2020 was a pretty bleak year for us all, with droves of depressing news stories each day. However, there was one particularly exciting day for National Park Geeks like me – the designation of a new park, and even more exciting, within easy driving distance from my house.
I was not able to plan a trip to New River Gorge until April of 2022, but it was absolutely worth the wait. There are endless miles of beautiful West Virginia landscape to take in.
We traveled from Grayson Highlands to Fayetteville, WV in order to spend one full day and two half days inside the park. We picked a quiet little family-owned campground (Green Acres Campground) and quickly befriended the two camp kitties – Mork and Mindy. Mork was particularly friendly, and came over for a campground inspection. He deemed the Jeep fit for adventure.
On our first evening in camp, we drove around, familiarized ourselves with the local coffee spots, and got a basic lay of the land. Some of the coolest finds in the park are not touristy destinations; just tiny pockets of beauty and wonder. We stumbled upon many un-named waterfalls, alcoves and rock faces, stopping here and there to take in solitude and photographs.
I was unaware of how close to “the bridge” we were, and we drove over it three times, eagerly checking out each side for the trademark bridge-view before I realized that the flat, boring, normal-looking overpass was actually the bridge – holding the title of longest single arch bridge for 26 years before shoved down to fifth on the list.
Mom and Teri joined me for this trip, and Mom is recovering from a bad fall which left her with fractured knee, elbow and wrist. With this in mind, I used the National Park Service website to find some self-guided tours, and then plotted out a pretty epic driving tour to fill our Saturday.
We started our tour in Thurmond, the “heart” of the New River Gorge. Thurmond was once a booming railway town, supporting up to 75,000 passengers per year as coal barons came and went. Once diesel locomotives began changing the coal industry, allowing less reliance on local coal mines, the town began a steady decline. Now it is nearly a photo in time, untouched by modern development. The railway is still active, and you can still take a passenger train into the depot, which serves as a National Park Visitor Center.
After exploring Thurmond, we took the road less traveled, a dirt, high clearance vehicle road that runs from Thurmond to Quinnimont. The road is only 14 miles but took nearly 45 minutes to traverse, winding high into the trees while overlooking to gorge – with no guard rails. Despite its remoteness, there were still several homesteads. I can’t imagine having a driveway that takes more than thirty minutes to drive!
From Quinnimont, we made several stops – Grandview, Sandstone Visitor Center and then Sandstone Falls. Sandstone Falls is quite a bit of a drive away from the other stops, and we also took the opportunity to find a local restaurant to feed our hungry bellies.
Sandstone Falls is definitely worth the drive. It consists of a very easy walk from the parking are to the falls via boardwalk, so it is easy, flat, short and accessible. The entire walk is beautiful, as the Falls are amongst some shoals which crate several smaller falls and rapids that you can see along the way.
Hunger satiated, we finished our evening with a stop to Babcock State Park, which is one of the most iconic locations on the eastern seaboard. Photographers flock to the 1976 Glade Creek Grist Mill every year to document the rustic mill set against a beautiful backdrop of autumnal foliage and rushing water. The mill is still functional, you can even pick up a bag of meal from the visitor center.
Absolutely exhausted, we headed back to our campground and settled in for a bonfire and dinner, sharing our favorite moments from the day and planning a few activities for the morning before we hitched up and headed out.
When morning dawned, we went through our usual camp-breaking routine, getting the entire camper locked and loaded, and then heading out for our morning adventure. This gives us the ability to enjoy our morning without feeling like we have to rush back to pack up camp – we literally return, hitch up, and head out.
Our morning was completely centered around the most iconic aspect of the park, the New River Gorge Bridge. At the time of its construction, the beautiful bridge was the longest steel arch bridge in the world, a title that it held until 2003. It still remains the longest *single* steel arch bridge, as well as the third highest bridge in the country. “The Bridge” is constructed of COR-TEN B, which is a special type of weathering steel that is designed to rust in a way that eliminates the need for painting as well as resisting corrosion.
There is an audio driving tour that you can get information about from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center which will give you a ton of information about the New River Gorge Bridge as it winds down towards the river and the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge, one of the original truss bridges used before the new construction. On this tour you will get a superb look at both bridges.
The drive along the river also gives you several trailheads to stop and stretch your legs. Some of these short hikes feature historical markers and significance, or areas of natural beauty. Its the perfect opportunity to slow down and have a restorative moment in the timeless old-growth of the West Virginia forest.
Like all of our National Parks, New River Gorge is a unique experience that instills a deep appreciation for our history and architectural accomplishments. It’s also a moment to reflect on the past way of life, and the differences, both good and bad, with our modern lifestyle.