A River Runs through It
Exploring America’s Newest National Park
Words by Marianne Leek
In December of 2020, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve became the 63rd addition to America’s national park system. Located in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, New River Gorge National Park is rich in history and offers visitors miles of hiking trails, panoramic views, and endless natural beauty.
While there are four visitor centers within the park, Canyon Rim Visitor Center is perhaps the best place to begin your adventure. Located just north of Fayetteville, this visitor center is open year-round. Guests should grab a map and talk to a park ranger about the best plan of action to navigate the park and plan what sections they wish to hike and visit. Adjacent to the visitor center is a boardwalk leading to two viewing platforms that provide both long-range views of the gorge and an impressive, up-close perspective of the bridge. You might even catch a glimpse of people willing to pay the extra money and brave enough to participate in a guided walking tour across the gorge under the bridge.
With an 11-minute video and an exhibit room, Canyon Rim provides guests with a historical overview of the people, towns, and industry of the area. Visitors who enter the park via the southern entrance will likely stop at the Sandstone Visitor Center, which includes a native garden that grows milkweed to provide a natural habitat for monarch butterflies. You can also find small seasonal visitor centers in Grandview and in the tiny town of Thurmond.
If you want to see the New River Gorge Bridge from different vantage points, Fayette Station Road is a must-do. This 100-year-old road snakes its way down to the river and crosses the reconstructed Fayette Station Bridge for a sunset view of the bridge like no other. The entire trip along Fayette Station Road from the visitor center to nearby Fayetteville takes just short of an hour, assuming you are stopping to take in the remnants of the area’s coal mining and railroad history.
Thurmond, “The Heart of New River Gorge,” is another historic area of interest, virtually a ghost town today with fewer than ten residents but once a booming coal-mining railroad town in the early 1900s. Strategically situated along the river, Thurmond was only accessible only by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, boasted banks, hotels, restaurants, and stores, and was home to some of the most prosperous people in the area. Visiting the all but abandoned town of Thurmond today is an enchanting step back in time. The majority of the buildings remain virtually untouched, and the original Thurmond railroad depot serves as one of the park’s seasonal visitor centers. The area’s hiking trails, scenic river views, and Thurmond’s fascinating turn of the century history, make it a popular stop on anyone’s park itinerary.
With miles of well-maintained, dog-friendly trails for biking and hiking, New River Gorge is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Endless Wall Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park and has limited parking that fills up quickly, so plan to arrive early. Hikers have the option to do an out and back hike to Diamond Point, or they can complete a loop, but if they continue past Diamond Point they will have to walk half a mile of their hike on the road back to the parking area. This easy to moderate 2.3-mile trail follows the rim of the canyon with extraordinary vistas of the endless wall, river, and gorge, particularly at sunrise.
Long Point Trail, a moderate three-mile out and back hike, leads to the perfect place to capture the quintessential Instagram image of the bridge. The trailhead is located just off of Gatewood Road, a couple of miles from downtown Fayetteville. The area around Long Point includes the Kaymoor mining area, also known as Kay Moor, which once had a school, a company store, and even a community baseball team. As you begin the Long Point Trail, you’ll pass several occupied homes that were once part of New Camp, as well as the site of the old baseball field, and have an opportunity to read more about the area. This trail, with easily the best view of the bridge in the park, is highly trafficked, so when packing a picnic lunch to enjoy, be sure to pack your patience—especially during peak seasons.
Kaymoor Miner’s Trail is located close to Long Point, also just off of Gatewood Road. Steeped in history, America’s youngest national park includes what is left of once-thriving Appalachian mining communities. But if you want to explore what remains of the abandoned, tiny town located at Kaymoor Bottom, it won’t be easy. The Kaymoor Miner’s Trail is rated “strenuous” and is not for the faint of heart. The trail descends steeply through the forest toward the bottom of the gorge. Approximately half a mile in, hikers will come upon the coal-mining and processing area, which includes a warning to miners and the original safety board still intact. If you continue an additional 821 stair steps, the trail’s terminus is the abandoned ruins of the coal-mining town at Kaymoor Bottom. Due to a fire in 1960 some of the original buildings are gone, and what remains is grossly deteriorated and overgrown. As a result, the area has been fenced off to protect adventurous and impulsive hikers from endangering themselves. While the area sheds light on regional history and is certainly captivating, hikers need to keep in mind that those who hike down must hike back up. If you enjoy the experience of Kaymoor Miner’s Trail, plan to explore what remains of the unincorporated Nuttallburg mining community via the park's area trails.
Grandview provides guests with just that—a dramatic and sweeping view of the horseshoe-shaped river gorge below. This area of the park provides a peaceful place to picnic, ranger-led programs, and several easy to moderate trails. If you plan to be there in spring, be sure to check out the Catawba rhododendrons on full display.
No visit to New River Gorge is complete without a trip to nearby Babcock State Park. Located along the gorge on over 4,000 acres, park visitors can camp at one of 52 sites or rent an adorable cabin. With outdoor recreation activities such as fishing, swimming, boating, mountain biking, and over 20 miles of trails, guests can easily spend two days enjoying the beauty and history of this quaint area. The Glade Creek Grist Mill, the soul of the park, is located next to the park’s gift store. Arguably one of the most photographed grist mills in the world, it provides a stunning visual backdrop, especially showing off in the fall, while paying homage to simpler times. The mill remains fully operational, and visitors can enjoy a history lesson and seasonal daily demonstrations.
The gateway town of Fayetteville, aptly named one of “America’s Coolest Small Towns,” and nearby Beckley, both provide plenty of dining, shopping, lodging, and whitewater adventure options. Downtown Fayetteville is particularly charming, whether you peruse the New River Antique Mall, find a hand-designed souvenir at Lost Appalachia Trading Company, or grab a pint at Bridge Brew Works. For chain hotel and dining alternatives, check out Beckley, located about 30 minutes south of the park entrance.
New River Gorge National Park is unlike most in the park system. As seen in this article, several entry points and popular points of interest are located within and around nearby small towns and residential areas. While most parks have clear entry and exit points, as well as park-maintained roads that help guests navigate their visit, New River Gorge is a bit more complicated and spread out. With that said, it’s well worth the visit.
If you’re a national park fanatic, a history buff, or simply enjoy spending time hiking and biking area trails, New River Gorge National Park needs to be added to your bucket list. The natural beauty of the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and the New River Gorge area is—well . . . almost heaven.