A Guide to Exploring America’s Newest National Park: New River Gorge Park & ​​Preserve

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In 2021, West Virginia’s New River Gorge became the 63rd national park in the United States. It offers white water rafting, free primitive camping and much more.

The name New River is a misnomer, as the river is one of the oldest in the world. New River Gorge National Park covers 53 miles of the 320 mile long river.

The most iconic image in this park is the New River Gorge Bridge, which is 3,030 feet long and has an arch span of 1,700 feet. Each year on the third Saturday in October, Fayetteville, W.Va., hosts bridge daywhere BASE jumpers jump off the bridge, others rappel down and thousands of people watch from above.

Here’s our insider’s guide to where to go and what to do at New River Gorge National Park.

A guide to exploring New River Gorge Park and Reserve

When to visit

Most activities in the park take place from spring to fall, when rafting, hiking, camping, and rock climbing are more enjoyable.

This park is open year-round, but the Grandview Visitor Center and Thurmond Depot are only open seasonally, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

We visited over a weekend in June when it was busy but still found a campsite at Meadow Creek on a Friday night with no problem.

New River Gorge Park and Preserve: What to Do

Rafters passing under the New River Gorge Bridge; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

White water rafting

You can run the river yourself or go with a licensed outfitter with guided trips of varying levels and lengths. The northern part of the park has rapids ranging from class III to class IV. The southern half has rapids ranging from class I to class III.

My dad rafted “The New”, as many people call it, in 1980 and he said it was the best way to see the gorge. I haven’t been there so rafting is definitely at the top of my list for our next visit.

Instead, we saw the rafters go under the bridge as we crossed the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge on the scenic route from Fayette Station. There are also a lot of put-ins in this area of ​​the park.

Whenever you’re planning a water activity, it’s a good idea to check water levels and recent park closures or alerts.

Escalation

This park is a popular destination for rock climbers, as the Nuttall sandstone cliffs are perfect for rock climbing. There are over 1,400 established rock climbs in the New River Gorge National Park and Reserve.

Of the routes, 51.2% are sport climbs, 32.4% are traditional, 13.8% are bouldering and 2.5% are toprope. Most routes are 5.9 and above.

For last minute gear and maps, check out Water stone outside in Fayetteville. No permit is required to climb.

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Trek

The end of the walk at Sandstone Falls
(Photo/Xiaoling Keller)

The park is huge, so if you only have one day, pick just one or two of the seven different areas to explore.

We chose the Sandstone-Brooks area in the south because there is a 1,500 foot diameter waterfall and it was closer to where we started our day. The trail is a 0.4 mile round trip ADA accessible boardwalk.

At the end of the boardwalk, stairs lead down to the rocks, where you can explore further.

If you have more time, we recommend the 3.2 mile Grandview Rim Trail hike to see the bend in the river as well as the 1 mile Tunnel Trail.

Campgrounds and wild camping

Meadow Creek Campground
(Photo/Xiaoling Keller)

One of my favorite parts about this park is that there is plenty of free primitive camping and you don’t need a reservation. The nine areas that offer this are Stone Cliff Beach, Army Camp, Grandview Sandbar, Glade Creek, War Ridge/Backus Mountain, Brooklyn, Thayer, Meadow Creek, and Gauley Tailwaters.

The Burwood Group campsite near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center requires a Special Use Permit. Contact the permit office at 304-465-6517 for more information.

We stayed at the Meadow Creek Campground near the Sandstone Falls Visitor Center. It was a great stay, but there are train tracks nearby and a train ran at 11pm each evening.

The site is first come, first served, and you can stay for up to 14 days. There were individual fire pits, picnic tables, barbecue grills, parking spaces, and outhouses, and it was right by the river.

This park primarily offers day hikes, but suggested trails for hiking are Glade Creek, Kates Plateau, and Polls Plateau.

sandstone falls
The views of the Sandstone Falls; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

How to get there

If you need to fly, Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., is the best option for getting to the park. It’s about an hour by car to the New River Gorge Bridge and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, conveniently located on US Route 19.

My boyfriend and I drove from Shenandoah National Park to Meadow Creek Campground in the southern part of the park, so we took Route 64, where the Sandstone Campground and Visitor Center was right at the exit.

Visitor centers

The Canyon Rim Visitor
The Canyon Rim Visitor Center exhibit: (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

There are four visitor centers to visit for maps and historical exhibits. The Canyon Rim Visitor Center is to the north near the bridge.

The Grandview Visitor Center and Thurmond Depot are in the middle of the park and are both open seasonally. Grandview offers stunning views of the bend in the river and Thurmond Depot is a restored railway depot. This site is one of many historic sites in this park that reflect the state’s coal mining history.

Finally, the Sandstone Visitor Center is located in the southern part of the park. It has a TopoBox, an interactive sandbox with a projector that helps teach watersheds and topography.

Driving from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to the Sandstone Visitor Center takes about an hour, and it takes another half hour to Sandstone Falls, so plan accordingly.

This visit was my first time at the park, and although it was a short visit, it was a beautiful one. I hope you enjoy your trip whether you are hiking, rafting, rock climbing, visiting historical sites or all of the above.

aerial view of the lower river of the new river gorge, west virginia
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