Adventure in the New River Gorge National River

The East’s adventure central

You sometimes hear the New River Gorge National River called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” but really, you can’t compare the two. The New River Gorge is one-of-a-kind.

The history, recreation and the culture of Fayetteville (marked by a sign: “The Coolest Small Town”), the New’s population hub, make it one of the most unique outdoor recreation destinations in the United States. What it lacks in west-styled isolation and expanse, it makes up for with accessibility, diversity and an intimate Appalachian beauty.

The New River Gorge is lined with mines, railroads, bridges and ghost towns– relics of a long history.

From the 1880s up to the mid-20th century, the New River Gorge was one of West Virginia’s greatest producers of coal. Thurmond, Cunard, Kaymoor, Nuttallburg, Glade– most of these old mining towns are abandoned, engulfed by ivy and kudzu, but still accessible to the adventurous.

Today, the gorge and Fayetteville are a charming mix of the old Appalachian coal culture, and various visitors and residents here for the amazing outdoor activities that the Grand Canyon of the East has to offer.

The New River & Recreation

New river rafting

In the 1960s and 70s, outdoor and adventure recreation gained nationwide popularity, and the manufacturing power of the United States gradually dwindled. The New River Gorge was a microcosm of this transition. In 1968, Jon Dragan’s Wildwater Unlimited became the first commercial outfitter to guide clients down the whitewater of the New River. In the next decade, dozens more outfitters popped up. Whitewater rafting became a major economic player in the region.

Today, many river companies have expanded to offer more adventures like guided climbing, stand-up paddleboarding, paintball courses, disc golf, zipline tours, luxury cabins and more.

However, the river culture on the New remains the same as it always has been– boisterous, fun-loving and communal. A typical day on the whitewater will be followed by beers at a local pub, where boaters will talk and gawk over videos of the wipeouts of the day.

As Jay Young, a river guide and author of the history of New River rafting said: “Sometimes you get to see a show, and other times, you are the show!”

Sandstone Cliffsides & Climbing

Rafting is not the only world-class outdoor sport in the gorge. In the 1960s, rock climbers from Seneca Rocks began trickling down to the New, following rumors of bullet-hard sandstone. The New became one of the most popular climbing areas in the nation. Its cliffs barely exceeded 100 feet, but what they lacked in height they more than made up for in quality.

The cultural hub for New River climbing is the gear shop Water Stone Outdoors. Owners Gene and Maura Kistler, as well as their business partner Kenny Parker, have been fixtures in Fayetteville for decades.  

A lot has changed since Water Stone first opened its doors in 1994. The fact that the New is within easy weekend trip distance of millions of people has resulted in numbers of climbers skyrocketing. 

New-River-Gorge-Bridge-raft“Greater numbers mean more business, but they also mean more access problems,” said Gene Kistler. Over the years, the National Park Service and NRAC (the New River Alliance of Climbers) have worked diligently to keep ahead of these numbers. For more than a decade, NRAC raised funds by throwing one of the biggest climber parties in the nation– the New River Rendezvous.

The iconic New River Gorge Bridge

The biggest event at New River Gorge is, without a doubt, Bridge Day. BASE jumping is usually banned in all national parklands. However, this rule is set aside on the 3rd Saturday of every October. The iconic New River Gorge Bridge over the gorge is closed to traffic, and parachuters and onlookers alike are allowed to walk freely about the 3,000 foot long, 876-foot-high span.

Sharon Cruikshank of the Bridge Day Commission said that the idea of “Bridge Day” began in 1979. Visitors loved the idea of having “walkovers” of the bridge. The first Bridge Days– though featuring skydivers– did not make BASE jumping the main attraction that it is today.  

By the early 1990s, when the bungee jumping was a national craze (GMC even filmed a Jimmy SUV being bungee’d off of the bridge!), Bridge Day began featuring expos of bungee and BASE jumpers. Eventually, qualified BASE jumpers were allowed to sign up to jump off of the bridge in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Bungee jumping was eventually ended, although you can rappel off the flanks of the bridge.

Mountain Trails & Overlooks

Since mountain biking began gaining national momentum in the 1980s, it has been a fixture at the New River Gorge. The old dirt roads make it very accessible.

SandstoneThere have been 2 bike shops in Fayetteville for nearly a decade now, and recently a larger shop has opened up on the outskirts of town. In 2011, the National Park Service in partnership with the Boy Scouts and the International Mountain Biking Association recently crafted the stunning Arrowhead trail system.  This series of loops, manicured into jumps and banks, ranges from easy to expert across 12 miles of trail, all easy riding distance from town.  

“I feel we are sitting on this amazing opportunity to compete with western destinations like Moab, creating our own hot spot for biking that is backed by a multitude of other activities to keep you, your friends, and family busy on your trip,” said Adam Stephens, local mountain biker and owner of the Marathon Bicycles shop. It’s true– add the Arrowhead Trails to existing dirt roads and gravel rail-trails like those along the nearby Meadow River, and it is obvious that mountain biking may soon rival climbing or rafting as a destination sport at the New.  

Of course, outdoor recreation does not have to have the thrills, skill, and investment of rafting, climbing, or mountain biking.  Many folks may just prefer to take a simple walk in the woods on the edge of or within the gorge as well, and there are plenty trails for that. The Kaymoor Stairs are a fixture among local athletes. The scenic walk out to Long Point is arguably one of the best views of the bridge. The Endless Wall Trail, once mostly used by climbers for access to cliffs, was named the #1 National Park hike by USA Today.  

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Whether you are a BASE jumper, boater, climber, mountain biker, hiker or just someone who wants to get out into the beautiful Appalachian hills, it is hard to deny that the New River Gorge is the ideal place. There are many places in the United States to get out and play in the outdoors, but few offer the diversity and accessibility of the New, or the charming, close-knit vibe of the local towns. Visit here, play here, or move here; you won’t be disappointed.

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