By Katie Riley
On a camping trip to West Virginia as a kid, I learned the meaning of the great outdoors. Rafting down the New River, I can still recall the heart-pumping anticipation of the next big rapid, and hiking to rocky outcroppings yielded mountain views as far as the eye could see. The trip was filled with the kind of wonder and adventure that every kid should experience on vacation, and the beauty of West Virginia stayed with me long after I left. Today, West Virginia still holds the same appeal: unspoiled landscapes, stunning scenery and an abundance of recreational activities for families. The state has always been a draw for travelers, but it now boasts something else to entice visitors: America’s newest national park.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a 70,000-acre wilderness bordering the New River in Southwestern West Virginia. Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world and the gorge contains the most diverse flora in all of Appalachia. Often called the ‘Grand Canyon of the East,’ the gorge is nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by lush forests and hilly terrain. The park is also home to the often photographed, 876-foot tall New River Gorge Bridge, the world’s second longest arch bridge.
“It’s a stunning park and truly worthy of its National Park designation,” says Eve West, Chief of Interpretation, Visitors Services and Cultural Resources for the park.
While the park’s natural beauty plays a starring role, it’s the diverse recreational opportunities that make it a great destination, especially as more families seek outdoor experiences during the pandemic.
“Covid has introduced a new generation to the outdoors; it’s a wonderful opportunity for families to get the kids away from the devices and that’s what parks are all about,” West says.
Biking, hiking, fishing, climbing and river rafting are just a few of the activities that draw families to the park. Adventures on the Gorge, one of the New River Gorge area’s biggest outfitters, offers rafting and hiking trips, zipline tours and fishing excursions for families with kids of all ages. Adventures on the Gorge is also a resort with a pool, two restaurants and more than 140 accommodations ranging from glamping tents to luxury cabins. Owned by native West Virginians, the company has roots in the area since 1974, and specializes in unique adventures that can’t be found anywhere else.
“Every one of our activities is based outdoors and they are a great way for families to try new things,” says Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge. “Our excursions are always safe and fun, but they can also be a real bonding experience,” Wilson says. “The pride on a family’s face when they’ve completed a rafting trip is priceless.”
With 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater, rafting is the most popular activity in the park. The upper part of the river is calmer, and a good bet for families who want to raft or canoe calmer waters, while the lower part of the river boasts Class III-V rapids that drop more than 650 feet in a 25-mile span. In the fall when the Summersville Lake Dam is released, the rapids become so challenging that rafters from all over the world descend on the area to experience them.
Rafting isn’t the only thrilling activity in the park. For adrenaline junkies, the New River Gorge area is nirvana. Adventures on the Gorge has multiple zipline tours and aerial adventures for all ages. The Timbertrek aerial course features obstacles, ropes and bridges that kids as young as four can tackle, while the treetops canopy zipline tour for older kids boasts ten different ziplines and swinging skybridges. For the truly adventurous, the gravity zipline is a 1.5 mile zip course where riders can reach speeds of up to sixty miles per hour.
If death-defying heights don’t scare you, try the New River Gorge Bridge walk. Walk across the bridge on a two-foot-wide catwalk while strapped to a harness and clipped to a steel safety cable for an experience that will take your breath away.
Hiking is one of the best ways to see the park up close, especially in the fall as the area’s foliage turns a brilliant yellow and orange. Home to more than 100 miles of hiking trails, the park offers trails of varying difficulty. The best trail for families it the Long Point Trail, an easy 1.6 mile loop that ends at the top of a rocky overlook with views of the New River Gorge Bridge.
Fishing is also a great way to calmly experience the area’s waters. Area streams are teeming with trout, while the Gauley and New Rivers have premier smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish, and muskie.
Culture and Education
In addition to the variety of outdoor pursuits in the park, families should take advantage of the abundance of cultural and educational opportunities in the area. The Canyon Rim Visitors Center on Route 19, just north of Fayetteville has exhibits, photographs, and videos on the New River Gorge’s rich Appalachian history and artistic traditions. Kids can also learn about the coal mining that dominated the region for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century. For a unique experience, drive to the nearby town of Beckley for Exhibition Coal Mine, an interactive museum where families can ride on a coal train down a real coal mine, while learning about the industry from retired coal miners.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has long been a destination for adventurers seeking thrills on its rivers and mountains, but America’s 63rd National Park is more than just a pretty place.
“It’s exciting to see more people enjoying the natural beauty and recreational resources we have to offer,” Wilson says. “But I think what will surprise people the most is the culture of West Virginia—the friendliness of the people, the history of the area, and the way of life that is deeply embedded in our state. It’s a special place.”