National Park Count: 22
America’s newest National Park, number 63, is New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, nestled in the mountains of southern West Virginia. Just a few weeks after visiting the nations first national park, the Sidekick and I spent a couple days checking out the nation’s newest park and it’s a pretty cool one with tons to do!
This trip began not as my idea, but as Nicki’s. She had some personal business to attend to on the West Virginia/Kentucky border. There is actually an regional airport nearish to the national park, but we were flying Southwest for free, and where we needed to initially go to was not any closer anyway. So we flew into Cincinnati, picked up the rental car, and headed about 4 hours through the sticks to get to a little town called Williamson, on the WV/KY border.
Part of what makes traveling important is that it gives you new perspectives and allows you broaden your horizons. West Virginia is one of those places that is poked at a lot. But upon visiting it becomes very clear that West Virginia is a land that has been forgotten. Williamson is a pretty decent sized town for West Virginia (and by decent sized I mean like 15,000 people) along the border of the two states. It is very dilapidated and falling apart. On a side note, the Sidekick’s family is pretty closely related to the Hatfield family of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud and this area is right where all of those events unfolded! We stayed one night at the Hatfield McCoy House Inn in Williamson. The house sits on the site of one of the old Hatfield or McCoy sites and is fully decked out in kitschy Hatfield McCoy stuff. The price was super affordable and if by chance you ever find your way to this part of the world spend a night or two here! And just as an FYI there is a pretty lengthy, dozens of miles long, trail that goes through the whole Hatfield McCoy area and this house is pretty close to some entrances to that trail.
The following day it was off to the New River Gorge area, a few hours away! The drive through this part of West Virginia is remote and filled with dilapidated, yet inhabited towns – relics of the past, when the local coal mine was still operating. Essentially, think of a mountain, a mile or two of one of two rows of homes nestled up against that mountain, one main road through, and then another row or two of homes, there is probably a big creek, and the there are a couple train lines, probably a defunct coal mine, a river, and then another mountain. The next town might be only a few miles away but will take 30 minutes or more to get to. These towns feature burned out houses, some even still lived in, no places to work, no shops, and maybe one convenience store if you are lucky and maybe a falling down school here and there.. And then the next town is 30 minutes down the road and around the hills. That’s pretty much what this part of West Virginia is like.
Once we arrived at our destination, Beckly, WV, a spot that was good central location to various parts of the park, we got into the AirBNB and then departed to scope out a part of the park. We first headed east on I-64 to the Sandstone Falls Entrance and Visitor Center. After a stop at the visitor center for the stamps for my national park passport we headed south a bit for the main goal of the afternoon which was simply to check out an overlook for the Sandstone Falls. The falls themselves are accessible via road, but it’s from the complete other side. While the drive to the overlook from the Airbnb was about 20 minutes, from the bnb to the actual falls was closer to an hour, so we were going to scope the falls area out from above to see if it was worth the trip down there or not. And it was!
The next morning we got up early and headed in the direction of the Sandstone Falls area. The falls are actually part of an island or several islands. Think of island that the river is overwashing, and then falls over the edge in many different places and you get the idea. So, there is a nice boardwalk trail throughout the island that gives nice views of the lower and upper falls. However, the entire island is walkable/hikable and we were able to get much much closer. Definitely a cool thing to experience. The off trail hiking is generally frowned upon in the parks, but they actually had steps off of the boardwalks into the forested part for us to do this and there were many people doing the same, and many who were just out there fishing the river.
After a hiccup involving a local who was towing big round bales of straw down this road to who knows where – and then proceeded to catch it on FIRE – we were off to catch an afternoon white water rafting trip. It had been two years since my last whitewater run and I was definitely itching for it! We decided to raft the tougher Lower New River run with Ace Rafting. The river actually runs north and the put in was about 8 or 9 miles south of the big bridge and we came out right under the bridge. The rafting was not quite what I expected at times. Oddly enough the river doesn’t really seem to run too quickly between rapids, so you hit a rapid and then its very calm water until you get to the next rapid. We got stuck on a rock in class IV rapid and on coming off the rock, out I went, which also sent the Sidekick into the river as well…I came up under the raft, which is not an experience I want to replicate! In any event, we were both pulled up to safety. Rafting through the national park is definitely a really neat way to see the a park! Being on the river afforded some great views of the bridge from below, some other older bridges, and ruins of some of the old coal mining operations that were running on the edge of the river once upon a time! I highly recommend! Also, Ace operates a hillbilly water park. Supervision and rules are extremely light, alcohol is available, and I am sure there are many injuries, but don’t worry – you will sign waivers! It’s pretty cheap and really a lot of (dangerous) fun!
By the time we finished rafting and loitering around the water park a bit we were done for the day. The next day we had another adventure: walking UNDER the entire span of the New River Gorge Bridge. I don’t particularly like heights, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure that 75 bucks for that excursion was going to be worthwhile! But it is! It was a really neat experience! The bridge itself is a pretty fantastic piece of architecture. At about 50 some years old it is still one of the longest and highest bridges/arch bridges in the US. The tour underneath has you hooked into cables as you walk along the underside of the bridge on a narrow catwalk. Honestly, even with the heights issue, it was safe enough that there was really no need to be hooked in unless you were planning on being stupid. Definitely give it a go if you get a chance! The tour is a couple hours long, very informative, gives some killer views up and down the gorge, and the guide will take pictures of your group for free!
After the bridge walk we stopped at the visitor center which offers some pretty awesome views as well. This was the north visitor center, the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. After the requisite stamps and what not, we headed for lunch at a place called Chetty’s. Food was ok, some good local beers, and a really nice deck overlooking the gorge and river! After that we left to hit a trail: The Endless Wall Trail. This is a loop if you want, or an out and back as is recommended to avoid looping along a road. There are some killer views from this trail. It’s pretty heavily forested and not terribly difficult and it’s moderate length, maybe 2 or 3 miles. We brought some snacks and found a cool overlook spot and chilled for awhile and finished our day.
The next day was the travel day but we found time to squeeze in one last check-in at the park. We made it to the Grandview Visitor center. This one is more in the middle of the park. The Grandview area was also not too far from our AirBNB and we got there hoping for a killer sunrise view, and did a trail, the Grandview Rim Trail along the gorge rim. The views are supposed to be stunning! I say supposed to…because it was so foggy that we couldn’t see more than about 20 feet. Oh well…what can you do!? The Sidekick decided to start photographing mushrooms and I was just content being in quiet nature.
So, that concludes another trip and another National Park down! I really enjoyed learning about this park! At the beginning of 2021 this park didn’t even exist as one of the “big” national parks so it was not on my radar and then once it was on the radar, I didn’t expect that I would get there this year! As a final mention there is a thing called Bridge Day. It’s a big deal around there. And that is the one day that people can basejump off the bridge and do all sorts of sundry things. This is also in October, probably during peak foliage. The bridge is totally closed to traffic and it looks like a good old West Virginia shindig! Maybe a good time for a return visit?
Overall impressions: Pros: This is an awesome spot to visit. There are TONS of things you can do here: world class whitewater rafting, rock climbing (not for me), hiking, there is a lot of coal town history, there are horseback opportunities, fishing trips, the Bridge Walk, and probably things I am missing. It’s pretty and scenic. Great place! Cons: Not the most convenient place to get to, and it feels like the area is still a little ways away from being fully ready to be a “national park.”
The Adventurer Final Word:
5 Stars! I would not really go back to West Virginia, but I would go back to this park if the opportunity presented itself!