By Jason Frye
National parks fans and West Virginians have a new reason to celebrate: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the latest addition to the U.S. National Parks System, will add a stunning slice of The Mountain State to throngs of outdoor enthusiasts.
Comprised of 7,021 acres of riverfront and ridgetop national park, 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater river and 65,156 acres of national preserve, New River Gorge — embodies the best of what West Virginia has to offer. It’s affectionately called “The New” by anglers, hunters and whitewater fanatics who’ve frequented the woods and waters for decades. And as a national park and preserve, it will have a lasting impact on the growth of West Virginia’s booming outdoor recreation industry (which brings in around $9 billion annually).
Senator Joe Manchin, who, along with Senator Shelly Moore Capito, led the charge in securing the funding and designation for the nation’s 63rd national park, cited West Virginia’s “love and appreciation for the outdoors” as a key reason for his work on this park, saying, “Some of my best memories are hunting, fishing and exploring our wild and wonderful state. And it’s been a privilege to share my love of the outdoors with my children and grandchildren.” New River Gorge National Park and Preserve represents “an opportunity for us to pass down a legacy to our kids, grandkids, and generations to come.”
Manchin’s memories of hunting, fishing and exploring are reflected in the dual National Park/National Preserve status for New River Gorge. The only national park/preserve hybrid outside Alaska, the designation was important in creating a balance between the more protected, but more restrictive, national park core of New River Gorge, and the more traditional land use – namely hunting and fishing – in the preserve that would typically be prohibited or limited in scope within a national park.
Hiking, Biking and Climbing
There’s plenty to do in New River Gorge whether you are in the park or preserve. Nearly 100 miles of hiking trails crisscross New River Gorge and mountain bikers will find more than 60 miles of trail (some shared with hikers) waiting to be explored. Trails vary by difficulty and length, making for hiking and mountain biking experiences fit for visitors of all ability levels.
As you’d expect to find in the deepest gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, there are plenty of established rock climbing routes — more than 1,600, in fact. Hard sandstone cliffs range from 30 to 120 feet high, challenging the intermediate and advanced climbers, while bouldering problems (bouldering is low-altitude climbing, often not more than a few feet off the ground) provide plenty of challenges to those new to the sport and those who arrive ready to climb. Several outfitters in the region lead climbs and provide climbing instruction within the park, so if you want to learn the ropes or if you just left your ropes at home, you can climb on.
Outfitters also run whitewater rafting trips on the parks 53 miles of river. The New River, ironically one of the oldest rivers in the world, has rapids ranging from Class I and II up to Class V, and you can join a paddle that fits your desired thrill level. You can also go standup paddle boarding, kayaking or canoeing on the tamer sections. Some outfitters – like Adventures on the Gorge and ACE Adventure Resort – offer everything from paddling and climbing trips in the park to on-site camping, cabins, lodges and restaurants. Of course, there’s camping within the park thanks to nine primitive camping areas, a pair of group campsites and backcountry camping.
But at the center of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the New River Gorge Bridge, a beautiful single-arch bridge that you may recognize from the reverse side of the West Virginia quarter released in 2005. Stretching 3,030 feet from rim to rim, it’s the third longest single-arch bridge in the world and it towers 876 feet above the New River (that’s taller than the Statue of Liberty standing on top of the Washington Monument). Views of the bridge – from the gorge rim overlooks or from the river’s edge – are enough to have you ready to come back for another visit.
Photos courtesy of West Virginia Tourism