Driving the highways in West Virginia, you don’t really notice just how high up you are in the Appalachian Mountains until you cross a bridge and can’t see all the way down. That’s when you realize its nickname — the Mountain State — makes a lot of sense.
West Virginia, with its forested mountains and fast-moving rivers, provides the perfect backdrop for outdoor adventures: hiking, biking, climbing, rafting, and any other -ing you like to do in nature. The most recognizable spot for such “wild, wonderful” activities is New River Gorge, whose famous bridge is featured on the back of the West Virginia state quarter.
At the end of 2020, West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River was inducted as the 63rd National Park in the US — the state’s first. So, of course we had to go check it out to see how it compared to the other 62. Here’s what you need to know before you go:
Best Things at New River Gorge National Park
Anyone visiting New River Gorge should stop by to see the iconic bridge. It’s the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere at over 3,000 (900 m) feet long, and it’s the third-longest single-arch bridge on Earth. At 876 feet (267 m) tall, the New River Gorge Bridge is also the third-highest bridge in the US and the thirteenth-highest bridge in the whole world.
For the best views of the bridge, stop by the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. There are a few different overlooks and a boardwalk that connects them, leading right from the parking lot out to the edge of the gorge. The little boardwalk trail is pretty, but also busy. And while it’s a good view, there’s not much else to do here besides the visitor center, so you might get bored quickly.
If you’re way more adventurous than me, you can actually walk out among the steel support beams directly underneath the bridge (which is fully operational with cars whizzing above you the whole time), but this Fear Factor experience does cost extra.
For more scenic and relaxing views, make your way over to Grandview, which offers a unique look at a big bend in the New River (much like the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona). It’s an easy drive with an even easier walk, and we found it much less crowded than the bridge area.
If you’ve got the time, there’s a rim trail in Grandview that will take you to Turkey Spur, another nearby high point in the park with overlooks and picnic areas. We were short on time, so we just drove instead. Turkey Spur offers different views down into the gorge, so it’s worth a look while you’re in this area.
Our favorite part of the park ended up being along the Upper New River around Sandstone Falls and Brooks Falls. In this part of New River Gorge, you’re driving right next to the riverbank with mountains reaching up to the sky on either side of you.
There’s a neat little boardwalk trail at Sandstone Falls that winds alongside and crosses over the river, offering peaceful spots to take in the sights and sounds of the rushing water. Brooks Falls has a few good picnic areas too, but no hiking. While not marked on the park map, both areas do have vault toilets (no running water) if you’re planning on spending some time exploring.
Rock climbing is another very popular activity in the park, as is mountain biking, but we didn’t end up doing either one this time. Instead, we stuck to hiking the trails and paddling out on the river.
Everything You Need to Know About Rafting the New River
The National Park preserves a portion of the New River as it flows from southeastern West Virginia northward to meet the Gauley River outside of the park boundaries. That means that the “Upper” part of the river is actually the southern section of the park (by the falls), and the “Lower” part of the river is in the north (by the bridge).
The Upper New River is calmer, with long stretches of slower-moving pools and areas of Class I and Class II rapids (with a few turbulent Class III sprinkled in — easy to navigate around if you know when and where). The Upper New River is best for beginners and people looking for a more relaxing experience.
The Lower New River has whitewater rapids ranging in difficulty from Class III to Class V, so we’d only suggest that area if you really know what you’re doing (and the Gauley has even higher classes of rapids further north — outside the park). If you take on this more challenging area though, you’ll actually paddle right under the New River Gorge Bridge!
We’d never been rafting before, and we were especially inexperienced when it came to rapids (I was a little scared — not gonna lie), so we actually paid for a guided tour, which is typically not our style. There are a handful of licensed operators that run guided rafting tours of the New River, both for beginners and those seeking more adventure.
Knowing what we know now, we probably wouldn’t do it again. Not because it was a terrible experience or anything, but because we prefer to spend our days on our own terms. When you’re discovering a new place via a tour, your time and activities are planned by the guide — where to go, when to stop, and how much time you spend on the water. Not to mention the fact that tours are more expensive than simple equipment rental.
For reference, we paid $197 (combined) for a half-day river expedition with two guides and about ten other people. We entered and exited the water at public ramps, so in retrospect, we could have easily rented the gear ourselves to experience the river on our own.
On the tour, we regularly had to pause for everyone else to catch up, and lunch was a specified meal at a specified location for a specified amount of time. We weren’t able to stop anywhere else along the river, despite there being a ton of campgrounds and trailheads along the banks.
If you’d like to copy the tour route we took on your own, here are the specifics: We put in at Stone Cliff River Access and exited the New River about 7.5 miles downstream at Cunard River Access. Most of the rapids we experienced were Class I and II, both of which were very easy to navigate and totally fine for just about any age person who can help paddle a raft.
However, we did pass through two Class III rapids near the end of our trip, which can be easily maneuvered around if you’re familiar with rapid rafting. They’re also labeled on Google Maps as “Surprise Rapids,” so you can just plan to take out sooner if you’d rather completely avoid them.
There are several free river access points in the park that allow you to put in and take out without the assistance of a guide. Just keep in mind that the further north you go into the Lower Gorge, the more expertise is required to properly navigate the Class III-V rapids found there. The town of Thurmon is generally recognized as the line between the easier rapids for beginners (to the south) and the more technical rapids for experienced paddlers (to the north).
Making a Home Base Near the National Park
While there are several free, first-come, first-served, primitive campgrounds along the river’s edge, we opted to just urban camp in the town of Beckley for access to more amenities.
Not only are there many mainstream restaurants in town, but there’s also a Planet Fitness to shower at as well as a large (and lenient) Walmart parking lot for “camping.” We actually parked our camper van there every night. The only downside was that the Walmart in town wasn’t open 24 hours. It actually closed kinda early (for us anyway), which led us to discover a new favorite 24-hour vanlife hangout spot: Sheetz Gas Station. There are three locations in Beckley, and each had plentiful indoor and outdoor seating, free wifi, and a few accessible power outlets.
Another “amenity” we look for when visiting new places is game shops. No, not like GameStop, but local gaming stores that feature board games, comic books, meet-up events, and even tournaments. Beckley was just big enough to have its own game store, Dragon’s Den Comics and Games. We messaged them ahead of our arrival to ask about events and ended up playing in a small Magic: The Gathering tournament. It was a really neat community to tap into, if only for a day.
Beckley is about a 20-minute drive from Grandview, and closer to 40 minutes away from each of the National Park’s endpoints — Canyon Rim and the bridge to the north, and Sandstone and Brooks Falls to the south. We didn’t mind the drive time because the views were actually pretty nice along the way.
There are also other, smaller towns closer to those three points of interest, including Fayetteville just south of the bridge. Fayetteville has both a Walmart and a Sheetz, which you could easily call home while car camping, but it doesn’t have as many big-name places to chill or eat at.
Of course, if you enjoy a more primitive camping experience, then definitely give the park’s campgrounds a try as your home base! The better scenery would probably be a good trade-off for the lack of amenities. Just keep in mind that you’ll be in the wilderness with snakes, spiders, and even mountain lions, so follow best safety practices and “leave no trace” guidelines.
West Virginia Lives Up to Being “Wild, Wonderful”
We really enjoyed our time at New River Gorge National Park. It honestly seemed very similar to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which makes sense, since both parks are nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Both parks offer views of forested mountains, waterfalls, and the occasional cloud of fog hanging around the hills. But — and this is a BIG but ― New River Gorge is way, way less crowded than Great Smoky Mountains. For that reason, we ultimately liked it even more.
That’s part of what made it land as high as it did in our ranked list of every National Park. Interestingly, its current rating positions it as the third-best National Park in the eastern US, so it’s worth a visit (even if you’re not trying to go to every park).
New River Gorge definitely deserves its upgraded National Park status.