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BridgeWalk: Not your casual stroll in West Virginia
By Tom Adkinson
June 11, 2021

(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of travel stories spotlighting destinations and activities to consider in a time of coronavirus and to inspire safe outings elsewhere.)

bridgewalk tour west virginia
BridgeWalk guide Doug Coleman conducts part of his tour just off the two-foot-wide catwalk. Image by Tom Adkinson.

FAYETTEVILLE, West Virginia – Doug Coleman stands on a spot not any bigger than a yoga mat, gestures grandly out to the stunning West Virginia scenery and seems oblivious to the drop of 851 feet just inches from where he’s perched.

Coleman is leading a tour along the underneath side of an engineering marvel, the New River Gorge Bridge. The roadbed of U.S. 19 is immediately overhead, where cars and trucks create an almost steady drone that tour participants soon tune out as they learn about the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

New River Gorge Bridge
The New River Gorge Bridge rises majestically behind the old river-level bridge it replaced. Image by Adventures on the Gorge.

The experience is called BridgeWalk, and it is one of the major attractions in America’s newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The bridge opened in 1977, but it was several years before the idea of letting the public stroll along a straight-as-an-arrow catwalk originally intended only for bridge inspectors’ use.

The first intrepid guests eased along the 24-inch-wide catwalk in 2010. By the spring of 2021, almost 70,000 others claimed the same accomplishment and could proudly wear the “I Did It!” sticker distributed at the tour’s conclusion.

bridgewalk harness
BridgeWalk guide Doug Coleman clicks another guest onto what he described as the longest continuous safety system in the world. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Coleman and his audience are securely harnessed, but no one completely forgets that they are treading on a narrow walkway that separates them from a long, long drop to the New River, one of the world’s most famous whitewater rafting rivers. In fact, one of the river’s major rapids is almost directly under the bridge.

Rafts and kayaks zoomed through the raging whitewater while my group observed, and one of my companions declared how daunting that looked. I replied that if the rafters and kayakers could see us so far overhead that they might say the same thing about us.

bridgewalk celebration
A BridgeWalk group celebrates its stroll underneath the largest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. Image by Doug Coleman.

Just how deep is the gorge that the bridge spans? Imagine the Washington Monument at the bottom of the gorge with two Statues of Liberty stacked on top. You’d still be 20 feet short of the bridge overhead.

“I’ve done this thousands of times, and it never gets old,” Coleman said, noting that the experience differs depending on the time of day, the weather and the season. Viewing the hardwood forests of the expansive New River Gorge in their full autumn glory from this perspective is very memorable, he said.

My group’s visit began in a misty rain. Clouds obscured the views so much that we couldn’t see the opposite end of the catwalk when we started. The conditions were eerily beautiful, and they seemed to change by the minute.

bridgewalk girders
The superstructure of the New River Gorge Bridge frames a view of the New River, ironically one of the world’s oldest rivers. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The BridgeWalk process is simple. You get a safety message at the BridgeWalk office and gift shop, strap on a safety harness, ride a van for only a couple of minutes to a National Park Service visitor center and then walk down a path to the underside of the bridge.

Coleman or one of his co-workers unlocks a gate, ushers you inside a restricted zone and clicks everyone’s harness to what Coleman said is the longest continuous safety system in the world.

The experience can be made to sound scary or daring, but it’s really not. While there absolutely is a thrill factor, BridgeWalk is more amazing and awe inspiring than fear producing.

bridgewalk credits
The list of credits for the New River Gorge Bridge is long and impressive. Image by Tom Adkinson.

“No one has frozen mid-tour,” Coleman said, “but a very few freak out right at the start. Perhaps they’d talked themselves into going but hadn’t done such a good job convincing themselves.”

The DNF (did not finish) rate is tiny – only 220 out of 70,000.

Some participants have even found it a romantic. There have been 17 engagements during BridgeWalk tours (one hopes there was a string tied to the engagement rings in case the giver or recipient got shaky), and there have been three weddings.

Absent an engagement or a wedding, the most memorable aspects of a tour are educational.

bridgewalk arch
One Washington Monument and two Statues of Liberty would fit under the New River Gorge Bridge with room to spare. Image by National Park Service.

Guides talk about the region’s conspicuous geologic history, the fact that the New River is one of the oldest rivers on earth, the area’s coal mining history and the impressive engineering of the bridge. The bridge has become a symbol for West Virginia and is depicted on the state’s commemorative quarter and on a U.S. postage stamp.

A BridgeWalk tour involves a genuine conversation between guides and groups as you cross the catwalk, and groups basically set the pace. Guides don’t rush the tours. There are no insipid tour guide jokes – the setting is too serene and too beautiful for that.

Trip Planning Resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s newest book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

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