Three Days in West Virginia's New River Gorge National Park & Preserve
Designated a national park in 2020, New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is an outdoor lover's paradise. Every year nearly two million people visit its more than 100 miles of hiking trails, world-class rock climbing routes and legendary whitewater runs. In late summer and early fall people from all over the world flock to the gorge for Gauley season, one of the top whitewater runs on Earth. As the park's name suggests, West Virginia's crown jewel is home to the New River, but its name is a bit misleading. The north flowing New River isn't so new. In fact, it's widely recognized as the oldest river on the continent and possibly the oldest river on the planet. Estimates date the river at 350,000,000 years old, before the Appalachians were formed, back in the time of the supercontinent Pangea. The origin of its name is unclear and several theories have been floating around for more than a century, but the leading theory tells of two colonists, Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam who explored the area in 1671. When they were unable to locate the river on a map they dubbed it the "new river."
From Native American Shawnee, early pioneers, coal mining and more, the New River Gorge region has a long, storied history. It was first explored by fur traders in the 1600's, but the Shawnee and other indigenous tribes had lived in the region for centuries. The town of Fayetteville, located where the New River Gorge Bridge is today, was fought over by the North and South during the American Civil War and changed hands several times throughout the conflict. Shortly after the war coal became king in the region and more than sixty coal towns sprung up. Mining of the time was back breaking labor and the mining companies quite literally owned the towns they operated in including the miners' homes. Miners were paid in company "scrip," a form of currency minted for each town and only accepted in that town's company owned store, no where else. This eventually led to miners unionizing, going on strike and demanding safer work conditions, better pay and to be paid in official US currency. This eventually led to the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in American history. In the summer of 1921, ten thousand armed miners confronted three thousand lawmen and strikebreakers. By the end of the conflict more than one million rounds were fired and up to one hundred lives were lost. Over the next forty years the coal mining companies of the New River Gorge slowly shuttered and buildings that once stood tall were taken over by mother nature. Today, the remains of the Kaymoor and Nuttallburg mines can be found near the banks of the New River giving hikers the chance to see what a mining camp might have looked like long ago.
This guide provides an opportunity to learn about the area's rich history, take in the gorge's best views, hit world-class whitewater and more. An exceptional time of year to go ifs early October during Gauley season and when fall foliage is peaking.
Day 1: Endless Wall
Cathedral Falls (0.25 miles/50)
Canyon Rim Visitor Center
Diamond Point Overlook via Endless Wall (2.4 miles/300')
Start your trip off with a visit to Cathedral Falls, a 60-foot multi-drop waterfall off Cane Creek requiring nothing more than a short walk from the parking lot. The falls pours over a rocky ledge of sandstone and shale and is best viewed during the spring months or after moderate rainfall. A short but steep spur trail leads to a view about halfway up the falls for an elevated view.
After, make the ten minute drive to Mystery Hole, a quirky roadside attraction definitely worthy of a visit. We won't get into detail of what's in store here, mainly for the sake of keeping it a secret at the owner's request, but it's safe to say that vertigo is the theme here. Both Cathedral Falls and Mystery Hole are just outside of the park boundary.
The Canyon Rim Visitor Center is roughly twenty minutes from here and a good place to begin your time in New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. Here you'll have an opportunity to learn about the area's rich history with a self-guided tour and a brief but informative video in the auditorium. Just outside of the visitor center you'll find a short boardwalk and staircase leading to two observation decks offering up close views of the New River Gorge Bridge. The view from the lower deck is excellent.
Five minutes from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center is one of the park's best hiking trails, Endless Wall. The nearly six miles of unbroken cliffs of Endless Wall are more than 900' above the New River and provide incredible views of the gorge.
An easy 2+ mile round-trip hike through a catawba rhododendron filled forest leading to Diamond Point, the highlight vista of the nearly six miles of uninterrupted cliffs. From here you'll have a commanding view of the gorge and hear whispers of the Lower New River below. The cliffs are also a world-class climbing route so be aware that rock climbers are often below. There are several short spur trails near Diamond Point that offer excellent photography options as well.
If you're interested in grabbing dinner after, a great spot to visit is The Freefolk Brewery about ten minutes from the trailhead near downtown Fayetteville. Opened in 2019, the gastropub offers indoor and covered outdoor seating, ping-pong, cornhole, and some seriously good food. The burger might be the best in the area.
If you're interested in tent camping, The Outpost is an excellent choice. Located less than a mile from the New River Gorge Bridge, you'll be minutes away from most of the park's highlights. Awesome tent platforms, standard tent sites, RV sites, cabins and even an old school camper are all reservable. Tent platforms and cabins come equipped with electricity, but not the standard tent sites. The climate-controlled bathhouse here is one of the nicest if not the nicest of any in a national park we've ever been in. The community fire pit is a nice touch and the air conditioned lodge with wifi makes a nice respite on hot summer days. Marr Creek Falls is a short tenth of a mile walk away and highly recommended, especially in the springtime. Book well in advance. If you can't get a spot at The Outpost we recommend the American Alpine Club New River Gorge Campground located in Lansing. There are private elevated platforms and communal tent sites with hot showers, sinks and a charging station inside the bathhouse. Fires are not permitted anywhere on-site other than at the two communal fire pits where firewood is provided free of charge.
Day 2: Bridge Walk
Long Point (3 miles/300')
Bridge Walk (1 mile/flat)
Kaymoor Miner & Upper Craig Branch Falls (3 miles/1,000')
Thurmond Ghost Town
If you're a coffee drinker make sure to head to the areas best coffee shop, Range Finder Coffee located in the back of Water Stone Outdoors gear shop on the corner of W Wiseman and N Court St in downtown Fayetteville. The next hike of the trip is Long Point, a three mile round-trip trek that navigates through dense forest and thick swaths of catawba rhododendron. The highlight of the trail is a north facing rock outcropping offering a spectacular view of the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest spanning single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. This is a very popular trail so if you're looking for any solitude you'll want to get on trail no later than 8AM most days.
After taking in the view of the bridge head over to Bridge Walk for a three hour guided tour of the New River Gorge Bridge. Here you'll have an opportunity to walk underneath the bridge from end to end and take in incredible views of the gorge. There's no real danger involved since you're attached to a cable above, but those with a fear of heights may have a tough time with this one.
After the thrill of walking nearly 1,000' above the river head over to the Kaymoor Miner's Trail. Here you'll descend more than 800 stairs to reach the Kaymoor Mine Site, a storied coal mine operated from 1900 to 1962, producing more than 16,000,000 tons of coal. Remains of buildings, coke ovens, and other structures are present for exploring and signs posted throughout the trail tell of what life was like for miners during the site's operation. The sign below is near the trailhead. History buffs should not pass this one up.
On your way back up the stairs look for a faint trail to your left, about half way up. The unofficial trail created by rock climbers over the years leads to the tallest waterfall in the gorge, Upper Craig Branch Falls. The trail will inevitably vanish from time to time, but as long as you hug the cliffs of Endless Wall you'll end up at the waterfall. Middle and Lower Craig Branch Falls can be reached by descending the gorge along the creek if you so choose. All three are best viewed in the springtime and in the drier months they're reduced to a trickle.
Next, head twenty minutes south to the Thurmond Ghost Town, population five. Thanks to rich deposits of coal in the area's mines Thurmond's banks were once full of cash. Coal barons walked its streets and hotels were booked solid as scrappy miners and businessmen arrived to cash in on the new boom in coal. This made Thurmond as rough a town as any in the wild west. At the time it was said that the only difference between Thurmond and hell is that a river runs through Thurmond. In those days the only way to get here was by train and it was a town without streets. Its downtown buildings face right out onto the train tracks just as they do today. Freight trains still ride the rails through Thurmond and provide images of what the town might have looked like more than a century ago in an age when railway lines were the engineering marvels of the day. The town is now maintained by the National Park Service in an effort to preserve its history. More than twenty structures are maintained here including a commissary, town hall, hotel, coal tower, national bank and depot which now operates as a park visitor center. Plaques line the windows of the brick buildings detailing the town's fascinating history.
If you're in the mood to dine out, Pies & Pints, a downtown Fayetteville pizza and wings joint is an excellent choice for dinner. Creative pizzas are their forte, but don't pass on the wings - they're ridiculously good. Or, go for the chicken and gouda pizza and you'll thank us later. The beer selection here is second to none in the area.
Day 3: Whitewater Rafting
New & Gauley River Adventures whitewater rafting
Beauty Mountain (1 mile/100')
Whitewater rafting is the area's main draw and leaving without hitting the New or Gauley River would be a crime. There are several reputable rafting outfitters in the area, but we recommend New & Gauley River Adventures. We've been with them numerous times and they've always taken the experience to another level. There are several options to choose from and knowing the differences is key. The Upper New River runs Class I-III rapids and is best for kids or those looking for a very easy day. The Lower New River runs class III-IV rapids with some minor Class I & II mixed in and is good for anyone above age 10. These two options run spring through fall. Water level matters and the earlier in the year you go the bigger the rapids will be on the New River. The photo below was from early July when the water levels were low and Class V's were downgraded to Class IV. Primetime on the New River is April. Choosing the earliest launch time in the morning means you'll have fog in the gorge for the first half of your trip. There are usually two areas where the river guides let you out to swim in the river and we highly recommend it. Jump Rock is a twenty foot tall rock along the river that guides will often stop at to let rafters climb and jump off if the water level is high enough. The Upper Gauley and Lower Gauley options run on weekends usually early September through mid-October and are for those looking for world-class whitewater. This is when the Summersville Dam is let out and the Gauley turns from a trickle to a raging river. The Upper Gauley in particular is a wild ride consisting of non-stop rapids including five Class V+ and a 12' waterfall known as Sweet Falls. Adrenaline junkies from all over the world flock to the gorge when the dam is released and the Gauley is running. First timers and those not in good physical conditions should not opt for the Upper Gauley. Book well in advance. Also, keep in mind that Bridge Day, West Virginia's largest single-day festival held on the third Saturday of October, often coincides with the dam release. During Bridge Day the New River Gorge Bridge is closed for BASE jumpers.
The river guides always do a great job teaching the area's history as well. From geology to economy and everything in between you'll walk away with a whole lot more knowledge of the area than before you started down river. The guides do accept cash tips and we highly recommend it. Photos are taken by staff on both sides of the river and available for purchase on a USB drive after your trip at the office.
After rafting take a short walk over to The Burrito Bar at Breeze Hill located a hundred yards from New & Gauley's office. The burritos here are hands down the best in the area and they have one of the best patios around. If you're interested in live music this is your place.
Next, make a trip out to Nuttallburg, the fourth of seventeen stops along West Virginia's African American Heritage Auto Tour and site of the old Nuttallburg mine that operated from the 1870's until 1958. Here you'll find the Nuttallburg coal tipple once used to load coal into rail cars, the Nuttallburg coal conveyor used to transport coal from the mine to the tipple, coke ovens, ruins of homes, buildings and mining equipment. You'll have an opportunity to learn about what life was like in a coal camp for African Americans who represented more than half the camp's population. Today, Nuttallburg is preserved as one of the finest examples of a coal mining town of its era anywhere in the country. The road to the site is one lane, part paved part gravel, and is fairly steep. Encountering another vehicle along this road will require careful navigation. The half mile Coal Tipple Trail leads to the tipple, conveyor, wall of coke ovens and a company store. The half mile Seldom Seen Trail can be found near the company store and leads to the ruins of nearly twenty homes. The 1.5 mile Town Loop Trail found near the tipple winds up the mountain and passes under the conveyor three times before reaching the ruins of an old church, school and large house. All three trails are recommended if you have time.
Near the end of your day make your way out to the Beauty Mountain Trail, a one mile round-trip hike with maybe the best sunset view in the state. The easy going trail follows the cliffs of Endless Wall two miles south of Diamond Point. Take the trail as far as you like, but we recommend hiking at least a half mile to one of the various rock outcroppings where you can relax and take in the view. During the summer months the sun sets in line with the New River and creates an incredible photo opportunity. In 2022, Travel + Leisure named Beauty Mountain as one of the sixteen best sunset hikes in America.
It's not uncommon to see a forecast free of rain only to find rain in the day at some point in New River Gorge. Weather here is known to change rapidly throughout the day, so if you find yourself in that situation a few nearby indoor options to consider are the Escape-A-Torium escape room, Pinheads bowling alley, or check out some of the local shops in downtown Fayetteville. The Lost Appalachia Trading Post has some really great clothing, gear and park souvenirs.