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When you have a moderate fear of heights but the No. 1 attraction in a destination is a catwalk beneath the third tallest single-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere, what do you do? You take the New River Gorge Bridge Walk, of course. Here’s how it went.
The writer was hosted.
Having spent most of the last 20 years working to overcome my fear of heights, I thought I was ready for the New River Gorge Bridge Walk during my visit to West Virginia and the New River Gorge National Park.
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Then I read the Bridge Walk release form.
By signing, I agreed that “My participation in such activities and/or use of such equipment may result in injury or illness, including, but not limited to bodily injury, disease, strains, fractures, partial and/or total paralysis, death, or other ailments that could cause serious disability.”
Just to be clear, the Bridge Walk website promises that the “innovative safety system” makes it “impossible for tour guests to fall off the bridge.”
What is the New River Gorge Bridge?
When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, it was the longest single-span arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
The bridge was a modern marvel built for a practical reason: It used to take 40 minutes or more of driving along twisty turny mountain roads to cross from one side of the New River to the other. Now it takes less than a minute.
The original Fayette Mine Road bridge is still in use and it’s a drive worth taking. You can see the bridge and the whitewater rafting boats floating under it if you look to your left as you cross the New River Gorge Bridge.
The bridge looks rusty, but it’s not. The rust color comes from the special steel used to build it. The bridge never needs painting. It does, however, sometimes need cleaning. The pigeons and birds that like to roost beneath the bridge can make quite a mess.
In 2013, the National Park Service listed the New River Gorge Bridge in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic resource.
What is the New River Gorge Bridge Walk?
It’s the two-foot-wide grated steel catwalk that runs the entire 3,030 length of the bridge. In the middle, walkers are standing 851 feet above the New River.
Walkers are fitted with a harness and attached to an overhead steel safety cable — that’s the innovative safety system promised by the website. Thankfully, there also are very sturdy handrails on either side of the catwalk. I had at least one hand on a railing throughout the bridge walk tour, two hands whenever I was not taking a photo.
A family with three tween- and teen-age girls were on my tour. They all were much braver than I. The youngest, who walked just in front of me, regularly bent waaaay over the railing to peer straight down to the ground.
And, when given the invitation, she scrambled to sit on the catwalk and dangle their legs freely. It took every bit of resolve I could muster not to grab her and tell her to stand up straight and hang on!
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The Bridge Walk Experience
So… how was it? Far less frightening than I expected. But it is a long way down to the bottom of the gorge and the bridge does move and shutter as the traffic speeds overhead.
We started at the Bridge Walk headquarters, which is just across highway 19 from where I stayed at Adventures on the Gorge. It’s also walking distance from the Canyon Rim Visitor’s Center at New River Gorge National Park on the north side of the Bridge.
That’s where we got into our harnesses before boarding the van that would take us to our appointed destiny.
Next is a short walk down a path to the locked gate entrance. That is the point of no return and the moment when I took a deep breath and told myself I could do it.
Inside the gate, we were each attached to the steel cable by a long tether that reminded me of my dog’s leash.
And then we started walking.
TravelingMom Tip: This is not the place for flip flops. Wear closed-toed shoes. Bring a jacket on cool days — it can be cooler on the bridge.
Gorgeous Bridge Views
We walked at a leisurely pace and stopped several times along for the tour guide to deliver some interesting bridge facts (few of which I remember since so much of my brain was focused on making sure my hands were always touching a railing).
And there was the view. This is why I have worked to overcome my fear of heights. So much of the world is better when viewed from above — Paris from the Eiffel Tower, Chicago from the Sears (now Willis) Tower, and the New River from the New River Gorge Bridge.
Below we watched the whitewater rafters heading down the New, the second oldest river in the world. All around were the verdant walls of the gorge, rock formations that mark the gorgeous hiking trails of the New River Gorge National Park, and the birds that should be moving around at that height.
We could hear the cars whizzing overhead and feel the tremors as the bridge bent and flexed to the rhythm of the traffic.
The many stops managed to stretch out this half-mile walk for more than an hour. But then we spent way more time talking, looking and photographing than walking.
TravelingMom Tip: Buy a lanyard for your phone and secure your glasses just in case. Neither is likely to survive a fall to the bottom of the gorge. And leave everything in your car — no purses, backpacks, drinks or food can be carried on to the bridge.
How Much Does the New River Gorge Bridge Walk Cost?
It’s a pricey walking tour at $72 for the regular three-hour walk. Special guided tours on nights lit by a full moon cost $59 for a three-hour tour. On Bridge Day, the price jumps $85 and the tour lasts just 1.5 hours.
Kids as young as 8 can do the walk, but they must be at least 48 inches tall.
Tours are daily at 9 and 11 a.m., 1, 3 and 5 p.m.) except Thanksgiving and Christmas. It takes place rain, shine or snow. (Although high winds may be a deterrent, and I’m sure I would not want to be there in a snowstorm.) Reservations are a must.
Is it Safe?
Our guide said he has taken guests in wheelchairs, with prosthetic legs and people more afraid of heights that I am.
I had to know: Did he ever lose anyone?
No, he said. But one guy did pass out. The guide caught him and was able to lower him to the narrow catwalk, where he soon regained consciousness. Fortunately, they were only a few meters into the walk, so the guide was able to get him back to safety without further incident.
New River Gorge Bridge Day
On the third Saturday in October each year, this utilitarian bridge is transformed into a centerpiece of extreme sports called Bridge Day. West Virginia’s largest one-day festival, Bridge Day is when the world’s daredevils come to jump off, zipline down and rappel from the New River Gorge Bridge to the gorge below.
It all started in 1980 when two parachutists jumped from a plane onto the bridge. There they joined three others and all five jumped from the bridge to the gorge below.
It has grown into the largest extreme sports event in the world. Thousands of BASE jumpers jump from the bridge, deploy a parachute and, if all goes according to plan, land on a sandbar near the Fayette Station Bridge only to climb into a car that whisks them back to the bridge to jump again. [BASE refers to the four types of things BASE jumpers jump from: Building, Antenna (tower), Span (arch or bridge) and Earth (cliff or natural formation).]
There are many more daredevils who rappel off the bridge. Both BASE jumping and rappelling require skill, equipment and experience.
How You Can Participate
But regular folks can participate as spectators from the bridge, via the Bridge Day Bridge Walk. The truly brave (so, not me) can zip down the High Line, a zipline on steroids that drops 300 vertical feet while sliding 600-700 feet from the bridge to State Route 82.
Participants must be 10 years or older, 4 feet or taller, weigh less than 275 pounds and have a waist between 20 and 52 inches to fit the harness. It costs $185 per person for 2021. Registration is required. Organizers say people ages 8-78, able bodied and disabled and even a dog(!) have zipped from the bridge in years past, without injury or incident.
As many at 3 million people are drawn to southern West Virginia to partake and witness Bridge Day.
Where is the New River Gorge Bridge?
The New River Gorge Bridge is located on U. S. Route 19, just north of Fayetteville, WV. It is easily reached from Interstates 64, 77, & 79 and from U. S. Route 60 (Midland Trail). It is approximately 30 minutes north of Beckley, 70 minutes east of Charleston, and 70 minutes south of Interstate 79.
On the north side of the bridge, Canyon Rim Visitor Center provides outstanding overlooks of the bridge. Go early in the morning for some great pix of the bridge swathed in fog.