New River Gorge National Park – A scenic weekend

It’s the newest national park in the United States! Geologically though, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the country as well.

This Summer has been busy, and other than exploring very locally, we have not been able to venture far from home so far this year. But we were able to commit a long weekend to get to West Virginia for some hiking, exploring, and rafting around the New River.

No Entry fee!

Whether it is due to the park being recently added or the inability to control access based on geography, there is no entry fee for this National Park (at least as of this year).

Thurmond – a ghost town?

Population: 5. Thurmond is a former mining town. In it’s heyday Thurmond was a coal-mining boomtown and only accessible via rail. Amtrak still runs through the town and even has a stop in Thurmond. No wonder Amtrak keeps losing money.

Thurmond also still has a post office and it was unclear whether or not it still functions. There was a sign at the post office in the nearby town of Glen Jean stated that the residents of Thurmond no longer wish to be serviced by the post office.

I thought I would give Thurmond a shot (for a history lesson), even though I was much more interested in the scenery around the New River Gorge. It was interesting and slightly scary driving over the single lane bridge to get “into town”. Other than that, I didn’t find Thurmond particularly interesting.

It was actually quite tragic seeing what had become of a formerly prosperous town (and industry). Now that Thurmond is within the bounds of the National Park Service, there is a tour you can take of Thurmond. There were actually two park service employees in town (not sure if they count toward the 5 residents). If you are interested in the history here, then maybe this remote town is for you. But it was offputting to see tours running through a former coal-mining town that still exists…sort of.

Scenery around the New River

There are several waterfalls along the New River and its immediate tributaries including Sandstone Falls located far to the South just off of Interstate 64. We didn’t make it to Sandstone, but opted for the closer Cathedral Falls near Gauley Bridge. This waterfall is located just off of the scenic drive along US 60.

Cathedral Falls

New River Gorge Bridge

Some of the best scenery is right around the New River Gorge Bridge. The bridge itself is amazing, and the viewpoint at the Bridge Overlook speaks for itself. The bridge is the highest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It replaced the Fayette Station Bridge and reduced the drive over the river from 45 minutes to 45 seconds.

New River Gorge Bridge

The old bridge took so much longer to drive over since the road to the bridge had to wind down into and out of the gorge.

Before we crossed the bridge for the first time, we found out that the bridge crosses over the river at nearly 900 feet! To put that into perspective, we read a Park Service sign that stated you could stack the Washington Monument and 2 Statues of Liberty underneath of the bridge and still have clearance.

Fayette Station Bridge (the old bridge)

Hiking

Our only hike on this trip was a short day hike to Diamond Point along the Endless Wall Trail. The Endless Wall is famous for rock climbing, and is located just South of the bridge. Diamond Point is arguably the most dramatic viewpoint of the gorge. It’s nearly 1,000 feet above the river. That’s pretty high for the East Coast.

New River from Diamond Point - 07-24-21
New River with visible rapids from Diamond Point

Rafting

Our first full day at the New River we spent the majority of the day on the river whitewater rafting.

We rafted the “lower” river as it is known. This consisted of over 20 rapids and 4 class 5 rapids. I don’t understand exactly how rapids are classified, but the higher the class number, the more severe the rapids (and 5 is the highest I think).

The full story on our rafting experience is in another post. Rafting the Lower River is challenging, and a constant workout as you have to paddle hard at some points to avoid flipping your raft. If you think this sounds too extreme for you, most of the rafting outfits also raft the “upper” river which is apparently much more relaxing and not nearly as dangerous. It’s more of a lazy river ride.

Camping

There are loads of campsites in the area. There are some backcountry and primitive sites where you can stay for free. But aroud Fayetteville, they cater to tourists due to the rafting attractions and many established campgrounds and resorts are available with campsites or cabins.

We stayed at Rifrafters for the weekend and I highly recommend it. It’s set up mainly for RVs, but they have a few tent spots too. It’s a little smaller compared to some of the bigger flashy campgrounds/rafting resorts, but it was relaxing. In case you were wondering, yes we finally put the RTT back to use.

RTT setup at New River Gorge - 07-24-21
RTT at Rifrafters

This was also our first time taking our dog camping. He is just a few months old, but hopefully he can join us on many more adventures in the future. Meet Scooter the Corgi Dog:

Scooter at the New River Gorge - 07-25-21
Scooter at the New River Gorge Bridge

Summary

West Virginia has so many scenic places, many of which are not easily accessible. Luckily the New River Gorge area is highly accessible for a variety of interests. If you look at the map of the area, the National Park is very long and narrow (surrounding the river). However each section of the gorge is separated from easy access via car, so it’s time-consuming to try to see different parts of the park.

We stuck to the Northern section near the bridge and it was great. As I stated earlier, we would have loved to see other sections of the park (like Sandstone Falls). But learning from previous experiences, we didn’t try to do too much with the limited time we had. It gives us an excuse to return to the area and we can save those unvisited spots for next time.

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