If you’re looking for the best things to do in southern West Virginia, do we have an article for you! This is perfect for boomer travelers who prefer a more off-the-beaten-path travel experience.
Join My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander (ByLanderSea) on an action packed southern West Virginia itinerary. She’ll show you fun things to do for active travelers along with some very worthy photo stop tips.
The US National Park Service safeguards America’s best natural treasures, our 63 national parks. We can’t just fabricate new ones, so it’s a big deal when a destination is deemed worthy enough to be added to the list.
In December 2020, that happened in West Virginia. A 53-mile section of the north-flowing New River, previously designated a National River, was upgraded to official national park status.
The New River Gorge National Park (official website) became the latest addition to the National Park system. The designation, West Virginia’s first national park, will not just protect the land but provide new awareness, new jobs and boost the economy of the old coal mine region.
The New River Gorge National Park (NRGNP) is also the first park-preserve hybrid outside of Alaska. That means ATVs are welcome in some areas, and hunters can use generations-long hunting grounds, usually prohibited in national parks.
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Experiencing New River Gorge National Park
NRGNP encompasses more than 70,000 acres, with over 1,300 plant species and more than 100 different trees. But, the destination is not merely a place to drive through, look out car windows, or gaze upon a grand vista from an overlook.
This West Virginia gem begs for interaction with nature. Whether it’s hiking or biking in the mountains, rafting the river, or star gazing around a campfire, boomers (and those of all ages) will find plenty of active fun in New River Gorge National Park.
Where to stay in the park
Don’t expect to find a grand old park lodge like Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, at least not yet. But overnight options run from bare-bones platforms for tent camping to comfy log cabins with outdoor hot tubs.
I chose Adventures on the Gorge, the premier outfitter in the region. They offer every type of accommodation (basic to posh), guided activities with transportation, restaurants, swimming pools, and adventure gear.
FYI: In 2020, USA Today named Fayetteville to their list of 20 ‘Best Small Towns for Adventure.’
The New RiverGorge Bridge walk
Singer and songwriter John Denver called West Virginia’ almost heaven’. He was right; the gorge itself is divine. Lush green mountains rise high above the gushing flow of the New River, oddly named as it’s the second oldest in the world.
The New River Bridge stands as the park icon, the largest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, resting 876 feet above the water. You’ll get a great view at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, or you can sign up for the unusual and honestly not so scary Bridge Walk.
I took the Bridge Walk Tour, starting under very foggy conditions. I could barely see the arch of the bridge when my group began.
Our guide unlocked the entrance and personally tethered and attached each individual to the safety cable. You then step along a 24″ catwalk below the bridge roadway, with access to handrails on each side.
We proceeded slowly at first as everyone got used to the elevated walkway and view. Soon, we felt more comfortable, started smiling, and saw the fog begin to dissipate.
Our guide shared the area’s history and told other fascinating facts about the engineering marvel as we moved along. By the time we walked about a third of the span, the sun was beaming brightly, and the gorge revealed itself. The exhilarating view— simply breathtaking.
Standing more than 850 feet above the river, I could look down and see tiny figures on whitewater rafts fighting their way through the series of rapids. A gaze outward gave me a bird’s eye view of the world.
Our guide permitted us plenty of time to stop and take photos. When we reached the far side, we exited and were transported by bus back to the visitor center. It’s an experience I won’t forget.
Bridge Day Festival
The third Saturday in October draws thousands to the park for the annual Bridge Day Festival (official website). They come to walk across the highway normally closed for pedestrians, join a 5K run, or watch the thrill-seekers zip-line, rappel, or BASE jump ( a very brief free fall with a parachute landing) off the bridge.
These activities are legal only on Bridge Day. Of course, a festival is not complete without fun food, and gift stands.
Hiking, hunting, fishing and climbing
Hiking attracts all ages, and New River Gorge offers over 100 miles of forested foot, mountain bike, and equestrian trails. Some paths follow the old rail lines, and others go down to ruins of coal mining towns.
The 1.6 mile Grandview Rim Trail provides the expected stunning view of the gorge and New River some 1,400 feet below.
The moderate Long Point Trail, 1.6 miles, offers a panoramic view from Long Point. There is one steep section.
Boomer Travel Tip
Take a look at our day hiking essentials before heading down the trail.
The easily accessible 2.4-mile Endless Wall Trail gives views of the gorge and access to some of the best rock climbing zones. Expect more trails to be developed, including a rim-to-rim route similar to one at the Grand Canyon.
Hunting is permitted in certain designated areas during selected dates. This practice is an allowance that caused much debate before the park’s designation, but one that many West Virginians felt was their legacy. Fishing enthusiasts with a license enjoy a variety of bass, walleye, crappie, bluegill, carp, and catfish.
Climbers and rappelers find rugged sandstone cliffs within the park that range from 30-120 feet high. Many routes are rated 5.9 or higher and require climber expertise. Beginner’s find outfitters provide all the necessary gear and instructors.
Photography in New River Gorge
Photographers love NRGNP, too. In addition, to the iconic bridge shot, Sandstone Falls, a 1500-foot waterfall, has become a significant attraction.
The falls are not terribly steep, but they span the wide river. A boardwalk leading to the falls is level and easy walking. Go early in the day; the afternoon sun was not good for photography.
The Sandstone Visitor Center (the second center in NRGNP) rests near the falls. The old railroad town of Hinton is the closest in this area. Photographers may wish to check out a few of the old buildings in the 16-block historic district.
The Kaymoor Miner’s Trail ranks as another excellent location for photography or simply sunrise viewing. The morning I went, I got lucky. I found puffy, cotton candy-like fog shrouding the entire gorge as a Van Gogh sunrise painted itself across the sky. FYI: Sections of the trail are steep.
Fun on the water
Whitewater rafting claims the most excitement and attracts thousands of enthusiasts. The upper course works well for families or those wanting smaller rapids or a gentle paddle.
The big-water lower run brings thrills and, as I found out, spills. I decided to try the famed lower course and fell off my raft in class 4-5 rapids — into a swirling vortex. Pretty scary until my guide pulled me back on board.
Perhaps I should have left rafting to the more experienced crowd, like those experts who challenge the nearby Gauley River rapids. The Gauley River also lies within the national park boundaries and offers 100 rapids with a steep gradient, high water volume, and huge waves. It ranks as one of the top five rafting rivers in the world. FYI: The New River’s elevation drops 750 feet in 50 miles.
Boomer Travel Tip
From whitewater rafting to ATV tours, you’ll find plenty of New River Gorge active tours at Viator. Check here.
Beyond the park: more things to do in southern West Virginia
When it comes to active travel fun, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Southern West Virginia beyond the national park. Be sure to add the following to your travel itinerary.
Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine
I highly recommend a visit to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine (website) to better understand the history of southern West Virginia. Coal mining was dangerous work but provided livelihood for generations in this region.
At the Beckley Exhibition Center, you ride an open rail car through the dark passages of a vintage coal mine with a veteran miner. At various stops, the guide provides firsthand accounts of how past miners spent their days.
The idea of working for years in a space no higher than three and a half feet nearly brought claustrophobic nightmares. You can also visit the period coal camp buildings throughout the grounds and the museum.
Kids or grandchildren will enjoy the adjacent Youth Museum highlighted by Thomas the Tank exhibits.
West Virginia Made Crafts
I saw gorgeous hand-carved wooden bowls, unique pottery and ceramics, and hand-blown glass vases. The bookstore was packed with local and regional authors’ works.
The David Dickirson Gallery gives both established and emerging artists a great place to display their work to thousands of people daily. It represents over 500 juried WV artists and rotates exhibits every 6 to 8 weeks.
Plan to spend some time at Tamarack; the upscale array of crafts almost overwhelms. Naturally, the building includes a café for dining.
Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trails
While in the Mountaineer State, you may want to ride on their famed Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trails. Depending on where you enter the trail system, plan on a one to two-hour drive from the park.
The Greenbrier Resort
White Sulfur Springs, WV proudly proclaims itself the home of the elegant Greenbrier Resort (book here). Even if you don’t spend a night at the lavish, sprawling complex tucked in the Allegheny Mountains, go and take a look.
This renowned property on 11,000 acres encompasses 710 rooms, including 33 suites and 96 guest and estate homes, 10 lobbies, 40+ meeting rooms, and a complete conference center facility. Plus, the famed golf course, a new tennis stadium, and casino with 37 gaming tables.
As legend has it, in 1778, a local settler learned about a mineral spring from Native Americans. Apparently, soaking in the water helped rheumatism.
Soon, word of the “healing waters” spread, and the stagecoach brought people seeking “the cure.” By the 1830s, a summer resort was well established and called “Old White.”
The resort closed during the Civil War. Both sides occupied the grounds, using the hotel either as a hospital or military headquarters. Shortly after the war’s end, the railroad took over ownership and reopened with the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.
When WWII broke out, the US Army bought the hotel as a hospital, then sold it back to the C&O Railroad in 1946. The railroad hired famed designer Dorothy Draper to transform the interiors.
The grand opening in 1948 was an international affair. Guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Bing Crosby, and Joseph and Rose Kennedy. The Draper look with large-flower wallpaper, bright colors, and bold carpeting continues with an update by Draper’s protégé, Carleton Varney.
In the 1950s, the US government approached The Greenbrier again. They needed assistance in constructing an Emergency Relocation Center, a bunker or bomb shelter, to be occupied by the US Congress in case of war.
The classified underground facility was built in conjunction with an above-ground addition to the hotel, the West Virginia Wing. For thirty years, the facility codenamed Project Greek Island was maintained at a constant state of operational readiness.
West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice and his holdings now own the hotel, bringing it back from a 2009 bankruptcy.
Over the years, 27 US presidents have slept there, along with countless celebrities and sports figures. Families return, generation after generation. Hence, it’s called “America’s Resort,” though I warn you, most Americans can never afford it.
The Bunker Tour
The one must-do activity is the famous Bunker Tour. Underneath the hotel lies a former emergency Cold War fallout shelter for members of Congress in case of a nuclear war. The US Government secretly built it from 1958-1961.
It is a complete “city” encased within thick concrete walls with 18 dormitories, a clinic, a cafeteria, lounge areas, and decontamination chambers for more than 1,100 people. For 30 years, no one knew about The Bunker.
Then, in 1992, The Washington Post revealed the bunker’s existence in an article. Following the exposé, the government decommissioned it, and today it is available for tours.
Besides a brief tour in Harper’s Ferry, I’d never been to West Virginia before this trip. Looking back, I sipped cocktails at a party in the posh Greenbrier Resort, I got down and dirty on an ATV ride, I conquered the Bridge Walk, and although not intended, baptized myself in the New River.
As usual, I learned a lot of history during my visit and sure had fun. Since West Virginia is located within a day’s drive from 75% of the US population, I encourage everyone to visit America’s newest national park and the Mountaineer State.