park, not realizing there was so many attractions and activities. I blame this on the lack of research prior due to my excitement of visiting the park. I had made the assumption that the majority of the activities were centralized around the bridge. The park is approximately 70,000 acres, which runs along both sides of the river and is 53 miles long requiring a few day trips to visit some of the visitor centers and sites. In addition to hiking, the park offers many other outdoor activities, like mountain biking, camping, whitewater rafting, climbing, and more. There are also plenty of businesses situated around the region that offer water parks, adventure parks, and more.
Due to covid, the park campsites were limited and at the time of planning only the first come first serve sites were available. Since this was a 5 ½ hour drive for us, we decided it would not be prudent to approach camp in this manner, as we would be furious to make that trip only to find none available. Based on a friend’s recommendation, we ended up camping at Rifrafters Campsite, which was very close to the bridge. Another highly recommended site was at ACE adventure resort which is jam packed with activities, so much that we felt it better to stay elsewhere as to not tempt our boys for just staying at the resort the whole weekend.
The park being stretched out meant that there would be multiple visitor centers. Each visitor center has a main attraction along with some other activities to keep you busy. We are looking forward to visiting again, as we were only able to accomplish a small sampling of what this park has to offer.
Canyon Rim is considered to be the main visitor center for the park and is the closest to the New River Gorge Bridge. There are a couple of hikes from this center, but the majority of them reside in the hills around the bridge and the Fayetteville area, offering a variety of angles for photo opportunities and viewing. Some of which feature access to mines, while others take you along the edge of cliffs and provide unrestricted scenic views.
The Canyon Rim Boardwalk provides quick and easy access to view the bridge. We ended up lengthening the trail a bit, but it was still less than three quarters of a mile and the majority of it was stairs to bring you down about 118 feet to a viewing platform.
Another trail that starts off at the visitor center is the Catwalk Trail, this doesn’t necessarily show up on some of the trail maps and it’s part of the Catwalk Tour experience. We were hoping to take the tour, as it brings you along the underbelly of the bridge. While you are tethered and harnessed to the surrounding structure, we were disappointed to find out that you must be eight years old to enjoy this activity.
The Endless Wall is apparently one of the more popular trails. Due to our lack of time, we weren’t able to visit this trail. Local rangers recommended getting there early, as parking can be an issue and vehicles on the side of the road are towed frequently. The trail runs along a rock outcropping that runs along the side of the river, which looks like an endless wall, and of course provides great views of the river.
The Grandview section has a simple visitor center, a playground, and restrooms. There are several hikes in this area for a variety of skill levels, and it is a must if you are limited on hiking in the park. With promises of great views and overlooks, we decided to take Grandview Rim Trail to Turkey Spur Rock. The beginning of the trail starts at Grandview which provides a great viewpoint to one of the bends of the river. The there and back trail is about four miles long and an elevation gain of approximately 436 feet, most of which are twisting stairs at Turkey Spur Rock. The trail winds along the ridge line of the mountain providing multiple overlooks with awesome views of the snaking river.
Grandview has several other trails we weren’t able to accomplish ourselves, that maybe worth checking out if you have the time. In close proximity to Grandview is the Tunnel Trail, which is a short trail with rock outcroppings and tunnels to investigate (though they were closed when we were there). The Castle Rock Trail runs parallel to the Grandview trail and can be combined to make a loop. It sits below the overhanging cliffs and is considered strenuous, so may be difficult due to the uneven footing and running along the edge to steep drop-offs.
Sandstone Falls is the southernmost visitor center in the park. This was one of the nicer centers we stopped in, with the exterior made of sandstone and nice open interior with ample historical and sustainable information provided at multiple stations inside. We visited the visitor center in hopes that we would be able to see the falls, somewhat of our disbelief that the visitor center would be far away from the falls themselves. It would require another 45 minute drive south to cross a bridge and then back north again. We were told that there is a faster route, though it’s very steep for vehicles and most locals won’t even go that way.
Seeing photos and hearing about the falls, we were pretty disappointed that we didn’t have the time to explore this location. The trail to the falls themselves is relatively short and may be best to speak with a ranger about the hike. Seems there are some steep sections and I do recall someone noting that you can get very close to the falls based on the path you take.
If you like trains, this visitor center is for you. The depot was one of the main stopping points for trains during the coal boom and still stands, though being used less frequently now. It is located in the center of the park and provides several hikes in the area.
Babcock State Park in Clifftop, West Virginia
Though not a part of the national park, Babcock State park is a definite stop while driving through the area. The Glade Creek Grist Mill is pretty spectacular. The western portion of the state park is along the border of the national park and is about 20 miles south of the New River Gorge Bridge, so worth pulling in while driving around to other attractions. There are a few trails throughout this park as well, offering a variety of views.
While we missed some of what the New River Gorge and region have to offer, we still enjoyed the trip and are already looking forward to the next time we can visit. We will definitely make sure to plan ahead and allow for more time. What makes this even more exciting is knowing that this is now a national park and preserve and will be here for many years to come, so we have plenty of time to explore America’s latest national park.
About the Author: Steven Sorrell
Steven Sorrell is an avid outdoorsman and has been for as long as he can remember. He enjoys spending time with family and friends in various activities, such as hiking, camping, traveling, or offroading/overlanding. He uses blogging as a way to document these experiences and to share with others who may be interested as well.