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

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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.

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