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Whitewater rafting, gorgeous hikes, scenic drives, stunning sunsets, incredible vistas and miles of lush green countryside. Those are just some of the things that make America’s 63rd national park a must-see spot. Here are all of the fun things to do in and near New River Gorge National Park in the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia.
If you have never been to West Virginia, chances are you have some stereotypical images in mind. And chances are those images come in shades of gray and black and have a lot to do with coal mining and coal miners.
Just one visit to America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in southern West Virginia, is all it will take to wipe away that stereotype. This lush, green land is filled with natural wonders, beautiful rivers, inviting hikes, and welcoming people. Turning the New River into a national park is a brilliant way to let the rest of the world know.
Turning the New River into a National Park
The New River has been a national river since 1978. (In addition to its 63 national parks, the US National Park Service includes national rivers, national monuments, national lakeshores, national military parks and battlefields and a number of other designations.)
Thanks to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the New River and its gorge became a national park on Dec. 27, 2020, as part of a Covid-19 relief bill. It’s a national park “and preserve” because NPS does not allow hunting on national park property, but it is OK to hunt on national preserves. That was a big issue for West Virginians who are used to hunting on these lands.
Are You in the National Park?
Only about 10 percent of the 53 miles of the park are a part of the national park, primarily the lower gorge area around the New River Gorge Bridge. The other 90-ish percent (65,165 acres) is the preserve. But it’s not like there are signs telling you where the park ends and the preserve begins.
For that matter, there also is West Virginia state park land located within the New River Gorge NP perimeter, as well as some privately-owned property.
While it all seems rather confusing, it really isn’t (unless, I suppose, you want to hunt. Then it’s important to know exactly where you are). For most visitors to the area, driving in and out of the park and through the state parks feels completely fluid.
Even better: Admission to New River Gorge National Park is free. So there’s little need to really know what land you’re driving or hiking across.
Here are the best things to do at New River Gorge National Park.
Without a doubt, the No. 1, don’t miss, gotta-do-it outdoor activity at New River Gorge National Park is to take a whitewater rafting trip on the New River.
There are three ways to do this:
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The Upper New River
This is the calmer ride. But make no mistake about it: This is not a float trip! The raft goes through Class I, II and III rapids on this trip. To hear the guides and river experts talk about it, I was expecting a laid-back slightly boring trip. Not so! It was just invigorating enough to be fun.
This rafting trip would be fine for younger kids who can sit safely inside the raft and enjoy the ride while the big kids and adults paddle. Before going, check out TravelingMom’s tips for rafting with kids.
The Lower New River
This is the more challenging trip. What a blast! I’m a water person and I have done several raft rides in the past that billed themselves as whitewater rapids but felt more like float trips with a mini adrenalin rush now and then.
This trip was serious adrenalin with a few moments of floating interspersed. I wanted to get back on the bus at Fayetteville Station and head back to do it all over again.
Be aware that one of the rafters in a second boat was ejected from the raft on the first rapid. The skilled Adventures on the Gorge guide had her back in the boat in just a few minutes. She was wet, but otherwise fine.
This trip would be best for adventuresome older kids and adults.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t forget to bring cash to tip your river guides. They do a great job of keeping everyone safe and entertained.
This is the Class V rapids that draw paddlers from around the world. The river drops more than 650 feet in 25 miles, with 25 Gauley River rapids in just the first 9 miles of water. That includes rapids with ominous names such as Lost Paddle.
These world-class river rapids start flowing the Friday after Labor Day when the Summersville Lake Dam is opened to lower the lake level for the winter. I visited in late May so rafting the Gauley wasn’t an option, but I’m ready to go back in September!
Fun Fact: The Summersville Dam was almost named after Gad, the nearby town. But once the locals said it out loud — Gad Dam — they thought better of the name and changed it to Summersville!
If you prefer to play on the water in a more relaxed way, there are plenty of outfitters that run kayak trips on the New River.
We kayaked in an inflatable boat that I found a little difficult to paddle — and I am an experienced kayaker who kayaks at any possible moment. At one particularly challenging point while kayaking upriver, I got stuck and no matter how hard I paddled, I managed only to stay in one place. I was both embarrassed and grateful when the guide gave me a nudge to get me unstuck.
The less experienced paddlers stayed in a clam area near shore, happily paddling around in circles and enjoying the views of the gorge, the bridge and the rest of us working our way upstream far enough that we could enjoy the float back downstream.
Fun Facts: The ironically named New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world. And it’s one of only a few rivers that flow north — so the warmest water is at its northernmost point.
New River Gorge National Park has some challenging and not-so-challenging hikes that reward hikers with incredible views of the gorge, the New River Gorge Bridge and even some abandoned coal mines.
The two most popular hiking trails are the Endless Wall Trail and Long Point Trail. Both hikes were lined with gorgeous blooming purple Catawba rhododendron bushes when I walked them in late May. (The summer brings the white rhododendron bloom.)
I did the 1.6-mile Long Point Trail, which is mostly a leisurely walk through the forest. There’s a challenging steeper section at the end, but the reward is panoramic views of the New River Gorge and the bridge. All but the last bit of the trail is open for mountain biking too.
Really adventurous (and fit) hikers can connect to the Kaymoor Miner’s Trail along Long Point. It’s only a one mile loop, but it includes 821 stairs to get down to the abandoned Kaymoor coal mine, which closed in 1962 and was the last area coal mine to close.
The NPS has full descriptions of the Fayetteville area hikes, including directions to the trailheads, here.
TravelingMom Tip: If you want to do these hikes, start early. Parking at the trailhead is limited and cars that park along the road get towed!
New River Gorge Bridge
We drove over the bridge numerous times as we explored the area and the park. And then I walked under it.
The New River Gorge Bridge Walk along the 2-foot-wide catwalk 851 feet above the New River is one of those slightly touristy things to do that you’ll be glad you did. You can read all about my slightly shaky New River Gorge Bridge Walk.
And, if you happen to be visiting on the third Saturday in October, you’ll be there for Bridge Day. That’s when people come from all over the world to jump off, rappel down and zipline from the New River Gorge Bridge.
There are great views of the bridge from many locations throughout the park and, of course, from the New River. But the easiest way to get a close-up look is the Canyon Rim Boardwalk that starts at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center parking lot off U.S. Route 19 in Lansing.
An easy walk on a fully accessible ramp leads to the first viewing point. More adventurous walkers can climb down the 178 steps to the lower overlook for breathtaking views of the bridge. Just remember: Those who walk down also must walk back up!
This lovely lake was formed by damming the Gauley River. During the summers, the lake water can get to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6C). There’s a public beach for swimming and you can rent pontoon boats, go fishing or even scuba dive in the deep waters of Summersville Lake.
I’m sad to say that we didn’t have time in our packed scheduled to do more than look at the lake. A long afternoon on a pontoon boat with a picnic lunch is definitely on my to-do list for a return visit.
TravelingMom Tip: Anyone 13 and over needs a fishing license. You can buy one at the local Walmart.
Full disclosure: Rock climbing is not for me. But thousands of rock climbers visit the park each year to scale the vertical sandstone walls that rim the gorge. There are more than 1,600 climbing routes in the park.
We watched several of them from the safety of our raft on the Upper New rafting trip. They likely also were there when I rafted the Lower New, but I was busy paddling then.
Thurmond, a Coal Mining Ghost Town
This ghost town was once the “it” spot for coal barons and their pals. Thurmond’s banks were the richest in the state. Fifteen passenger trains a day came through town, carrying 95,000 passengers a year. Some came just for dinner or date night at one of the classy restaurants or saloons. Thurmond’s hotels and boarding houses were constantly overflowing.
At its peak, Thurmond was the heart of the New River Gorge, carrying shipments of coal from the surrounding coal fields. Thurmond’s rail yard was the chief railroad center on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway mainline. That ended with the rise of the automobile and the move from steam to diesel engines.
Today, the town is a remarkably preserved shadow of its former self. The National Park Service, which owns the 20+ structures that remain, restored the Thurmond Depot into a visitor center in 1995. It’s open during the summer, but was still closed when I visited in late May.
Take a Drive
The national park stretches 53 miles, from Hawks Nest State Park on the north, to Hinton, West Virginia, on the south. I recommend a long, meandering road trip.
There are so many beautiful spots in and near the park. Drive with the windows down so you can hear the rushing water. Every few miles, we spotted another waterfall alongside the road. Several spots were worth a stop for a short walk down to the water to sit and listen to the water pouring over the rocks.
Others have developed areas or even fully accessible boardwalks that reward with yet another breathtaking view of the countryside. Sandstone Falls is one don’t-miss stop. Its’ the highest waterfall in the New River at 25 feet and it spans the entire 1,500-foot width of the river at that point.
Things to Do in Nearby Beckley, West Virginia
This is the place to go to learn the proud but brutal history of coal mining in West Virginia.
We visited the coal mine the easy way: By sitting down in a comfy coal train car that was pulled into the interior of this former coal mine.
Our guide was a retired coal miner who spent 45 years working in a dark, drippy cave. He talked dispassionately about the realities of the early days of coal mining that had many of us gasping and shaking our heads at the brutality of it all.
What You’ll Learn About Mining
- Worked in the mines for nine hours a day without ever seeing the light of day.
- Sometimes worked on their hands and knees because the coal seam was so low in the tunnel.
- Had to buy their own canaries to keep in the mine to warn them of lethal gas buildups.
- Stored their dentures in their water pails to keep other miners from stealing sips.
- Were paid 20 cents for a ton of coal and their pay was docked if they were caught supplementing the weight with rocks from inside the mine.
- Wanted to see rats in the mine because “the rats don’t stick around if it’s not safe.”
- Mined by drilling a hole in the rock with a hand drill, filling it with black powder and mud, yelling “Fire in the hole,” and lighting the fuse. That would blow black coal everywhere. He then would shovel the coal into a coal car, tag it with his number and send it out of the mine. He would do that three to four times per shift.
The museum also has replicas of the mine superintendent’s house, a miner’s house and a miner’s “shanty,” a tiny little one room place that is smaller than the bathrooms in many houses. They were used by men who worked in the mine during the week and went home to their families on the weekend.
TravelingMom Tips for Visiting
- This tour is not for the claustrophobic. Our guide stopped a few minutes into the mine to ask whether anyone wanted to change his or her mind. One man did, so we returned to the entrance to let him off before finishing the tour.
- Bring a jacket. It’s only 58 degrees F (14.4C) inside the mine.
- It doesn’t matter which side of the car you sit on since there are things to see on both sides of the mine tour. But sit as close to the center of the two cars as you can. People at the ends were not able to see as much when we stopped.
- The mine is open seasonally, from April 1 through November 2.
Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia
This charming children’s museum has a big heart. Located next to the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, the Youth Museum was constructed from four brightly painted railroad boxcars. The central exhibit area features an average of three different exhibits yearly.
When I visited, it was a Thomas the Tank Engine exhibit that would have thrilled my son when he was a preschooler!
Don’t miss a walk through the Mountain Homestead display behind the museum. This recreated Appalachian village offers an up-close look at life in West Virginia in the late 1800s. The interpreters are enthusiastic and knowledgeable presenters of their mountain ancestry. There’s also a self-guided cell phone tour.
Want More Mid-Atlantic Adventures? Check out Free Things to Do in Richmond VA