Whether you’re only passing through or planning on spending few days, the New River Gorge area of West Virginia needs to be a stop on your next road trip. This location provides a variety of outstanding recreational opportunities such as whitewater rafting, hiking, rock climbing, camping, fishing, and more. The New River and New River Gorge Bridge are also both national landmarks (exciting for everyone working to get stamps in their National Parks Passport Book). Read on, for your definitive guide to exploring the New River Gorge.
Guide to the New River Gorge: History
The New River Gorge was established as a national river in 1978. The river itself is among the oldest rivers on earth and the 70,000 acres of land that surround it include some of the most diverse ecosystems as well. The New River is the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains and it took millions of years to get this way!
The New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977. It is the third highest bridge in the United States, reaching 876 feet. (The tallest bridge, incase you are wondering, is the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado with a whopping height of 955 feet.) The New River Gorge Bridge was built to make crossing the river more feasible. It cut a 40 minute drive down into the gorge down to approximately a one minute drive. In 2013 the bridge was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
A Bridge Day celebration occurs on the third Saturday in October every year. This festival has been going on for nearly 40 years. Festival activities include: craft vendors, BASE jumping, rappelling, music, and food. It is the largest extreme sports event in the world.
Guide to the New River Gorge: Things to Do
The New River recreational area is an outdoor-lovers paradise. Whether you are ready to climb a mountain (literally—the rock climbing here is great) or you want to experience nature at a more leisurely pace, this region has something for everyone.
The New River Gorge National River offers a variety of hiking trails throughout different areas of the park. Trails range between 1/4 mile to 7 miles and several can be connected to make for longer treks. We spent most of our time in the Fayetteville area so those are the hikes we’ll talk about, but there are tons of other areas to hike as well.
Endless Wall Trail
This was our favorite hike of the trip. The trail is 2.7 miles and runs along the edge of the cliff. There are several overlooks that provide stunning vistas and great views of the river below. The national park service rates this trail as moderate. We did this hike early on in our trip before we became seasoned hikers and thought it was fairly easy.
Canyon Rim Boardwalk
This “trail” is only 0.1 miles and starts at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. It is a boardwalk that leads to a viewpoint which provides stunning views of the gorge and the bridge. If you want, you can then descend 178 steps to a lower overlook (worth it). Just remember you will have to climb back up those steps!
Long Point Trail
This trail is 2.9 miles and leads to a rocky outcrop (Long Point) and provides beautiful panoramic views of the gorge, New River Gorge Bridge and the cliffs of the Endless Wall Trail. Most of the trail is flat but there is one steep section right before you get to the viewpoint.
Pro tip: Be prepared West Virginia can get pretty hot and humid in the summer. We visited in mid May and were drenched in sweat during all of our hikes. I think we were still used to the cooler weather and lack of humidity Montana provides. In my opinion, fall would be the ideal time to visit with cooler weather and beautiful foliage.
New River Jet Boat Ride
For the best views of the New River Gorge Bridge, you can take a New River Jet Boat ride up the river right into the rapids in front of the bridge. John and I love boats, so when we found out this was an option, it was a no-brainer for us. You purchase tickets, and leave from Hawks Nest State Park. You can buy a ticket for the tram only (which takes you down into the gorge), but I highly recommend doing the tram and jet boat combination.
After the short tram ride, you board a 16 passenger jet boat for your tour up the New River. The trip begins leisurely as you head toward the bridge and pass an array of old hunting shacks. As you get closer to the bridge the rapids pick up and the excitement builds.
I didn’t realize the jet boat was going to take us right into the rapids, so as we got closer my heart began to pound a little, but I had complete trust in our captain (who was originally from Montana) who had been doing this for over 20 years. The entire boat ride only lasted around 25 minutes but the views of the bridge from the river were epic. I would probably include this as one of my top 10 favorite activities from our trip so far.
Pro tip: Make sure to check out their website for operating hours/days. In some months they only offer weekend rides. Tickets are also sold on a first-come, first-served basis, so keep this in mind if you are visiting during peak season.
Quick disclaimer—we did not do the bridge walk, but we really wanted to…well, kind of. John really wanted to do the bridge walk; I was a little more apprehensive and thought that due to my fear of heights, my legs might just try to throw me right off the bridge, but that is beside the point. Ultimately, we ended up skipping the bridge walk to save a little money, but we definitely want to give it a go the next time we are in the area.
If you are brave enough, you can walk the length of the bridge along the catwalk. It sits 25 feet below the bridge and runs the entire span of the bridge. The catwalk itself is only 2 feet wide, but you are fastened into a safety cable making it impossible to fall—or at least impossible to fall very far. I’m sure the views of the New River and gorge are pretty amazing from that viewpoint. The company also offers full moon as well as sunset and sunrise tours, which I think would be especially nice in the fall.
Guide to New River Gorge: Where to Stay
Cell service is very spotty in this area. I would plan out where you are staying before arriving in case you have difficulty looking things up once you get there. Cabin rentals are popular here but I would recommend staying at one of the two state parks nearby.
Babcock State Park
John and I camped at Babcock State Park. We visited in early summer—before school got out. The campground wasn’t crowded when we arrived on Saturday, and after the weekend, we were literally the only ones there. It was nice having the whole place to ourselves, except for when I convinced myself that there was a serial killer waiting until we fell asleep to have his way with us. Yes, I may listen to too many true crime podcasts. But, this was the only time I ended up freaking myself out (so far). Don’t worry, we were perfectly safe! Babcock State Park also has over 20 miles of hiking trails and a working Grist Mill to explore
Hawks Nest State Park
If camping isn’t your style and you are looking for more modern amenities, I’d recommend the lodge at Hawks Nest State Park. This park is a great jumping off point for exploring the area. It’s also where the tram and jet boat ride leave from.
The lodge has a dining room that John and I grabbed lunch in after our boat ride. It was a Sunday, so they were serving a buffet instead of their regular menu items. Offerings included: southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, etc. My favorite parts were the views of the gorge from the dining room. I could have sat there sipping my tea all day!
Tell us what you think of this guide to the New River Gorge and let us know if you have anything to add!
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