Having grown up an hour away from the New River Gorge, I’ve been there several times and love the area, so I was excited when I learned it was officially becoming a National Park. Because I really enjoyed writing my posts about National Parks like Saguaro and Carlsbad, I decided to do a nice long post talking about New River to help people get to know the park and get excited to visit. Also, this was a great excuse to spend a weekend there!
My camping trip didn’t go quite as planned for a couple of reasons – 1) I was testing out some new gear and my sleeping pad deflated during the night and 2) I forgot that I have allergies in WV and had trouble sleeping – but ultimately, it was a great trip with fun hikes, amazing views, and great food! I really love New River, and although I know its new status will mean more crowds, especially in summer, I’m also excited for more people to find out how great this place is and to hopefully explore even more of WV (ideas here) and support the local economy a bit!
One of the facts you will probably hear about a thousand times about the New River is that, despite the name, it’s actually one of the oldest rivers in the world. There’s some debate about why exactly the river is called the New River, but one story that I think is plausible is that it was named by a 1642 expedition which was charged with undertaking “the discovery of of a new river west and southerly from the Appomattox.” Basically since they were scouting this “new river” that’s just what they decided to call it, and the name stuck. Though, in reality, of course, Native American tribes used the river frequently before European colonists arrived since it provided fertile soil and clean water as well as being a means of travel in the region.
During the early years of the United States, this part of the New River was not easily accessible to people, but the railroad brought an era of prosperity to the region. Mining and lumber were big industries here as elsewhere in West Virginia, and relics from this time can be found along trails in the park. However, in talking about the industrial history of the New River, I think it’s also important to talk about one of the worst industrial tragedies in American history: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster. During the Great Depression, unemployed men (particularly African Americans) were recruited to build a tunnel through Gauley Mountain, which would divert water from the New to power Union Carbide’s plant in Alloy, WV. High amounts of silica were contained in the mountain’s rock, and the dry drilling technique used by workers released silica dust into the air. The problem of silica was exacerbated by poor ventilation, and many of the workers contracted the incurable silicosis. Of the 2,900 men who worked inside the tunnel, a reported 764 died of silicosis, though an unknown number suffered complications and died later from the silica dust in their lungs. Today, a memorial on Route 19 commemorates the men who died in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, and laws have since been passed to protect workers from silicosis and to offer compensation to those who do. The tunnel, considered a marvel of engineering, still works to produce hydro-electric energy. To learn more about the disaster, I suggest checking out Patricia Spangler’s book The Hawks Nest Tunnel.
By the late 20th century, New River mining towns were starting to disappear. Due to the river’s importance as a historical site in West Virginia, as well as the incredible flora and fauna that thrive there (including endangered species like the Virginia big eared and Indiana bats), the New River was designated as a National River in 1978. The elevation drop of the river makes for incredible white water that attracts people from around the world, and it is, with good reason, one of the most popular sites in West Virginia. In 2021, the New River became America’s 63rd National Park, and it’s an incredible place that I think everyone should visit!
Visiting the National Park
While rafting and seeing the bridge are the main attractions of the New River Gorge, there’s so much to do that it would be impossible to do everything. The National Park maintains trails, but things like rafting and zip lining are run by private companies. This then means that the companies compete with each other by offering everything from mud obstacle courses to introductory rock climbing sessions. The big companies are Adventures on the Gorge, Ace Adventures, and River Expeditions. A few other companies offer rafting or lodging, but these three aim to provide a full experience. In the suggested itinerary below, I note which companies provide which activities since you can often bundle them into a package with one of these large companies.
I’ve never actually done anything with River Expeditions, but I’ve done rafting, zip lining, and laser tag with Adventures on the Gorge, and I’ve been rafting with Ace Adventures. To be honest, I don’t think there’s really that much difference between all the different rafting companies, so it really depends on prices and what other things you may want to do in the area.
As far as visiting the parts of the park actually run by the park service, you of course have to visit the New River Gorge Bridge, which is the longest steel-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest bridge in the United States. Prior to the construction of the bridge, it would take forty minutes to cross the gorge by driving down one side, across the Fayette Station Bridge, and back up the other side. On the big bridge, it takes less than a minute. The main park Visitor Center is right next to the bridge, and has two overlook trails. One is handicap accessible and gives you a view over the bridge, while the other one is 178 stairs down to a lower angle view of the bridge (see the picture above this section). It’s a lot of stairs, but it’s really worth it! And, if you want an up-close view of the bridge, you can go on a Bridge Walk to walk underneath the bridge. If that doesn’t sound scary enough, you can visit in October for Bridge Day when people rappel and BASE jump from the bridge. This is the kind of behavior that wouldn’t normally be allowed in a National Park, but since the tradition is so popular and since it predates the “National Park” designation, it will continue going forward.
Hiking is also one of those things that you really have to do when you visit the New River Gorge. There are several trails with great scenery, and you can try to spot wildlife while out hiking. My favorite (and basically everyone’s favorite) is the Endless Wall Trail, which will take you out to the Diamond Point Overlook for some beautiful views over the park (image below). It’s a fun trail to do at any time of the day, but it is most crowded at sunset. I’ve done this trail multiple times, and my preference is to go early in the morning around sunrise or a bit after. There are several trails to do in the area though, and you can ask at the Visitor Center for recommendations and directions to trailheads.
Suggested Itinerary for a Weekend
There’s so much to do in visiting the New River Gorge that it can be hard to pick – or even to list everything. Because there are so many activities available, I broke them up based on the time different things would take to make planning a weekend here easier, especially for anyone who hasn’t been before. All the activities I list need to be booked in advance. Companies are abbreviated as AotG (Adventures on the Gorge), Ace (Ace Adventures), and RE (River Expeditions).
- Day 1
- Arrive by afternoon and check in wherever you’re staying
- Visit the Visitor Center
- Walk the overlook trail to see the bridge
- Choose your first Adventure
- Have dinner at The Burrito Bar or another place
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Day 2
- Wake up early and eat a good breakfast at The Cathedral Cafe
- Choose your second adventure
- Whitewater Rafting (my top recommendation, available with AotG, Ace , RE, West Virginia Adventures or New and Gauley River Adventures)
- Zip-lining (available with AotG, Ace, or RE)
- Note that zip-lining trips tend to be shorter, so this could be combined with a second half-day trip
- Rock Climbing (available with AotG, Ace, or RE)
- Have a filling dinner
- If you’re still up for more, consider a sunset trip via
- Get a good night’s sleep
- Day 3
- Hike the Endless Wall at sunrise (sunset is also popular but much more crowded)
- Choose your third adventure
- In the afternoon, consider expanding your trip with one of the options at the end of the post or head home, tired, but with a lot of great memories from the trip!
When to Go
The New River is beautiful any time of year, but there are advantages to visiting at different times. Peak season for most visitors is during the summer, but rafting is extremely popular and busy during the spring and fall as well. The fall foliage also attracts crowds, so you’ll find that the New River can get busy at any time between May-October. Some rafting companies also open a bit earlier in April, and experienced rafters will enjoy the rapids when the dams are opened. If you really want to avoid crowds, your best bet is coming on a weekday as any weekend in the spring-fall period is likely to get busy.
You can still do some things in the winter, but to be honest, in the winter, I mainly just like going for a drive through the area without spending a lot of time in the snow. Ultimately, the best time to go depends on what you want to do, and there are fun things to do at any time of year.
What to Bring
For the most part, what you need to bring depends on what activities you’re doing. When you book with one of the companies in the area, they will have notes telling you what you need to bring and wear. Be sure to check that in packing, but you’ll likely be able to buy anything you forget for these activities since outdoor adventures are so popular in the area. If you’re camping, of course, you will need to bring supplies for that, but if you forget anything, you will be able to find it somewhere nearby.
As always, I recommend bringing a camera or a phone with a good camera to take some pictures of the beautiful views and wildlife. And, of course, with hiking, you will want to bring water and, possibly, a jacket in case the weather changes while you’re out.
How Long to Stay
I really recommend staying at the New River Gorge for more than one night, especially if you’ve never been before. Whether you stay at a deluxe cabin, a primitive campsite, or a regular hotel, there’s really too much to do in just one day. I will discuss this in more detail below, but I recommend spending a few days in the area to visit Fayetteville and other nearby attractions, do some hiking, and do at least one bigger adventure like rafting, zip-lining, or a bridge walk. Having a couple of days in the area will give you time to do a variety of different things without the stress of doing them all back to back.
Where to Stay
Possibly the most popular way to stay at New River Gorge is in a cabin. There are a variety of places that offer these; if you are booking everything with one of the larger companies (Adventures on the Gorge, Ace Adventures, or River Expeditions), it can be easiest to just book your lodging (cabin or campsite) with them as well. If you want to do things more on your own terms or book activities like rafting with a smaller company, you can look into different lodging at places like Country Roads Cabins of Mill Creek Luxury Cabins. I personally have stayed at one of the rustic cabins at Adventures on the Gorge, and I enjoyed that the location of the cabin within the resort meant that we also got to use their pool and were close to other company properties during the weekend. The other advantage of a cabin is that after doing some of the more exhausting activities, you have a nice place to sleep in the evening.
Nice as the cabins in this area are, I really love camping, and that’s another great way to experience the area. If you want to camp inside the park, you can check out the list of sites here, but these sites don’t take reservations. To ensure you’ll have a place, you can book with a company that is outside the official bounds of the park. I really enjoyed staying at Chestnut Creek Campground where we had a nice site in the woods. The family who runs it is really nice, and it was a fun place to stay – though especially earlier in the evening we did hear the traffic on the bridge due to its proximity to the campsite. Other campsites in the area include the New River Gorge Gateway Center and Rifrafters Campground. Other options include camping at a nearby state park like Hawks Nest, Babcock, or Little Beaver.
Finally, if you want a more traditional hotel to stay at, you can look into the Hawks Nest State Park Lodge, or the Morris Harvey House BnB. Chain hotels nearby include a Comfort Inn and a Quality Inn. Of these last two, I recommend the (very high quality) Quality Inn, which also has a Bar & Grill on-site along with a small breakfast cafe, both of which a solid options for food as well.
Where to Eat
Usually in visiting the New River area, I would always eat at the Secret Sandwich Society in Fayetteville, but, sadly, they burned down in 2020. While I’m really really hoping they can rebuild, this meant that for this post, I had to test out a couple of new restaurants (such a tragedy). There are actually several restaurants around Fayetteville that are options, but I’m going to be talking about (and recommending) two that I really enjoyed: The Burrito Bar and The Cathedral Cafe.
The Burrito Bar has, obviously, burritos. These things are huge and sure to fill you up after a day of New River adventures. They aren’t your standard Mexican food burritos though, most have some kind of twist to make them unique to the restaurant. The one I had, the Raft Guide (many of them have rafting related names) included fried red potatoes, seasoned rice, beans, cheese & shredded cabbage. It was absolutely delicious, and, though I was unable to finish, I also enjoyed my side order of beans and cheese. Possibly the best part of the meal though was the cheesecake slice I had for desert and which I very much recommend. The Burrito Bar also sells wine, beer, and cider, including some from local companies, so you can support multiple small businesses at once.
The Cathedral Cafe mainly serves breakfast and lunch, and I’ve sampled (and enjoyed) both on different trips. This cafe is located inside an old cathedral whose inside has been turned into a fun little restaurant and very cute WV gift shop. On this trip, I had a bagel and hash browns, and it was everything I needed as a breakfast meal. For lunch, I highly recommend their paninis! The vibe of the place was also really fun and laid back, and I loved looking at the items they sell there, which support local artists and businesses. We ended up buying this puzzle, which shows tourism spots in West Virginia, and I look forward to working on it! (And if you’re trying to think of other fun places to go in WV, you can just look at the puzzle for inspiration!) The Cathedral Cafe is located right in downtown Fayetteville and makes for an excellent morning or afternoon stop while you’re here!
There are also a few restaurants at some of the big tourist sites, including the Vista Restaurant at Hawks Nest and Smokey’s at Adventures on the Gorge (they also have a couple of other places including a cafe and snack bar). While these are good, they’re also more expensive, so that’s something to keep in mind while visiting.
Expanding Your Trip
From state parks to caves, there’s a lot to do in southern West Virginia without going too far from the New River Gorge. You can visit Lost World Caverns or state parks like Pipestem and Little Beaver. West Virginia’s capitol, Charleston, is only an hour away and also has a lot to offer; however, in this section, I’m just going to discuss a few things that are super close to the park and would be the easiest to add into a trip.
Hawk’s Nest State Park
Hawk’s Nest is a short drive from the New River Gorge National Park and has a beautiful overlook where you can see the river. I love stopping here on a drive to New River and getting out to stretch at the overlook. If you want to spend more time here though, the aerial tramway and/or jet boat are two other great ways to experience the river! Both operate seasonally, but if they’re open, it’s a fun stop to add to a trip in the area.
Babcock State Park
A bit further along Route 60, you’ll reach Babcock State Park, which is famous for its beautiful Grist Mill. There are some trails in the area, but the main appeal for me is walking around the main part of the park, climbing on some rocks, and enjoying the views of the mill.
Ace Advenutres Waterpark
Also run by Ace Adventures, their waterpark is a fun place to spend part of a day. You can just swim in the lake, but the real fun comes from the obstacle-course style inflatables and the zip line into the water. It’s a fun summer activity that is definitely worth a visit if you have time.
I really love the New River and all the amazing things to do around the area! It’s one of my favorite places and somewhere I’ve loved visiting for years. I’m really excited about its new National Park status, and I look forward to more people getting to experience this wonderful part of West Virginia!