The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

America’s newest national park is wild and wonderful — and nearby

Written by
Wide scenic winter view into the New River Gorge also shows rapids below a bend and the road and railroad tracks cut into the wooded slopes on opposite sides of the river
The New River in West Virginia is one of the oldest rivers on earth, and it’s now included in America’s newest national park.  Courtesy National Park Service

New River Gorge National Park preserves paddling and climbing paradise

When you think of national parks within a day’s drive of East Tennessee, what comes to mind? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course. Or perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Virginia’s Shenandoah. You have a new option.        

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, created by Congress Dec. 27, 2020, by way of a pandemic relief bill, is America’s 63rd and newest national park. Located in southern West Virginia, the 72,186-acre park and preserve protects land along both sides of a 53-mile stretch of the New River, which is famous for its world-class whitewater. It’s walls rise up to 1,400 feet, attracting rock climbers from across the country.

The New River Gorge, known locally as “The New,” currently welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year. It’s within a day’s drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, and is expecting an initial 20 percent increase in visitation this year because it is now a national park with national attention.

Local merchants and business owners are already touting the economic benefits, including new jobs in in-store retail and dining, two industries decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re super excited about it,” Cathedral Cafe manager Cassidy Bays said. She said the cafe, just minutes from the park, plans to increase staff and extend hours. “We’re even building an outdoor patio to increase dining space,” Bays said.

And this is not your grandfather’s West Virginia: Locavores can find locally sourced food and lean into a vegan juice bar. Several community-supported agriculture (CSA) and co-op farms are a main source of the cafe menu. “We actually cater to locavores. We are a farm-to-table restaurant” Bays said.  

Traditions respected with concessions

To secure national park status, for what was formerly a national river established in 1978, two concessions were made to local tradition. Hunting is still allowed on large swaths of the park away from trails, roads and the river itself. Hence the park’s formal name: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It’s an important distinction because 10 percent of the area is managed as a national park with accompanying stricter regulations and 90 percent is managed as a multi-use preserve. And -- although not permissible in other national parks -- parachuting off of the New River Gorge Bridge, the highest in the East at 876 feet, will be allowed on “Bridge Day,” an annual event where thousands gather to watch or participate.

Completed in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was the longest single-span arch bridge in the world at the time. Also, unlike most national parks, there is no entrance fee and dogs are allowed on trails if leashed.  

With its existing roads, overlooks and an established 50-mile marked trail system, day-to-day operations will remain largely unchanged. The biggest difference will be in name. Having national park status lends a certain amount of cachet to an area deserving national recognition for its outstanding natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities, including Class V rapids, renowned rock climbing, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.

From mining towns to a national park

There is also human history to explore. The river trip through the gorge reveals abandoned mining towns and industrial infrastructure established during the late 18th and early 19th centuries to mine the abundant and massive seams of high-quality coal. Leftover railroad beds provide easy acess to further exploration.

The gorge is the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. The river itself is home town of several species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

With the most diverse variety of hydrologic features found in any river in the Eastern United States, New River Gorge provides essential habitat for 48 known species of amphibians, including several endangered salamanders, one of which is the eastern Hellbender, an important indicator species because it is more sensitive to pollution than other species. It thus indicates there is a potential environmental problem before other species are affected.

National and natural air space

Above the river, the flanking, unfragmented forest is a vital link in the North-South Migratory Flyway for migrating birds while also providing excellent breeding habitat for rare bird species. Two adjoining state parks, Hawks Nest and Babcock, expand the protected forested area even more.

West Virginia is almost entirely mountainous and at 1,500 feet posts the highest average elevation of any state east of the Mississippi River. The rugged terrain lends itself to the state’s nickname “The Mountain State” and is widely known as “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.” The state highest point is Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet.

Visitor tips from a ranger

The park’s Chief of Interpretation Eve West, who also oversees education outreach programs and cultural resources, suggests prospective visitors become familiar with the park by first getting acquainted with its four separate main areas; Sandstone Falls, the tallest on the New River; Grandview, a 1,400-foot-high view of the gorge and the New River below; the Thurmond History District, one of five in the park; and Lower Gorge, the largest of the areas. There are two year-round visitor centers at Sandstone and Canyon Rim.  

There are no fees or permits required for backcountry camping, but West said that may change as impact from the expected increase in visitation becomes more apparent, especially as the weather warms. There are no established backcountry campsites at this time, so reservations to hike and camp in the backcountry are not necessary, as they are in other national parks.

There are some common-sense regulations in place, such as camping 100 feet or more away from any trail, developed area, road or water source. There are also some protected administrative areas in the backcountry where camping is off-limits. Fires are only allowed in established fire rings in established campgrounds, so backcountry campeers are restricted to stoves.

Because of the park’s relatively small size, designated pocket Wilderness areas are probably not in the park’s future, West said.

Take a hike. A long one.

Four long-distance hiking trails run through West Virginia; the Appalachian Trail; the 1,600-mile Great Eastern Trail, which runs from Alabama to New York; the 290-mile Allegheny Trail; and the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail.

Although there is discussion to network trails within the state, there are currently no plans in place to connect the park’s existing trail system to the state or national trail system, West said.   

There are a limited number of no-fee, first-come primitive campsites, with no electricity or potable water, accessible by car and small to medium-size RVs. West suggests visiting the park website for more information on regulations.

No private land was aquired for the park -- as it was in the Smokies some 80 years ago -- but there is concern among local residents over increased traffic and the resulting influx of visitors to a mostly isolated part of the nation.

“Some people here, who aren’t business owners, are nervous for sure,” Bays said. “But we’re all trying to focus on the good.”

Fortunately, that was taken into account and foreseen when the legislation was written in such a way that provides for incremental improvements to infrastructure if and as needed, West said. But, overall, she said local support for the new park has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

There are currently no formal ecotourism initiatives in place, but West said the subject is being discussed among local outfitters, river guide services and business owners wanting to cater to sustainable and green-minded people.

“There is certainly an awareness, and some (businesses) have already started,” West said. There are 864 jobs connected to park visitation, West said, and that is only expected to increase with the new status as one of America’s newest national parks.

For more information or directions contact Park Headquarters at (304) 465-0508 or visit the park website.

Rate this item
(9 votes)
Published in Water, Earth, 15 Life on Land

Related items

  • 2016 Smokies wildfires: Six years later, the good and the bad come into focus as natural recovery continues
    in News

    COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno1Journalists and park officials document damage from the November 2016 wildfires that killed at least 15 people and left hundreds of dwellings and businesses in ruins. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

    How the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfire affected salamanders and other life, six years on

    GATLINBURG  The disastrous Chimney Tops 2 wildfire of 2016 occurred some six years ago, but researchers are still looking at its ecological effects.

    The Discover Life in America 2023 Colloquium brought together researchers this month from different fields and universities to present findings on research in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

    Researchers presented on many topics, ranging from trout to the history of the Mingus family in the park.

    One such presentation, the first of the day, from William Peterman, associate professor in wildlife ecology and management at Ohio State University, focused on the effects wildfires had on salamander populations, which he described as negative.

    Other presenters touched on the wildfire’s effects as well, including its effects on vegetation and its beneficial effects on the diversity of bird species.

    “Smoky Mountains is the self-proclaimed salamander capital of the world,” Peterman said. He focused his study on the plethodontid family of salamanders, which breathe through their skin.

    “Kind of think of them as a walking lung,” he said.

  • Silent Spring Revolution: The Dawn of the Climate Change Movement
    2-minute video from CBS Sunday Morning
  • National park reopens Cades Cove road traced for centuries

    Parson Branch RoadParson Branch Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was reopened May 26 after a six-year closure. National Park Service 

    Parson Branch Road had been closed since 2016 because of washouts and danger from trees killed by the hemlock woolly adelgid

    This article was provided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park Public Information Officer Dana Soehn.

    CADES COVE — Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials celebrated on Thursday (May 26) the reopening of Parson Branch Road with a ribbon-cutting event honoring the crew who performed the needed work and the Friends of the Smokies who provided critical funding to support the efforts. The historic gravel road, originally constructed in 1838, is now reopened to the public after a six-year closure. 

    “We are pleased to reopen Parson Branch Road in time for the 2022 summer season,” said Deputy Superintendent Alan Sumeriski. “Not only does this restore access to one of the most special places in the Smokies, it also allows another opportunity for people of all abilities to spread out and explore less traveled areas of this very busy park.”  

  • Marie Kurz: Helping science on watersheds flow across disciplines
    in News

    Kurz1Marie Kurz is seen at a pond on the campus of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  Carlos Jones/ORNL

    From California canyons to German creeks: Science is personal and practical for ORNL scientist Marie Kurz

    Kristen Coyne is a writer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    OAK RIDGE — Spanning no less than three disciplines, Marie Kurz’s title — hydrogeochemist — already gives you a sense of the collaborative, interdisciplinary nature of her research at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Still, those six syllables only hint at the vast web of relationships encompassed in her work.  

    Kurz studies how rivers flow through landscapes; what kinds of nutrients, contaminants and other material sail through them; and how they transform along the way. As an experimentalist, her favorite part of the job is getting into the field. Depending on the season, Kurz can be found clad in tights, gloves reaching her shoulders, a neon vest and a ponytail-taming cap as she sloshes in olive hip waders through the particular stream under her scrutiny. The getup, she said, always makes her feel a bit like the Michelin Man.

  • Amorous salamanders heat up the Southern winter

    hellbenderhrRob Hunter/Hellbender Press

    Knox News: Winter a key time in salamander reproductive calendar

    The woods, fields, rivers, creeks and wetlands of Southern Appalachia aren’t as barren as one would think in the midst of winter.

    News Sentinel science reporter Vincent Gabrielle gives a solid rundown of why some of our amphibious denizens, including hellbenders, put themselves out there when so many other Appalachian critters retreat to burrows, dens and nests when the snow begins to blow.

    “There are more salamander species that call the Southern Appalachians home than any other place on Earth. There are 30 salamander species present in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Out of the 550 known salamander species on the planet, 77 live here in our backyards. Their bright colors make them the living jewels of Appalachia,” Gabrielle reports.

  • Hope floats in Third Creek
    in News

    IMG 5517Maddie Spradley 

    UT students, professors and staff scrub up for ‘creek kidney transplant’ in Knoxville

    Imagine you’re a kid again. It’s a Saturday afternoon in July and after a morning full of rain the clouds begin to clear and the sun peeks out.

    You run outside in your rubber rain boots to meet your friends down by the creek in your neighborhood, carrying a large bucket, boots squeaking as you go.

    Once there, you and your friends carefully wade down into the water, curious to see what creatures lurk beneath the surface.

  • State’s fight against Asian carp scales up

    WATE: Commercial fishing pulls out 10 million pounds of exotic carp from Tennessee River system

    If you never thought there’d be an Asian carp commercial fishery in Tennessee waters, you were wrong.

    Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Asian Carp Harvest Incentive Program has yielded 10 million pounds of the exotic fish since 2018, the bulk caught downstream on the Tennessee River system at Kentucky and Barkly reservoirs. The fish has been spotted as far upstream as Knox and Anderson counties.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority and TWRA are experimenting with acoustic barriers to prevent further upstream spread of the fish, which compete with native fish for food and habitat.

    “There are four types of Asian carp: bighead, silver, black and grass,” WATE reported. “Experts say the species threatens to disrupt aquatic ecosystems and starve out native species due to their ability to out-compete native species for food like plankton.”

    So what do fishermen do with 10 million pounds of carp?

    It can be sold to wholesalers for distribution abroad and also makes for really good fertilizer.

  • Forest Service bans camping on Max Patch for two years after nonstop deluge of visitor problems

    Citizen-Times: Festival-like atmosphere on famed bald led to massive litter, waste and wildlife problems

    They trampled warbler habitat restoration areas. They left behind tons of cheap camping equipment. They failed to properly bury or transport human waste. They left their vehicles parked willy-nilly on an access road, impeding the ability of emergency vehicles serving the surrounding areas. They ruined it for the rest of us.

    Now Max Patch is closed to camping and other restricted uses for two years, Pisgah National Forest authorities announced on July 1.

    Over the past decade, the bald in Madison County, North Carolina with 360-degree views of the surrounding Appalachians experienced stunning overcrowding and misuse, with some areas resembling jam-band festivals at times.

    The Appalachian Trail traverses the bald, which was home to vital projects to restore wildlife and vegetative habitat. Now visitors are subject to numerous and pointed restrictions, and failure to abide by the new rules could bring tickets and fines.

    The restoration could be a long process.

  • Solar panels required on every new roof in Berlin after 2022

    PV Magazine & BO Klima: Berlin macht Solardächer zur Pflicht

    The rooftop solar law, passed on June 16, says every new building and substantial renewal of an existing building’s roof must be equipped with solar panels covering at least 30 percent of the roof surface.

    The German capital — which is on the same latitude as Labrador City — intends to become more climate friendly. It wants to act as a role model for other municipalities and states in how to accelerate the energy transition. It aims for solar to cover 25% of its electricity consumption.

    The city contends, the solar potential of its roofs has gotten inadequate consideration and expects the new law will create many future-proof jobs in planning and trades.

    Building owners may opt to use solar facade panels or contract with third parties to build and operate equivalent solar capacity that fulfills the mandate elsewhere in the city. But critics of the law say it does not address how to optimize its implementation with present practices, regulations, and tariffs. They predict, this law will be inefficient and costlier than other methods to stimulate renewable energy generation.

    Bavaria, for example, launched an incentive program that awards combined new solar and battery storage installations. Applications for that program have multiplied quickly and now are deemed likely to surpass the 100,000 installations mark by the end of its third year.

    Germany, whose entire southern border is farther north than Quebec City or Duluth, has a long history of technology and policy leadership in renewable energies. In 1991 the German Electricity Feed-in Act was the first in the world that mandated grid operators to connect all renewable power generators, pay them a guaranteed feed-in tariff for 20 years and prioritize these sources.

  • Tell TVA by THURSDAY: No new fossil gas plants!

    The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) recently announced plans to retire its five remaining coal-fired power plants by 2035.

    However, it is seriously considering replacing them with large fossil gas power plants and new gas pipelines!

    That’s like “two steps forward, one step back.”

    TVA could take many more steps forward by prioritizing clean energy.

    TVA’s new gas plan is not final, and the time to influence our public utility is now!

    Click here to tell TVA, No new fossil gas plants!

    Comment deadline is June 10