I didn’t think my kids would do it. I thought they’d get to the edge of the cliff, harness and helmet on, take a peek over the edge of a 1,000-foot-deep gorge, and back out of their first rappel. They were both only ten at the time; I wouldn’t have blamed them. So it was surreal for me to watch them lean back without a hint of hesitation and push themselves off. Naturally, I was worried something terrible would happen—the rope would fail or an anchor would loosen—but mostly I was just proud to watch them get so far out of their comfort zone.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, West Virginia’s New River Gorge has been pushing adventurers beyond their comfort zones since the 1960s, when paddlers first started rafting the Class IV+ whitewater that surges through the gorge. Shortly thereafter, the climbers came, testing themselves on the bulletproof sandstone walls and establishing superhero routes that now top out at 5.14b. Hell, you can even BASE-jump here legally one day out of the year (see Bridge Day, below).
I’ve been testing myself in the New, as it’s affectionately known, for almost two decades. I took my first climbing courses here, struggling up top-rope routes on the picturesque Bridge Buttress. I got lost on a mountain bike trying to link together an epic 35-mile ride from one end of the gorge to the other. The scope of adventure on hand inside this 53-mile-long canyon in the southwestern corner of West Virginia is world class, offering testing grounds for all sorts of athletes. As of December 2020, the New got the recognition it deserves. It was designated our newest national park, becoming the 63rd in the system. The 72,000-acre protected area, centered around the 1,000-foot-deep New River Gorge, is easily one of the most dynamic units in the park system, and it should absolutely be on your must-visit list this year.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting
There are no developed lodging options inside the park. I know, it sucks, but the New River Gorge doesn’t have any campgrounds within its boundaries. There also aren’t any cabins or lodges inside the park. You can find some primitive campsites throughout the gorge, some of which are accessible by gravel roads, but they’re first come, first served only and have no water or hookups. Most backcountry camping is located along the river and is accessible only by boat. The good news is that there are plenty of campgrounds and cabins just outside the park on private land.
The New is full of history. The New is not a pristine wilderness like some national park units. The slopes surrounding the New River were logged extensively and mined for coal during the early 1900s. You’ll find remnants of that extractive past all over the park, from rusted cables hiding in the brush to retired mine sites along popular trails. You’ll even find entire mining camps that were abandoned 100 years ago.
Safety first. The terrain inside the park is dramatic, with Class IV+ whitewater running through the center of the gorge and multi-pitch climbing routes running up the canyon walls. With this sort of terrain, it’s easy to get in over your head and find yourself paddling a section of river that’s above your pay grade or clinging to a route that you have no business trying to climb. The best way to experience the New’s gems is by hiring a guide, who will help you avoid crowds and keep you safe while enabling you to push your limits.
Park roads are narrow and winding. Most of the two-lane roads were established decades ago, when cars were smaller and slower, and drop from the rim of the gorge to the river in a series of sharp switchbacks. Don’t hurry, keep your eyes on the road, and leave the trailer or oversized RV at home.
Plan for crowds. It’s still relatively easy to avoid the crowds if you’re hiking or mountain biking, but if you’re hoping to climb any of the New’s signature cliffs, expect to have company. Ditto if you’re paddling the gorge, as put-ins can get gridlocked during summer. Avoid weekends if you can, and pay special attention to annual events that bring particularly large crowds to the area.
How to Get to New River Gorge National Park
The New sits in southwestern West Virginia and close to a couple of major interstates, which makes it one of the more accessible units in the park system. Most people who visit the park go by car, as it’s only a five-hour drive from Washington, D.C., seven hours from Atlanta, and just over eight hours from New York and Chicago. If you’re flying, the closest major airport is in Charleston, West Virginia, 70 miles to the west. You’re on your own once you get to the park, though; there’s no public transportation within the gorge.
The Best Time of Year to Visit New River National Park
Summer brings the biggest crowds, who come to raft the New and the nearby Gauley River during the warmest time of year, but the park is very much a year-round destination. Winters are mild, and the climbing is arguably at its best during spring and fall.
The area’s relatively mild temperatures (lows rarely dip below the 20s) and trace amount of regular snowfall mean the park is open during winter. Rafting operations cease, but hardcore paddlers have been known to brave the New all year long. Climbers can choose warmer winter days and have the typically crowded cliffs all to themselves. Kaymoor Slab on the Endless Wall is a particularly good winter climbing destination, because it bakes in the sun all day. Ice climbing can also be found inside the park, but it’s fleeting and infrequent. If you don’t mind being chilly and are averse to crowds, winter might be the best time to visit the park.
Guided rafting trips typically start on April 1, but the crowds don’t show up until school is out in June. Spring also means higher water levels, so you’ll be rafting bigger waves. You can also find good deals on guided trips this time of year, but it might be chilly—highs in April are typically in the low 60s. The wildflowers are off the charts, too. The New has the most diverse flora of any river gorge in the central Appalachians, with more than 1,400 different plant species. You’ll find trillium, Virginia bluebell, rhododendron, and flame azalea exploding through April and May.
Peak rafting season brings the biggest crowds through the park. Expect traffic jams at the put-ins, guiding outfitter buses on the roads, and groups of climbers at the cliffs. If you’re looking to hike or mountain bike, make sure you have alternative trails in mind in case the trailheads are full. Temperatures typically reach the high 70s and low 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common but usually brief.
If foliage is your thing, you can’t beat fall in the New River Gorge, as the lush hardwood canopy turns golden shades of yellow, orange, and red, typically peaking in late October. The temperatures are perfect for climbing and mountain biking, and a couple of key events punctuate the season. Bridge Day, in the middle of October, brings hundreds of BASE jumpers to the area, where they can legally jump off the 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge, the world’s second longest arch bridge, parachuting into the gorge below. For many paddlers, Gauley Season is the highlight of the year, as water is released from the dam on Summersville Lake for several weekends in a row through September and October, filling the Gauley River with Class V water.
Where to Stay in and Around New River Gorge National Park
While there is some primitive camping inside the park boundaries, most visitors choose one of the privately owned campgrounds or “resorts” that sit adjacent to the park proper. ACE Adventure Resort occupies 1,500 acres 12 miles south of the visitor center and has its own trail…
Read More:The Outside Guide to New River Gorge National Park