West Virginia’s New River Gorge: America’s newest National Park

White-water rafting is a big draw at New River Gorge.Img 4129
White-water rafting is a big draw at New River Gorge.Img 4129 /

What kind of activities does New River Gorge have to offer?

The New River that runs through New River Gorge Park & Preserve was first designated a national river in 1978 by then-President Jimmy Carter. However, in December 2020, Congress passed a bill making the park in West Virginia the state’s first U.S. National Park.

Interestingly, even though the coronavirus pandemic has had a lot of downsides, this is one of the positive things to come out of it. The park’s upgrade from a state park to a national one is all thanks to a stimulus package.

But what kind of things can you do in New River Gorge National Park?

It was a popular climbing and whitewater rafting destination even as a state park, but that’s not all it has to offer. In addition to admiring the stunning natural beauty in this part of the Appalachian Mountains, the National Park Service lists all kinds of ways to enjoy the New River Gorge.

Let’s do some (virtual) exploring and take a look!

New River Gorge scenic drives

There’s an overall 83-mile route that lets you experience both the gorge and the river. The route is estimated to take three hours and includes a combination of interstates, divided highways, and two-lane roads. You can also stop at two of the park’s visitor centers along the way, Canyon Rim and Sandstone.

There’s also an African American Heritage Auto Tour that you use in conjunction with a cell phone app to hear the history of the black coal miners, railroad workers and other community members who lived in and shaped the region. The tour leads to 17 historic sites in the following counties: Summers, Raleigh, Fayette and Nicholas.


If hiking is your thing, you can find trails of all kinds in and around New River Gorge. There are marked and maintained forest trails, undeveloped ones and even abandoned roads. Their lengths and difficulties range from short quarter-mile treks to seven-mile ones. However, some paths connect so you can extend your hike if you want. The terrains vary too, from flat and smooth walking trails to steep and more challenging treks.

Nature abounds on all of the trails, but some also hold other delights. For instance, on the Grandview area trails you’ll find structures (some still standing, some ruins) in abandoned mining towns. On the Sandstone-Brooks area trails you’ll find waterfalls and overlooks.

That’s just two of the many trails to choose from. Figure out the best ones for you by getting recommendations and maps at the Canyon Rim, Grandview, Sandstone, and Thurmond visitor centers.

Mountain biking

Prefer pedaling to walking? Whether you have your own bike or want to take a guided bike tour, the New River Gorge offers many trails for riders too.


There are over 1,400 established rock climbs in the park, which is known to climbers as “The New,” and is one of the most popular climbing destinations in the U.S.  The Sandstone cliffs range from 30 to 120 feet high and are rated as 5.9 or higher, making them best for advanced and expert climbers. The climbing season generally runs from late April to mid-June and mid-September to late October.

Whitewater rafting

There is 53-miles worth of river to paddle in the park. It starts at Bluestone Dam and ends at Hawks Nest Lake. There are two sections of the river: the upper part and the lower.

The upper part has long pools and rapids that range from relatively easy to Class III. The lower section, also called “the Lower Gorge” is known for its “colossal” rapids that range in difficulty from Class III to Class V.

Hunting and fishing

Fishing is not only allowed but is one of the most popular pastimes in the park. There are many public access points along the river where fisherman can catch everything from bass (smallmouth, largemouth, striped, and rock), walleye, muskellunge and crappie to bluegill, carp, flathead and channel catfish.

Hunting is also allowed in designated areas of the park.

Where to stay in New River Gorge

There are “primitive” camping areas along the river, which means there is no drinking water or hookups and limited bathroom facilities. (In my house, that’s what we call old school roughing it.)

There are no cabins or developed campgrounds in the park, but there are in areas surrounding it.

So there you have it. A new national park to explore if you haven’t already.