West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

West Virginia's New River Bridge

West Virginia’s New River Bridge

If you’re a Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964), mention of the New River brings to mind intense whitewater adventures under Spartan conditions. If you didn’t experience it, you heard about it from friends who rafted or kayaked the Lower New in the 60s and 70s. They talked of paddling Class III-V rapids, eating soggy baloney sandwiches and driving seven to nine hours home with river mud still plastered in their hair.

If you’re young enough to have Boomer parents or grandparents, then here’s what you need to know about today’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve: your adventure is not likely to be the same as your grandpa’s. You can still rough it, but you no longer have to. Your entire family can now choose from 25-plus outfitters, some offering as many as 50 outdoor activities. Outfitters’ lodging ranges from tents to deluxe wooded cabins with fireplaces, televisions and hot tubs. Chain motels and hotels lie near the park. Dining, shopping and entertainment choices abound.

Best of all, major cities such as Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Richmond, Cleveland and Lexington are less than 250 miles away via interstates. About half the U.S. population lives within an easy day’s drive of the park.

Dave Arnold, who in 1978 founded the Class VI River Runners with three partners, recalls whitewater landmarks in the 60s and 70s: Senator Bobby Kennedy rafting the Grand Canyon, whitewater kayaking’s debut as an Olympic sport, the release of the guy flick Deliverance, and Sports Illustrated’s profile of a major kayaker. Suddenly, young Boomers wanted to experience whitewater—and West Virginia happened to have some of the best rivers in the world—the New, Gauley and Cheat.

“Those events gave the whitewater industry unprecedented visibility,” says Arnold, “but our biggest boost in West Virginia came from the opening of interstates 64 and 77 and Route 19, which literally cut the driving time in half from major markets. Americans like easy access by automobile and that’s what we have. Gone are the days of ‘epic’ journeys on bad country roads with poor signage and the strains of banjo music [from Deliverance] echoing in your head.”

You can have the time of your life in the park and never pick up a paddle, but without the New River the 70,000-acre playground for outdoor enthusiasts would not exist.

“The New”–actually one of the oldest waterways in the world—took eons to carve the 1,000-foot deep canyon through the Appalachian Mountains. Ravaged by timbering and coal mining in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the forests grew back and the gorge was saved from further damage in 1978, when the 53-mile stretch from the Bluestone Dam (near Hinton) to the Highway 19 bridge (near Fayetteville) became a “national river” maintained by the National Park Service. On December 27, 2020, it became the country’s newest national park and preserve.

The narrow river channel generates big, oscillating waves that swirl around boulders and tumble through rapids with names such as Surprise and Bloody Nose on the Lower New, a favorite run for whitewater aficionados worldwide. The Upper New is more docile, with wide pools where trophy bass lurk and rapids that children can run in inflatable kayaks. You can drift along in the sun-dappled shade fishing or admiring the wilderness while your guide points out vestiges of old villages, homesteads and mines, as well as unique flora, fauna and rock formations.

The gorge is also one of the most popular rock climbing destinations on the East Coast, with 1,400 climbs on hard sandstone faces laced with fissures. And the old railroad beds offer miles of challenging terrain for mountain bikers.

“Product” Diversity

But even at the height of whitewater fever, West Virginia outfitters knew that the Boomers who were the driving force for hardcore rafting, kayaking, climbing and mountain biking would age and the demographics of visitors to the New River Gorge would have to change. In response, rafting companies expanded, merged and diversified, adding amenities and activities to attract a wider range of guests.

Some outfitters, like Adventures on the Gorge (a merger of Class VI and three other outfitters) are now among the largest adventure resorts in the country. AOTG has been lauded by Travel + Leisure for having “one of the world’s coolest ziplines.”

Outfitters on the New River Gorge like AOTG have diversified to please repeat visitors and attract new ones. In addition to traditional river sports, activities include climbing, mountain biking, caving, hiking, zip-lining, ATV tours, horseback riding, paintball, skeet and trap shooting, golf, birding, pontoon boating on Summersville Lake–and “bridge walking” on the 24-inch wide catwalk under the New River Gorge Bridge, 876 feet above the river.

Bridge Day

The New River Bridge, the world’s second longest single arch bridge, closes to Route 19 vehicle traffic on the third Saturday of every October so that visitors can walk on the bridge and watch 350 to 400 parachutists jump off of it. Hartley, former chief ranger of the park, says Bridge Day is the largest B.A.S.E. (bridge, antenna, span, earth) jumping event in the world, drawing more than 100,000 spectators to its carnival-like atmosphere.

Spectators are often in the area for another October standard—Gauley Rafting Season, when releases from the Summersville Lake turn the Gauley River into one of the world’s top ten whitewater rivers. The Gauley River National Recreation Area lies just north of the park and is rafted by most of the same outfitters as the New.

“The New River Gorge could become as popular as the Great Smoky Mountains, the country’s most visited national park,” says Arnold, who chaired the West Virginia Tourism Commission 2001-2005.

What’s likely to accelerate that potential is a storybook turn of events. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) were looking for a permanent home for the 10-day Boy Scout Jamboree. Held every four years, the occasion draws about 40,000 scouts, 8,000 staff and volunteers and 20,000 visitors.

“There were 80 site proposals from 28 states,” says Gary Hartley, former director of community and government relations for the BSA project. “The BSA chose 10,600 acres bordered on three sides by the New River Gorge National River. That gives scouts access to more than 70,000 acres of public land with some of the best rock climbing, whitewater rafting and mountain biking in the country. Being chosen is a coup for West Virginia and will certainly raise the visibility of the New River Gorge.”

Named the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, the site hosted the 2013 and 2017 National Scout Jamborees and the 2019 World Scout Jamboree, which draws scouts from 220 countries and territories. After the first Jamboree the facilities—campsites, roads, trails, arena and activity areas–were  used for scout high adventure camps and were made available to the community.

The effects of the BSA project were quickly positive. Early on, 2,000 scouts worked with park personnel to build 44 miles of trails and repair 46 miles of illegal ATV trails.

During Jamborees each of the 40,000 scouts perform a day of community service, working with the state Citizens Conservation Corps. The scouts’ “giving forward” policy bodes well for the park and the region.

Who knew that whitewater rafting and soggy baloney sandwiches could lead to this?

For more information visit West Virginia Tourism, the National Park Service, the Summit Bechtel Reserve, and Bridge Day.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.