Best Things to Do in New River Gorge National Park

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Are you looking for the best things to do in New River Gorge National Park? The gorge has long been know to thrill-seekers or those looking for a beautiful scenic drive. And compared to Great Smoky Mountains, it’s a less crowded national park.

With so much to see and do, it helps to listen to someone who’s “been there and done that.” Sit back and enjoy James Richardson’s tips for active things to do in New River Gorge National Park based upon his travels there. You don’t have to be an adrenaline junky to enjoy your visit to this natural wonder.

As the license plate of West Virginia explains, the state is “Wild, Wonderful.” The southeastern portion is especially wild and wonderful.

Here, you’ll find America’s newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Until now, West Virginia has never been home to an official national park. The New River Gorge previously had the designation of a “National River.”

In addition, the 53-mile section of the namesake New River was set aside as an American Heritage River in 1998. This section of the river has its beginnings in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina near Blowing Rock, flows through Virginia’s Appalachians, and passes through this Southeastern section of West Virginia.

Actually, it is believed that the New River is among the oldest rivers in North America created at least 10 to perhaps 360 million years ago. So, its “new” name is a misnomer. In fact, some geologists consider Egypt’s Nile River the only one older in the world.

Best things to do at New River Gorge National Park

Light shafts stream through a storm cloud illuminating a river that flows between green mountains at New River Gorge National Park.
Grandview Overlook. Photo by James Richardson

The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve covers 72,186 acres and offers popular things to do like whitewater adventure, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, wildlife watching, and camping. It is the combination of the fast-moving river and the resulting gorge that provides such a beautiful backdrop to fun national park adventures. 

New River Gorge National Park hikes

Wooden stairs climb up a trail next to a rock climbing wall
You might see rock climbers on Bridge Buttress Trail. Photo by James Richardson.

My wife Dorothy and I made the trip to the New River Gorge before it was designated as our country’s 63rd national park. We were drawn by its wildness and the hiking. We opted to leave the whitewater rafting and the rock climbing to the younger generation.

Man stands at a wooden overlook with green mountains, bridge and river in the background
James Richardson at a New River Gorge overlook. See the bridge in the distance?

Trails vary in length from one-quarter mile to seven miles, and can be combined for longer hikes if desired. During our hikes, we enjoy observing wildflowers, which are numerous throughout the Gorge. We spotted many common ones like several varieties of trillia, Jewelweed, May apples, and Cardinal Flowers. 

Thurmond to Minden Trail

Railroad tracks curving between two abandoned buildings
Thurmond is one of more than 60 abandoned mining towns in the New River Gorge region. Photo by James Richardson

The Thurmond to Minden Trail is one of the most popular trails for hikers because it is an easy grade and is wide and smooth. We hiked the entire trail, which is 6.4 miles round trip, but only 2.5 miles round trip to the main overlook.

This trail provides views of the New River and Thurmond Ghost Town, which, during the boom of coal mining in the New River Gorge, was a prosperous town. The National Park Service offers interesting information on the town’s history.

Boomer Travel Tip

Take a look at our day hiking essentials before heading down the trail.

Endless Wall Trail

Rock climber climbing a rock boulder is one of the many things to do in New River Gorge National Park.
Rock climbing is a very popular activity in the gorge. Photo by James Richardson

One of the lesser known New River Gorge hiking trails is the Endless Wall Trail. Obviously, its destination is a site popular with rock climbers.

Great views of the river a thousand feet below are afforded along this trail. Within the 70,000 acres there are over 1400 established rock climbs. “The New”, as it is called by climbers, has become one of the most popular destinations in the country for adrenaline junkies.

Visitor Center details

Wooden sign for Canyon Rim Visitor Center with trees in the background
Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Photo by James Richardson.

A stop at any of the visitor centers will provide the most current trail conditions, wildlife and wildflower species viewable, and other pertinent information for your visit. The New River Gorge visitor centers are in the Sandstone area in the southern portion, the Grandview and Thurmond centers in the central part. There is also one at the Canyon Rim in the north.

Raft the New River’s white water

A blue river raft filled with people splashes through rapids on the New River, one of the many things to do in New River Gorge National Park.
White water rafting will satisfy the boomer thrill seeker. Photo by James Richardsonn.

For the more adventurous, one of the most popular attractions of the Gorge is its whitewater. Outfitters offer half and full day rafting trips. They also rent kayaks and canoes.

There are many put-in and take-out locations along the river. Plenty of class III – V rapids give enthusiasts lots of opportunities for thrills and probably spills.

Generally, the rapids of the southern section of the New River are rated lower (class I – III). Even though we knew where the calmer rapids were, we still opted to stay on dry land.

New River Gorge scenic drives

Iron bridge over a muddy river with rafters on the river.
Fayette Station bridge. Photo by James Richardson.

More to our liking are several scenic driving tours throughout the national park.

One of our favorites is the seven and a half mile loop Fayette Station Road Tour (details here), which begins at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, passes a rock climbing area (fun to watch!), goes under the New River Gorge Bridge twice, crosses the river on the Fayette Station Bridge, and affords great views of some of the best whitewater on the New River.

You can also drive the Fayette Station Road Tour as part of the larger New River Gorge Scenic Drive (here’s a map). This 3-hour, 83-mile loop encircles the heart of the park. It also offers access to Sandstone Visitor Center.

Fish the New River

A muddy river bends around a green mountain in New River Gorge National Park
Another pretty view of the New River Gorge. Photo by James Richardson.

Fishing is another way to enjoy the New River. Trout are present in several of the river’s tributaries.

West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources stocks these rivers each spring with golden, rainbow, brook, and brown trout. Fishermen should be aware that there are several catch and release areas. Consult the fishing regulations before casting. 

Visiting the New River Gorge Bridge is a must

Red iron bridge that spans the New River Gorge with green trees in the background.
The New River Bridge. Photo by James Richardson

The most impressive man-made feature of the gorge is THE BRIDGE across the New River along US 19. It is the third highest vehicular bridge in the United States, and is the fifth longest steel arch bridge in the world.

The New River Bridge is 3030 feet in length and 876 feet above the river below. For local travelers, its completion changed the time required to get from one side of the gorge to the other from forty-five minutes to about one minute.

West Virginia’s largest one day event is Bridge Day (event website), the third Saturday in October. It is a day the New River Gorge Bridge is closed to vehicular traffic and opened to only pedestrians (it is closed to pedestrians for the rest of the year).

BASE — building, antenna, span, and earth — jumpers and rappellers gather from around the world and do their thing over the side of the bridge. However, bungee jumping is not allowed.

The southern portion of West Virginia is one of the most scenic and recreationally rich areas of the Appalachians and certainly in the state. With its rich heritage and abundance of outdoor possibilities, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a must visit destination. And then it will become evident as to the validity of the state’s license plate motto “Wild, Wonderful”. 

Where to stay on a visit to New River Gorge National Park

4 people standing at a wooden overlook viewing the river and mountain landscape at New River Gorge National Park.
Another scenic overlook in the New River Gorge. Photo by James Richardson.

You won’t find a national park lodge at New River Gorge. However there are plenty of lodging choices, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins and campgrounds.

Boomer Travel Tip

Start planning your next national park trip with our National Park Travel Planner!

Frequently asked questions about visiting New River Gorge National Park

Rust-colored iron bridge stretching across the New River
The New River Gorge Bridge is a beautiful structure. Photo by James Richardsonn.
Where is New River Gorge National Park?

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is located in the Appalachian Mountains of southern West Virginia. Highway routes include Highway 19 between Beckley and Hico or I-64 between Mossy and Sandstone.

How much does it cost to visit New River Gorge National Park?

Entrance to New River Gorge National Park is free. And there are no special vehicle permits or reservations required to visit the park. Campground spots are first come first serve except for group site which do require a reservation.

When is the best time to visit New River Gorge NP?

The spring through fall months are the best time to visit New River Gorge National Park because most activities are available. However expect rain in July. If you don’t mind snow and colder temperatures, winter is a fun time to visit. Check out our tips for packing light on a winter trip.

How big is New River Gorge National Park?

The park consists of 73,000 acres that includes the New River and its gorge.

What are the best things to do in the park?

Park visitors will find plenty of outdoor adventure. Hike, mountain bike, rock climb, go white water rafting or drive the scenic roads.

Can you walk across the New River Gorge Bridge?

Bridge Day, on the third Saturday in October, is the only day pedestrians can walk across the bridge.

What is the closest major airport?

Charleston, WV (70 miles from the park) is the closest major airport.

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Text on photo of mountains and river: New River Gorge America's newest national park

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