In December 2020, the New River Gorge was designated the United States’ 63rd national park. It was always a great place to visit, especially for rock climbers, rafters, and hunters, but now it’s a destination. While it’s best to spend a few days at the New, it’s still a great place to visit even if you only have a few hours.
Several scenic areas give you sweeping views from overlooks or immersive views from inside the gorge. Go for a hike to discover waterfalls, cliff sides, woodlands, and unique views of the landmark New River Gorge bridge. You can drive down to the bottom of the gorge on a narrow winding road, and see the powerful river up close. Or if you really want a thrill, why not take a raft trip with an experienced guide? If history is your interest, then you can spend the day in a once bustling ghost town. Even if you’re short on time, the New River Gorge National Park delivers a lot of options for things to do! See below for five of the best.
1. Canyon Rim Visitor Center
If you only have enough time to learn about the area and catch a view of the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, then the Canyon Rim Visitor Center is not to be missed. It’s located on the northern rim of the gorge near the town of Fayetteville. Canyon Rim is the busiest visitor center with the most amenities. You can pick up books, maps, and souvenirs at the gift shop. An exhibit room is packed with photos and artifacts describing the rich history of the area. You can learn about the New River Gorge through activities and programs offered at Canyon Rim. There are films, guided hikes, and children’s activities.
It is highly recommended that you walk the boardwalk to the overlook of the gorge and the New River Bridge. The boardwalk to the first overlook is a fully accessible ramp. For another view, you can descend 178 steps to the second overlook — a bonus is the nice little workout going back up after soaking in the scene. Find operating hours and more information at the National Park Service website. Canyon Rim Visitor Center is open year round.
2. Grandview Visitor Center
At 1,400 feet above the river, Grandview delivers on its name with expansive views of the New River Gorge. This visitor center is located 12 miles east of the town of Beckley. If you enjoy hiking and viewing wildlife, this is the best place to visit. There are five woodland trails ranging from easy to strenuous, totaling 6 miles. Many feature overlooks, so this is a great opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty without the crowds. See the National Park Service website for a map and more information to plan your hike. If you visit in the summer months, you can catch an outdoor production by Theatre West Virginia (see schedule here). The Grandview Visitor Center is open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
3. Scenic Drive into the Gorge Along Fayette Station Road
Before the impressive New River Gorge bridge was built in the 1970s, it was necessary to drive nearly 900 feet down to the river in order to cross. Needless to say, people on opposite sides of the river were worlds apart. Even though today it’s easy to drive the 3,000 feet across the river on the world’s largest single-span arch bridge in the world, you can take a step back in time and drive Fayette Station Road. The best way to reach the 8-mile one-way route to the bottom of the gorge and up the opposite side is from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.
To access the drive, take a right out of the parking lot and then the next right onto Lansing-Edmond Road. In 1/4 mile, turn right onto Fayette Station Road. Almost immediately you will take a left fork. The road features a series of hairpin turns along a steep winding road and is not suitable for large vehicles or winter driving (or passengers prone to car sickness!). With pull-offs and interpretive exhibits along the way, you will see amazing views of the bridge as you drive underneath it, and learn more about the history of the gorge. Once you cross the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge at the bottom of the gorge, you can park and explore the river. Enjoy the safety of dry land as you watch rafters tackle Fayette Station Rapid, one of the New River’s exciting whitewater rapids. As you drive out of the Gorge, you’ll be back on US Rt 19, south of Canyon Rim near the town of Fayetteville. The National Park Service has an audio tour describing the history of the area which can be downloaded here.
4. Long Point Trail
This popular 3 mile, out-and-back hiking and biking trail takes you into the heart of the gorge and has breathtaking views of the bridge and surrounding cliffs. The view point is surrounded by 50 degree drops on three sides, so use caution when you are on Long Point, especially if you’re snapping photos! To get to the trailhead, get on WV 16 in the town of Fayetteville and go south. Turn left onto Gatewood Road (you’ll see signs for Kaymoor and Cunard River Access), drive for 1.9 miles and turn left onto Newton Road where you’ll see parking and the trailhead on the left. If on bike, you’ll need to leave your bike at a rack or tree 0.2 miles before the overlook. Bring a lock if you want to be sure it’s still there when you get back!
5. Thurmond Walking Tour
Love the idea of exploring a ghost town? If so, then visit Thurmond, a historic town that was once a “booming” center for the coal mining industry, with around 500 residents in the early 1900s. As of 2010, the town had just five residents; one of those residents is actually the mayor! There are several options for hiking and walking tours of different lengths, or you can just walk across the bridge that crosses the New River and explore on your own.
The National Park Service has preserved many of the buildings, so it’s possible to get a look back in time in Thurmond. Please note that the railroad is still active at Thurmond, so only cross at designated crosswalks. For further information on the town of Thurmond and recommended walking and hiking routes, visit Thurmond’s webpage.
To get to Thurmond, exit Route 19 at historic Glen Jean, home to the National Park Service Headquarters and beautifully preserved buildings. Travel 6.1 miles along Route 25, following Dunlop Creek, starting your odometer at the old bank (pictured left). The Thurmond website has recommendations for a few stops along the way.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve Visitor’s Guide
Looking for more info on things to do at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve? For additional points of interest and fun activities, grab a copy of New River Gorge National Park & Preserve Visitor’s Guide. In addition to the lowdown on scenic drives, hikes, plane rides, the Bridge Walk, among other activities, you’ll get a one-of-a-kind local’s tour of the New River Gorge region’s lodging, dining, breweries, and shopping. Pre-order here for a limited-time discount.
If you’re looking for rock climbing guidebooks, you can find those here as well. The climbing at New River Gorge is covered in two volumes, both by author Mike Williams. You’ll find all of the climbing in the main area of the park in New River Rock Volume 1. New River Rock Volume 2 describes the climbing around the Meadow and Gauley Rivers, as well as Summersville Lake. Both volumes are comprehensive, and feature helpful route descriptions, maps, and inspiring action photography.
For more in-depth coverage of the trails at the New River Gorge, check out Hiking and Biking in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.