Thinking about visiting New River Gorge National Park and Preserve? Use our three perfect days itinerary as a starting point for your planning.
Or, listen to our podcast episode about the park right here.
First, let’s cover a few basics.
What is it?
New River Gorge National Park is the newest U.S. national park – number 63. It protects and celebrates a 53-mile stretch of the New River and its jaw-dropping gorge. The river is one of the oldest in the world; it’s older than the Appalachian Mountains. First protected in 1978 as a national river, it was declared a national park in December 2020.
Also in 1978, the New River Gorge Bridge was completed. The bridge sits 876 feet above the river, and is a mere stone’s throw away from the quaint town of Fayetteville, WV. It serves as the park’s visual centerpiece. Not only is it an engineering marvel — the bridge reduced the previous 45-minute drive to cross the river down to 45 seconds — but it’s also a breathtaking sight to see.
Where is it?
The park sits in the southern third of West Virginia, about an hour southeast of the capital of Charleston. As other points of reference, it’s about a four-hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, two-and-a-half hours from Morgantown, West Virginia, and three hours from Roanoke, Virginia.
When to go?
It’s a year-round park, but summer is busiest when crowds come to raft and kayak the river’s world-class rapids.
We visited the park in mid-October, which seemed ideal for us. The weather was mild, and the crowds were thinner than in the summer months. Fall is also a great time to see the trees turning colors. Usually, mid-to-late October is peak fall color season.
With whitewater rafting being one of the most popular activities in the park, spring is when visitation begins to increase. Trips usually start in early April.
Where to stay?
The park has no lodging or camping within its borders, but there are plenty of places to stay nearby.
We chose to VRBO one of the four rooms at the Lafayette Flats in Fayetteville for several nights. Our stay there was nothing short of perfect. The suite had a large and comfortable bed and bedroom, spacious kitchenette and dining area, modern bath and appliances, and engaging, quirky artwork throughout.
Potential guests should be aware that the rooms are on the second and third floors. And the building does not have an elevator. The stairs did not bother us, but it’s worth noting for those who might feel otherwise.
Ace is one of the main providers of guided whitewater trips down the river. They also have various lodging options on their property, which is about a twenty-minute drive south of Fayetteville.
Adventures on the Gorge also has several lodging choices for you to choose from, including campsites, glamping, and cabins in the woods. They are located about 10 minutes north of Fayetteville.
Three Perfect Days
Go to the Visitor Center and TCB
Our first stop in any park is usually the visitor center. This is especially true when visiting a place for the first time. It is essential that we first “take care of business.” Or, as Karen calls it, TCB.
TCB means getting the park map and newsletter, stamping our passport books with the official park stamp, taking our picture in front of the park’s sign, and asking a ranger about activities in the park. (Sometimes, this last TCB step is referred to as “getting a lay of the land.”)
New River Gorge NP has two visitor centers. Canyon Rim, off Highway 19, is the main visitor center and is just across the bridge from Fayetteville. It’s open year-round and has a couple of interesting viewpoints of the bridge and river. It also has a park sign.
Sandstone is the other visitor center. It is in the south off Highway 64 and only open seasonally.
Once you have a lay of the land, immerse yourself in the park by hiking Long Point Trail. At the midpoint of this moderately easy 1.6-mile out and back trail, you’ll find yourself at the edge of a rock outcropping. Be mindful of the steep drop-offs as you take in the New River Gorge Bridge views to the north. You’ll likely see plenty of other hikers on this trail. But that’s a good thing because you’ll want them to take your picture with the bridge in the background instead of trying to get it with an arm’s-length selfie.
On the opposite side of the river from Long Point Trail is another of the park’s most popular trails: the Endless Wall Trail. This 2.4-mile easy hike offers you several overlooks: Diamond Point is the best spot to take a photo of the river and gorge to the south. You have a couple of parking options for hiking this trail, both of which have trailheads from where you can begin your walk to the Endless Wall.
BTW – We never hike without using the GAIA GPS app on our phones. Many times, it has saved our lives by showing us where we are and where we’ve been on the trail, even when there is no cell coverage. Get a 20% discount by signing up with this link. This is a sponsored message. Thank you for your support.
Drive to the old bridge
With a couple of hikes under your belt, you can relax with a drive down the winding Route 82 – a.k.a. Fayette Station Road — to the river to get a look at the original Fayette Station Bridge, now named the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge.
Starting at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, you’ll drive about half a block before you get to a fudge and ice cream shop. Go ahead, stop and have fudge and ice cream for lunch — that’s what we did — before you continue on your way. Then follow the old road to the river’s edge.
After completing a series of hairpin turns that snake back and forth beneath the new bridge, you’ll start to realize what it was like back in the day when this was the only way for miles to cross the river.
Fortunately, the old one-lane bridge from 1889 remains, although it underwent a significant renovation in 1997. Park just past the bridge (on the west side of the river) at a pull-out or the large parking area by the river’s edge and walk to and across the old bridge. You’ll have a clear view of the New River Gorge Bridge to the north from its center.
Hawk’s Nest State Park
If you still have time and energy for another activity, consider heading north of the park to Hawk’s Nest State Park. It is known for its overlook views of the river and gorge to the south. In addition to enjoying the sights from above, you can take a tramway from the visitor center down to the river. From there, a jet boat will take you down and then back up the river for a scenic ride.
Relax at the flat
One of the great things about staying at the Lafayette Flats is having a kitchenette and enough room to relax and eat in if you like. At the end of our first day in the park, we poked around town and ended up at Studio B Art and Wine. At first, we thought they only sold gifts and artwork, but we soon discovered they had a fantastic selection of beer and wine to go. Taking our beverages back to the flat, we ordered pizza from Pies and Pints. Only two blocks away, it was an easy walk to pick up our dinner and bring it back to our room for a relaxing end to our first perfect day.
The Bridge Walk
For us, this was the highlight of our visit; walking the narrow catwalk of this massive structure with nothing between us and the river 851 feet below but a few steel cross beams.
New River Gorge Bridge was completed in October 1977, and usually, pedestrians are not allowed on the 3,030-long span. But there are a couple of exceptions.
Exception one – Bridge Day
One day each year – Bridge Day – a couple of lanes of traffic are closed, and the public is allowed to walk along the road deck and peer over the edge. Held on the third Saturday of each October, it’s the largest festival in the state and attracts tens of thousands of people.
It’s also the only day of the year that you can legally jump off the bridge if that’s what you’re into. That’s correct; you can jump off the bridge. Of course, you need to have a permit and be a qualified base jumper to do so. All day long, for one day a year, daredevils with parachutes attached to their backs jump off the bridge and race back to the top to do it again.
Unfortunately, the Bridge Day organizers canceled the festival in 2021 (the year we visited the park) due to COVID-19 concerns, so we didn’t jump off the bridge. We had to settle for the next best thing, which brings us to the second exception for walking across the bridge, the bridge walk.
Exception two – Bridge Walk
Twenty-five feet below the highway, engineers included a catwalk in the bridge’s design. Originally intended as an access route for maintenance workers and inspectors, the catwalk has also been put into service as a tourist attraction. For $75, you can make your reservation online for a tour across the bridge along the catwalk.
Our tour was scheduled for 9:00 am and lasted until about 11:30. Much of that time included getting fitted for our safety harnesses, going through a safety briefing, a short van ride to the start of the trail to the bridge, and the van ride back to the tour provider’s offices. In all, we were on the bridge for about an hour. And it was well worth the time and expense.
It’s a must-do activity even if you have a fear of heights. With our harness strapped to an overhead safety cable, we felt safe the entire time.
Visit “the” grist mill
The bridge walk is a hard act to follow, but with half a day left, you still have time to visit one of the most photographed sights in the world: the Glade Creek Grist Mill in Babcock State Park. About a half-hour drive from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, Babcock State Park is a lovely park with a stunning grist mill. (I never knew grist mills were a thing until this trip.)
By a matter of dumb luck, we visited the grist mill at one of the best times of the year. The fall foliage was beginning to turn, and our photos of the old mill turned out terrific.
Shopping in Fayetteville
If you find yourself with time to spare, check out some of the shops in Fayetteville. We found one of our favorites on the ground floor of the Lafayette Flats building, the Lost Appalachia Trading Company. There, we met Nicholas, the store’s owner and designer of many of the items for sale in the shop.
His custom-made t-shirts, hats, bandanas, and artwork celebrating West Virginia’s heritage made it hard for us to choose what to buy – so we bought one of each. Plus, Nicholas has curated a collection of other interesting merchandise that will make you want to take a piece of this Almost Heaven home with you.
Across the street from Lost Appalachian is Water Stone Outdoors, where you can find pretty much all the outdoor gear you need for your adventures into the park.
Fayetteville’s original downtown area also has several antique and curiosity shops that are sure to keep you engaged the rest of the afternoon, including a Ben Franklin. Complete with a Slush Puppie sign on the door, walking through Ben’s was like re-visiting my childhood. I was half expecting to see Topps baseball cards for sale, still with sticks of pink gum in each pack.
What could be more appropriate than going to Bridge Brew Works for dinner on bridge walk day? To honor our accomplishment, we kept calling it Bridge Walk Brewery. The staff didn’t seem to mind, so long as our credit card worked every time we ordered another beer.
About a five-minute drive from Fayetteville, the place had plenty of outdoor seating, great beer, and a great food truck. That is our kind of fine dining.
White water rafting
Prepare to get wet and to have a blast. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are the marquee activities for adventure enthusiasts in the park. There is no shortage of guide companies that will gladly take you on a full- or half-day trip down the Class II and IV rapids of New River, Ace Adventure and Adventures on the Gorge being two of them.
If you are looking for more whitewater thrills after your float down New River, check out Gauley River National Recreation Area, which is about a forty-five-minute drive north of Fayetteville. Gauley River NRA protects a 25-mile swath of the river and has its own set of Class III and IV+ rapids. Guided tours are available.
Looking for an alternative to whitewater rafting?
If shooting death-defying rapids is not your thing, you might want to check out the Autumn Colors Express train excursion through the gorge. While the tours were cancelled in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns, they typically run the last couple of weekends in October and early November when the fall colors are at their peak.
Dinner on Day Three
On our final day visiting the area, we had dinner at Arrowhead Bike Farm and Campground. Just a five-minute drive from our flat, Arrowhead was one of the most unique places we’ve ever visited. It’s a bike shop that serves excellent beer and food next to its private campground. And they have goats, who visited us at our outdoor picnic table while we were enjoying an early-evening meal of brats and fish tacos.
Other food options worth noting
While we didn’t have time to stop by this place on our visit to the park, we might have to go back to Fayetteville someday if for no other reason than to eat breakfast there. We cannot personally vouch for their food, but hey, the place’s name is Biscuit World, that should be enough. Besides, we saw people standing in line to get in every time we drove by, so I have to believe it’s worth a try.
Also in Fayetteville’s old town, this café gets rave reviews. Most days they close by mid-afternoon so, if you want to try them out, plan on stopping by for breakfast or lunch.
And if that’s not enough…
If you found this article useful, check out some of our other posts about national parks such as Your Guide to Arches National Park.