Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant
Located in southern West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve became America’s 63rd National Park on December 27, 2020. Here, the New River forms the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, creating a landscape that begs to be explored both on and off the water. After our week-long visit, we are ready to share the best things to do at New River Gorge National Park with you!
Despite its name, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers on the planet. In fact, it is older than the mountains themselves. Still, the Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest mountains on Earth. That means this landscape has been evolving for millions of years. As such, this is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.
Both the river and mountains have played a large part in the history of this area. In and around New River Gorge National Park, you’ll find remnants of coal mining and subsistence farming. Today, it is the recreational opportunities that draw visitors to the area.
As America’s newest National Park, I expect that the rest of the country will quickly figure out what the locals already know: there are plenty of great things to do at New River Gorge National Park.
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What to Expect at New River Gorge National Park
As with many of the recent “National Park” designations, New River Gorge is not actually a new park. Congress originally established the park in 1978 as New River Gorge National River. The park protects 53 miles of the New River, meaning it is quite stretched out along the river. Basically, the park is “long and skinny.”
The park headquarters are located in Glen Jean, WV, which is not really a town. The main visitor center is in Fayetteville, a cute but small town with a population of less than 3,000 people. The largest nearby city is Beckley, with a population of about 17,000.
Between the river, mountains and various towns it is not always easy to get from one area of the park to another. The park service does a great job of providing directions and estimated driving times, though. Surrounding New River Gorge National Park, there are a number of state parks and two other National Park Service sites (Bluestone National Scenic River and Gauley River National Recreation Area), meaning almost all the land along the river is protected.
Sinc the park was a National River for decades before being “upgraded” to National Park, you’ll find quite a bit of infrastructure already in place. There are two large visitor centers plus a few smaller visitor contact stations. There are also many hiking trails and a few scenic drives. Honestly, out of all the recent redesignations to a National Park, New River Gorge is probably the most fitting.
As we toured the park, we found many signs and brochures had already been updated with “New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.” At the same time, you’ll still find many signs referring to the National River. Personally, we are perfectly ok with that… there is no need to spend money to replace something that doesn’t need replacing!
While there is a decent amount of infrastructure already in place, some of the small towns surrounding the park could use additional lodging and camping options to accommodate the expected increase in visitation. Overall, though, I think this park is fairly well equipped to handle additional visitors.
How Many Days at New River Gorge National Park?
When planning a visit to a national park, most people want to know how much time they should spend there. For New River Gorge National Park, it really just depends on how active you want to be.
You could see the highlights in as little as half a day. Honestly, though, I think two days at New River Gorge is a minimum. If you’re interested in whitewater rafting, zip lining or visiting any of the other national or state parks in the area, give yourself three days or more.
Our first visit to New River Gorge National Park actually was a quick stop on the way home from visiting the national park sites in Western Pennsylvania. We knew we didn’t have time to see the entire park, but we were passing right by, so we decided to stop for a few hours. That was a good introduction to the park.
This time around, we actually spent a full week in the area. During that time, we were able to see all of the major areas of the park, do a few hikes, enjoy some water and land adventures and check out the other nearby national park sites. Even with all of that, we still had plenty of time to rest and do a little work.
Must-See Sights at New River Gorge National Park
The highlight of the park is the New River. As such, whitewater rafting is a very popular activity here (mid-March to mid-October). The upper New River offers fairly calm rapids, while the lower New River offers a more adventurous experience.
Don’t worry, if rafting isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of things to do on land!
Canyon Rim Visitor Center
You should definitely start your visit at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in Fayetteville. Here, you can check out a few exhibits and watch one of the park films. Also, be sure to pick up the park brochure/map (officially known as a unigrid), a guide for the Fayette Station Scenic Drive and information on hiking trails, if you plan to do any hiking.
Cell phone coverage in the park is very spotty, so having physical copies of these items is better than relying on the website. You can also download the NPS app and save the park for offline use. Still, we always recommend talking to a park ranger to get up-to-date information regarding current conditions.
Before you leave the visitor center, be sure to check out the views of the New River Gorge Bridge.
New River Gorge Bridge
Construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, located along US 19, was completed in 1977, after four years of work. This bridge completely transformed travel in this area, reducing what was about a 45-minute drive down to about 45 seconds.
Additionally, the bridge is a piece of structural art and one of the most recognizable sights in the park. The New River Gorge Bridge is 3,030 feet long and rises 876 feet over the New River. This makes it the longest steel-arched bridge in the western hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States.
When you are driving, the bridge is not all that impressive, so be sure to check out the views from the visitor center or other areas of the park.
Just outside the main entrance to the visitor center, the Canyon Rim Boardwalk allows several different views of the bridge. The first viewpoint is fully accessible. From there, 178 steps take you down to a lower overlook, with one of the best views of the bridge anywhere in the park. Yes, it is worth the effort to walk down to that overlook if you can.
Fayette Station Scenic Drive
To understand travel before the bridge was built and enjoy close-up views of the gorge and river, be sure to drive Fayette Station Road. This one-way drive takes you down into the gorge and over the replicated original bridge. The drive itself is great and you’ll get wonderful views of the bridge and river along the way.
Be sure to get a detailed map of the drive, which starts just north of the visitor center. You can also download an audio tour or stop at several exhibit signs along the drive. You’ll need at least 30-45 minutes for the drive itself. Expect to spend at least an hour if you stop at the exhibits, walk across the Fayette Station Bridge for views of the new bridge or walk down to the river.
Note: this drive includes several hairpin turns and a low-clearance bridge, so is not suitable for RVs and trailers.
Thurmond Historic District
For a glimpse of a once-booming railroad town, drive over to the Thurmond Historic District, which is about 30 minutes south of the visitor center. Here, you can walk through the historic town that was once the heart of New River Gorge, transporting coal from the area nationwide.
In the summer (typically, Memorial Day to Labor Day), a small visitor center and park store is open in the old depot. Ranger-guided tours of the area are offered daily (check the park web site for times). Alternatively, you can pick up a brochure for a self-guided tour year-round. Throughout the ghost town, you’ll find the remains of several buildings and a few exhibits on the history of the area.
Interestingly, Thurmond remains an active passenger stop for Amtrak, despite its remote location.
You can do the above activities with a half-day visit to New River Gorge National Park.
Sandstone Visitor Center
Located about an hour southeast of the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the Sandstone Visitor Center serves as a gateway to the southern end of the park.
This building features sustainable design and exhibits focus on the natural and cultural history of the area. One of the coolest features is a river map on the floor, showing the greater New River watershed.
Be sure to check out the short park film, which is different from the one at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, and the exhibits on area resources and conservation.
About 45 minutes south of the Sandstone Visitor Center, Sandstone Falls is the largest waterfall in the park. Here, a fully accessible boardwalk provides several observation areas for this low waterfall that stretches the width of the New River.
In addition to the waterfall, this is a great place to see the New River upstream of the gorge. Here, the river is wider and the banks are less steep. It really is an interesting contrast to what you see farther north.
Getting to Sandstone Falls isn’t quick, but it is a nice drive and worth the time.
With extra time, you can also walk the Island Loop Trail. This short (about 0.5 miles) hiking trail loops off the boardwalk, allowing you to get closer views of the forest and access the river. If you have the time and want to stretch your legs, this isn’t a bad hike. That said, I wouldn’t call it a must-do.
You should be able to do all of the above with a full-day visit to New River Gorge National Park. You’ll likely need another day if you also want to do some hiking or other activities below.
Best Hiking Trails at New River Gorge National Park
If you’re looking to stretch your legs, there are many different hiking trails at New River Gorge National Park. In fact, the park publishes a 20-page “newspaper” listing all of the trails in the various areas of the park. This publication includes descriptions of each trail, along with length and directions to the trailhead. Of course, it also has maps and general hiking safety tips.
Despite the abundance of hiking trails, two trails were consistently recommended as the best hiking trails at New River Gorge. If you want to do some hiking, we definitely recommend the trails below.
Both of these trails are located relatively close to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. And, both are mostly shaded, which we always enjoy, especially in the summer!
Endless Wall Trail
The Endless Wall Trail offers views of the gorge from the north side. You can hike the trail from two different trailheads near Fayette Station Road. From either trailhead, it is about a 2-mile roundtrip hike to the main overlook at Diamond Point. Alternately, you could hike it as a roughly 3.5-mile loop but the last 1/2 mile requires walking along the road back to your car.
We did this hike as an out-and-back from the Fern Creek Trailhead. Most of the trail is relatively easy, though there are a few short steep sections. Be sure you make it all the way to Diamond Point, which is clearly marked.
Overall, we enjoyed this hike and the views of the gorge are spectacular. The hike took us about an hour, plus additional time taking pictures at the overlook.
Note: the Fern Creek parking area is relatively small and the lower trailhead is not much bigger. It’s best to do this hike on a weekday or outside of peak visitation times.
Long Point Trail
The Long Point Trail is another easy-moderate hike that is mostly forested as you make your way to the New River Gorge on the south side. Again, most of the trail is relatively easy, with just a few minor rolling hills. About a 1/4-mile before the end, you’ll reach the steepest part of the trail, as it descends to the overlook.
At the overlook, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the gorge, the bridge and the river below you. This really is a spectacular view and well worth the hike to get here.
This 3-mile out-and-back trail took us about 1.5 hours, including 10-15 minutes at the overlook for pictures.
Adventures at New River Gorge National Park
In addition to the traditional national park activities, there are a few more exhilarating outdoor adventures at New River Gorge that allow you to fully embrace all the area has to offer. There are several outfitters in the area but Adventures on the Gorge hosted us during our visit and we had a fabulous time!
This full-service resort offers a wide range of activities, along with lodging and dining. I’ve summarized our adventures below but stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article with more details.
Note: some of our experiences were sponsored but all opinions expressed are our own.
First and foremost, this area is best known for its whitewater rafting. If you have young children or are just looking for a less-impactful adventure, then rafting the Upper New River is best. This part of the river includes Class I-III rapids, which are relatively small and easy rapids. If you are ready for something more exhilarating and technically challenging, opt for the Lower New River, which includes Class IV and V rapids.
Adventures on the Gorge offers half-day, full-day and overnight whitewater trips on the New River, all with a trained and experienced guide.
One of the most unique things to do at New River Gorge National Park is the Bridge Walk. On this tour, you walk on a catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge the entire length of the bridge. Your tour guide provides commentary on the park, construction of the bridge, information on the area and much more along this leisurely 0.6-mile walk.
The Bridge Walk allows you to view the river and epic views of the gorge from 861 feet above the water! You’ll wear a safety harness as you make your way across the 3,030-foot-long and two-foot-wide steel catwalk.
I’ll be the first to admit that this walk is a little terrifying for those that are afraid of heights (that’s me!). Still, it was a cool experience and I am *mostly* glad that I did it.
Adventures on the Gorge also offers a couple of different zip line and other aerial adventures. We did the Treetops Zipline Canopy Tour, which is a 3-hour long tour that includes zipping, pedestrian suspension bridges and a free-hanging rappel.
Throughout our adventure through the forest, we also learned about the forest and the efforts to protect the hemlocks in the area.
We’ve done zip lines and aerial adventures in various places over the years. Most recently, we even did a high ropes course on the Norwegian Breakaway while cruising the Western Caribbean. I have to say, this tour with Adventures on the Gorge was the best one we’ve done so far!
Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article with more details on these adventures!
Other Things to Do at New River Gorge National Park
With another day or two, there are a few other things to do at New River Gorge National Park that are well worth your time. These activities allow you to fully explore the park and surrounding area.
At the Grandview area of New River Gorge National Park, you’ll have sweeping views of the New River and surrounding mountains from 1400 feet above. Additionally, you can see the still-active railroad town of Quinnimont, where coal was first shipped out of the gorge in 1873.
The Main Overlook at Grandview is fully accessible and is a must if you are visiting this area. A few hiking trails lead to additional views of the gorge and river. We recommend the first part of the Grandview Rim Trail, out to North Overlook (roughly 1/2 mile one way).
The Grandview Rim Trail continues all the way to Turkey Spur (1.6 miles one way) but unless you just really want the exercise, we’d suggest you just drive to the Turkey Spur overlook. After the North Overlook, the trail was much closer to the road and did not offer views of the gorge until you reach the end. For us, that part of the trail just wasn’t really worth it.
Also at Grandview, you’ll find a small, seasonal visitor center, a playground, picnic tables and plenty of space for the kids to run around and burn off some energy! They even host outdoor drama presentations by Theatre West Virginia in the summer.
The Grandview area is located about 45 minutes south of Canyon Rim Visitor Center and about 20-30 minutes west of Sandstone Visitor Center.
Nuttallburg Mine Site
Located on the north end of the park, about 45 minutes from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the Nuttallburg Mine Site offers a look at a one-thriving coal mining town. Unfortunately, many of the buildings have been reduced to nothing but a foundation and maybe a few crumbling walls. The real highlight of this area is the conveyor, which transported coal down the mountain, and tipple, where the coal was transferred to rail cars.
We have toured other mining towns, most notably the Blue Heron Mining Community at Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area in eastern Kentucky. As such, we did not feel the need to do a full tour of the ruins at Nuttallburg. Still, it was really neat to see the conveyor and tipple here.
If you’ve never toured a mining town, it would be a great learning opportunity.
Note: the road to Nuttallburg is narrow, winding and remote. It is not recommended for RVs or trailers. Make sure you have directions as you likely will not have cell service for much of the drive.
John Henry Historical Park
If you are familiar with “The Legend of John Henry,” we suggest you take a brief detour outside the south end of the national park to John Henry Park in Talcott. The legend has been told through several movies and songs. Grant knows it from the Johnny Cash song “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.”
As the railroad grew westward in the 1800s, workers labored through hot summers and cold winters to cut trees and lay rails. This physically demanding work was often times dangerous. This was especially true for the work done cutting the 1.25-mile long Great Bend Tunnel at Talcott.
Whether John Henry was an actual person or just a representative figure remains up for debate. At the very least, John Henry represents the many African American men who worked to build and maintain the rails in West Virginia – and relied on the wages earned to support their families. Eventually, though, a steam drill was brought in to speed up work on the Great Bend Tunnel.
According to legend, John Henry “took on” the steam drill in a man vs. machine challenge. John Henry, which a 10-pound hammer in each hand, drilled 14 feet to the machine’s nine. John Henry beat the machine but later died of exhaustion.
Still, he was true to his word, “If I can’t beat this steam drill down, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”
The John Henry statue stands at the entrance to the Great Bend Tunnel, which is no longer in service, just east of the town of Hinton. You can reach it with a 10-15 minutes detour off the route to Sandstone Falls from the Visitor Center.
Richmond Hamilton Farm
Just a few miles south of Sandstone Falls, the almost-hidden Richmond Hamilton Farm offers a look at the subsistence farming that once dominated this area. The rich farmlands found here date to before the railroad when families had to be completely self-sufficient.
The Richmond Hamilton farmstead preserves the main house and two barns.
While there isn’t much here, if you can locate the farm it’s worth a quick stop to wander around on your way to or from Sandstone Falls. A few exhibit signs share more information about farming and living a life of self-sufficiency.
If coming from Sandstone Visitor Center, after you cross the river in Hinton and turn north, the farmstead is two miles up on the left. When we visited, there was no signage. We could just barely see the vent of a vault toilet and a break in the brush along the road. The park service directions state to “watch for a break in a stone wall.” In actuality, the site is just after the end of the stone wall.
Note: this area includes many privately owned houses and businesses. Sites that are privately owned are fairly easy to identify.
Nearby National Park Service Sites
For those who are interested in visiting additional NPS sites, there are two in the area: Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River.
Normally, we would encourage everyone to visit as many park sites as possible. Honestly, though, getting to these particular parks is not easy. And, there’s no infrastructure and really not much to do at either one of them.
So, if you’re like us and are looking to visit all 420+ NPS sites, you should certainly make a point to hit these two while visiting New River Gorge. Otherwise, you can probably skip them.
Gauley River National Recreation Area
Just north of the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, Gauley River National Recreation Area provides even more opportunities for whitewater rafting. But, you can only raft when water is released from the Summersville Dam, which is only 22 days spread over 5 weekends in September and October.
In addition to a very limited whitewater season, the rapids on the Gauley River are rather challenging. On the lower Gauley, rapids range from Class III-V. The upper Gauley is even more challenging, with several turbulent and rocky routes exceeding Class V in difficulty.
While I do enjoy whitewater rafting, this river sounds a bit more technical than I am prepared for. Thankfully, we were there in early June, so it really wasn’t an issue!
So, to visit this park, we first headed up to Summersville Dam. There is a parking area here that allows you to view the dam and access the water. From there, we continued west on Hwy 129, then south on Panther Mountain Road. We followed this road to Woods Ferry, another public access point for the river.
Coming from the east, the road to Woods Ferry was unpaved but in generally good condition. Still, we were in an extremely remote area with little to no cell phone service. You definitely need to have a map and be able to take care of yourself, should you have any problems.
From there, we followed the road west to loop north to Hwy 39 and back to Fayetteville. Much of that section of the road was extremely rough and we were very glad that we had a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive.
For us, this drive was worth it to say we made it to Gauley River NRA. I probably wouldn’t recommend it for the average visitor, though.
Note: the map on the New River Gorge NP brochure indicates Panther Mountain Road is paved. As of our visit in June 2023, most of it is unpaved.
Bluestone National Scenic River
South of Sandstone Falls lies Bluestone National Scenic River. This site can only be accessed from Bluestone State Park on the north end or Pipestem Resort State Park on the south end. And, the only thing there is one hiking trail: Bluestone Turnpike Trail, which connects the two state parks.
Occasionally, the river is high enough that you can do some kayaking or canoeing. Additionally, it is good for fishing and hunting. I’m sure the locals love that. For the casual visitor, though, the one hiking trail is really the only draw. And, sadly, it wasn’t that exciting of a trail for us.
We entered through Bluestone State Park. Follow the park road to where it dead ends just past the Old Mill Campground. That is the boundary for the National Scenic River and the start of the Bluestone Turnpike Trail.
From Pipestem State Park, you would need to take the aerial tram down to the river, then hike 1.3 miles along the River Trail before it leaves the state park and connects with the Bluestone Turnpike Trail. As you can see, that is complicated, which is why we chose to enter from the north end. Additionally, Pipestem Resort SP shuts down the aerial tram on certain days for maintenance, so be sure to check that if you want to visit that park.
The official length of the Bluestone Turnpike Trail is 8 miles one-way. We only hiked about 1.5 miles before turning around. Honestly, the trail was only minimally maintained and after the first 1/2 mile or so, you could not even see the river from the trail. According to the map, the trail does rejoin the river eventually, but we didn’t go that far.
Again, we are glad we made it to that park and were able to do something. That said, there are plenty of other hikes in the area that are probably far better if you just want to get out on the trail.
When to Visit New River Gorge National Park
You can access New River Gorge National Park year-round. That said, it is probably best to visit in late Spring to early Fall, especially if you are interested in whitewater rafting. With so many outdoor activities, I would want reasonably warm weather.
Our first visit was the weekend after Thanksgiving and we had fairly mild weather. Still, we didn’t have time to do much other than just check out the visitor center and a few scenic drives. If we wanted to truly experience the park, we would have missed out on a lot of seasonal activities.
One thing to be very aware of when planning your visit is the annual Bridge Day celebration, which is held on the third Saturday of October every year. On that day, the New River Gorge Bridge is closed to vehicles (yes, that means roughly a one-hour detour) and opened to pedestrians, BASE jumpers and rappellers.
Additionally, there are food and craft vendors, a 5K, tours of the gorge and more, making Bridge Day West Virginia’s largest one-day festival.
Bridge Day pretty much signals the end of the outdoor activities season in the area, so be prepared for limited availability following the festival.
While it would be interesting to visit New River Gorge for Bridge Day, I don’t know if I would want my one and only visit to the National Park to be during that time. That is probably best done after a thorough visit in the summer.
Where to Stay at New River Gorge National Park
Perhaps the biggest difficulty in visiting New River Gorge National Park is figuring out where to stay. Since the park is fairly spread out, you’ll probably do a decent amount of driving regardless of where you stay.
Fayetteville is closest to the main visitor center and is a cute little town. But, being such a small town, there aren’t many hotels or campgrounds. You could also stay in Beckley, which is bigger but farther south. While that puts you a little closer to Grandview and Sandstone Falls, we liked Fayetteville better, even though it was smaller.
During our most recent visit, we camped at Rifrafters in Fayetteville. This might be the only campground that currently offers full hookups. It’s not a large campground, but it was very well maintained and provided easy access to the majority of the things we wanted to do.
We camped here for eight nights and had a great time! Everyone there was very friendly. The bathhouse was clean and even though there appeared to be a few long-term/seasonal campers, nothing was junky. They also have a few cabins if you don’t own a camper.
Adventures on the Gorge also has a small campground (electric hookups only) and a wide range of cabins and other glamping options. While we didn’t stay there, we did walk through the campground before our zip line tour and it looked great. We certainly would stay there if only visiting for a few days. We just want full hook-ups if we are camping for more than a few days… our tanks can only hold so much!
There are also a few hotels, cabins, VRBOs, Bed and Breakfasts and other local options in the area. We haven’t stayed at any close enough to the park that we can specially recommend, though.
Where to Eat Near New River Gorge National Park
For a small town, there are several great places to eat in and around Fayetteville!
Pies and Pints is located in downtown and offers a nice range of specialty pizzas and beer. We started with the Pizza Skins, which is basically just a pizza styled as potato skins. It was good, but not really what we were expecting. From there, we got a large pizza, 1/2 Nashville Hot Chicken and 1/2 Chicken Gouda. Both were interesting and tasty!
Cathedral Cafe, also in downtown, is housed in a renovated church. We enjoyed lunch here after our hike at Long Point. The sandwiches were delicious (loaded Chicken Salad Croissant and Smoked Turkey, Bacon, Avocado Panini) and the atmosphere really was unique.
Southside Junction Tap House is another downtown establishment, offering a solid menu and a full bar. We enjoyed dinner here our last night and it was a great way to end the week! I opted for the Buffalo Chicken Salad, which Grant got the Pineapple Jerk wings. I especially enjoyed the Bees Knees cocktail, made with a West Virginia barrel-aged gin.
Freefolk Brewery Taproom is located just a few minutes from downtown and offers a small menu with several different brews. We opted for just a couple of appetizers, a pint for Grant and a flight for me. The beer was decent but nothing too exciting. Then again, we have been to A LOT of breweries and probably are a bit more discerning than the average visitor. Still, it’s a nice facility and the outdoor space would have been fantastic on a warm, sunny afternoon.
Tudor’s Biscuit World has a few locations in the area and offers a variety of breakfast biscuits and platters, along with lunch and dinner. We stopped in before ziplining and really enjoyed our massive breakfast sandwiches! It may not have been gourmet, but it was a really good Southern biscuit sandwich, and that’s really all we wanted!
Chetty’s Pub is located at Adventures on the Gorge and is perfect for a snack or meal after your day’s adventures. The food (burgers, sandwiches, wings) and beer are great but the atmosphere and views are what really make it special. We especially liked watching the video of the day’s whitewater rafting trip! And, seriously, the view off the back deck can’t be beaten.
Final Thoughts on New River Gorge National Park
Every time a park is designated a “National Park,” there will undoubtedly be people debating just how “worthy” that park is of “National Park” status. After visiting nearly 300 national park sites, we know that the various designations sometimes are very arbitrary. Thus, we often question just how “fitting” a particular designation is.
I have to say, New River Gorge does feel more like a National Park than a National River. With all the different areas, various activities and infrastructure, New River Gorge National Park just seems like the right designation.
And, it’s a park that likely will surprise you. There really are a lot of things to do here. Those who are looking for adventure will certainly find it. But, there are plenty of scenic overlooks, drives and relatively easy hiking trails for those that want a less exhilarating experience.
For us, that’s what makes a great park… a variety of experiences so that everyone can enjoy it. You will certainly find that at New River Gorge National Park.