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National park designation boosts visibility of West Virginia’s New River Gorge
By Tom Adkinson
May 28, 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.)

new river gorge bridge
New River rafters finish their trips within sight of the towering New River Gorge Bridge. Image by Adventures on the Gorge.

FAYETTEVILLE, West Virginia – The spectacular New River Gorge is an overnight success – even though this rugged piece of southern West Virginia has been millions of years in the making. All it took was an act of Congress.

What Congress did was redesignate the New River Gorge National River as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, elevating it to national park status and substantially boosted its visibility. Fans of national parks are legion, and a new national park is a big deal.

new river gorge rapids
Approximately 100,000 people a year brave the rapids of the New River, a number expected to grow. Image by Adventures on the Gorge.

The region has been popular for decades with whitewater rafters, hikers and rock climbers – and with photographers who come to capture images of the third-highest bridge in the U.S., the single-arch New River Gorge Bridge. U.S. 19 crosses the bridge 876 feet above raging whitewater rapids.

Just how deep is this gorge? 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.

sunset view of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Guests at Adventures on the Gorge enjoy a quiet sunset and a big view of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Image by Tom Adkinson.

“This always has been a cool place. Now, we’re on a bigger radar screen, and we’re going to see more and more visitation,” said National Park Service ranger Dave Bieri.

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses 53 miles of the river and more than 70,000 acres in five counties. It’s a place of small towns and curvy roads, and not all of the park and preserve is contiguous.

West Virginians’ desire to gain national park status, which happened in December 2020, was strong, according to tourism leaders.

New River Gorge fish
It’s the size of the smile, not the size of the fish, that’s important on a New River smallmouth float trip. Image by Tom Adkinson.

In an era of political rancor, former U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall noted that every affected county commission was unanimous in its advocacy and that the congressional push was solid from both of West Virginia’s senators – one a Democrat and the other a Republican.

“We even had mining companies wanting to make sure there were no new encroachments on the gorge,” Rahall said. “This is the most precious of all the special places in West Virginia.”

New River Gorge visitor center
The Canyon Rim Visitor Center at Fayetteville already proclaims the full name of America’s newest national park. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The New River, which actually is one of the oldest rivers in North America, is an oddity. Its headwaters are at Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and it flows north into Virginia and then into West Virginia. Its waters eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans after blending with the Kanawha, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

A diagram of the entire New River watershed is the artistic floor design at the park service’s Sandstone Visitor Center near the historic railroad town of Hinton. Hinton is poised to become a major gateway community for the southern end of the park.

New River Gorge kayaks
The Upper Gorge portion of the national park has abundant flat water satisfactory for inflatable kayaks. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The area’s biggest outdoor recreation company is Adventures on the Gorge, which borders national park property near the New River Gorge Bridge. In fact, its rafting trips through the Lower Gorge (Class III-V rapids) end almost directly under the bridge.

Adventures on the Gorge lives up to its name with rafting trips on the New River and the even fiercer Gauley River, family float trips through the Upper Gorge, guided fishing trips, rappelling, ziplining and horseback riding. It offers dining and camping and cabin accommodations, and an Airstream park is planned to open this fall.

New River Gorge view
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve protects 53 miles of rugged territory covering 70,000 acres. Image by Tom Adkinson.

“We felt the national park designation would bring new focus to this part of the U.S., and that is proving to be true. There’s barely an hour that goes by when I don’t hear from people asking about the new national park,” said Roger Wilson, president and CEO of Adventures on the Gorge.

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the 63rd national park. The two most recent before it are Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana (formerly a national lakeshore) and White Sands National Park in New Mexico (formerly a national monument). Both got their new designations in 2019.

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

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