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Note: All travel is subject to frequently-changing governmental restrictions—please check federal, state, and local advisories before scheduling trips. 

Our nation’s newest National Park offers picture-postcard vistas, adrenaline-charged whitewater rafting, mountain biking and rock climbing, and much more—including a real ghost town. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia received its National Parks designation in late 2020. Here’s why you should put it on your bucket list now, before everybody discovers it.

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Essentially, New River Gorge National Park is 50-plus miles of the New River and a dozen or so miles of Appalachian forest hugging both sides of it and totaling more than 70,000 acres. Plus, several West Virginia state parks adjoin the national land, and you can cross between them seamlessly.

With several dozen entry points, mostly located along small country roads between small West Virginia towns, there’s no admission or parking fees. That may change in the future, as may the limited number of campgrounds with no services and just one visitor center, the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. It’s just a short walk to a scenic overlook to what locals refer to simply as “the bridge,” the soaring arched architectural wonder some 1,400 feet above the river .

Hiking and Mountain Biking

Many of the well-marked trails are literally a walk in the park, easy enough for toddlers and beginner mountain bikers. Others require fancy footwork and pedaling around rocks and roots. Whichever you choose, there are amazing overlooks en route, at the end of the trail, or both, especially in spring when bright pink rhododendron are in bloom, and fall, when the landscape turns technicolor.

Grandview Trail looks down on the meandering New River from more than 1,000 feet above it, with multiple overlooks along the way. Trail’s End, an easy two-mile loop, is one of the most popular in the park, for its knock-out view of the New River Gorge Bridge, one of the highest in the USA. Another great short hike, partly on a boardwalk, is to Sandstone Falls, more than 1,500 feet wide, where the river drops about 25 feet. Fishing is allowed here, but not rafting or kayaking

Castle Rock Trail is a one-mile loop featuring steep drop-offs, and not for the squeamish. Ditto the Bridge Walk, where you are strapped into a harness to walk across the river on the steel catwalk two stories beneath the roadway.

Take the plunge

Whitewater rafting on the New River has drawn visitors for 40 years, since commercial rafting began here. The water ranges from serene to fast and scary, depending on which section and which time of year you choose. The Upper is the calmer part and the better choice for beginners and families. The Lower has Class IV and Class V rapids with names such as Lost Lunch and Surprise, which describes them pretty well. Adventures on the Gorge, the primary outfitter here, with more than 50 experienced river guides in season, offers half- and full-day trips, and also on the Gauley River, which is north of, but not part of New River Gorge. (It’s a separate National Recreation Area, but that’s a whole other story)

Visitors can also kayak on one of the calmer stretches or hang out at Cunard Landing to watch, cheer, and photograph passing paddlers. AOTG also has an outdoor bar popular for its sunset views of the bridge and across the gorge.

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Learn the ropes

There are more than 1,400 established rock climbing routes along the hard Nutall sandstone lining the gorge, and it’s becoming a mecca for climbers. Take a lesson with Ace Adventure Resort, or a full-day guided climb. Alternatively, head for the treetops on a zipline course with river views.

Ghost town

Thurmond was a thriving metropolis a century ago, made wealthy by coal mining and the railroad. While C&W freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains still pass through occasionally, Thurmond is now just a few blocks of eerily abandoned buildings and the five-story coal bin that refueled the old steam-powered trains. The town died when the mines petered out and trains switched to diesel. Exhibits at the landmarked depot tell the story.

Where to stay, eat, and shop

Lewisburg offers a charming downtown with restored brick buildings from the late 1800s now housing boutiques and restaurants. There was an important Civil War battle here, and the Confederate Cemetery holds more than 50 unidentified soldiers in a mass grave in the shape of a cross. The North House, a former private home, is the local history museum. Book the Fairfield Inn & Suites here, and enjoy an indoor pool and free breakfast.

Beckley is closer to the park, but has less to offer in the way of restaurants and shopping. Guests at the Resort at Glade Springs have access to the 18-hole golf course, spa, and an inventive “Escape Room” experience.

Fayetteville, inexplicably named for the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, has one of the last remaining Ben Franklin stores, a “five and dime” featuring everything from bulk baking supplies to quilting and knitting supplies.

Adventures on the Gorge offers private cabins, some with hot tubs on the back, plus campsites. New “glamping” accommodations are coming summer 2021. Or click the “private vacation home” filter when searching hotels on Orbitz to find a great private cabin for your stay.

Tagged: West Virginia

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is www.ecoxplorer.com

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