By Debi Lander

Many U.S. National Parks recorded their highest visitation rates in 2020, the pandemic year. Seems that after lockdown, Americans want to venture out, get away from computers and TV, and rediscover the joys of outdoor recreation. I felt the same need, so I flew to Charleston, W.Va., to explore our newest national park: New River Gorge National Park. The 53-mile section of the north-flowing river was previously designated a National River, but upgraded to an official national park in December 2020, joining 62 other national treasures. 

The designation gives new recognition to West Virginia, provides new jobs, and more money to the old coal mine region. It means a national park within driving distance of the east coast, albeit nine hours from Jacksonville. (Perhaps stop in North Carolina or Virginia to break up the trip.) 

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The almost heaven gorge itself is majestic. 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. Sign up for the fun and honestly non-scary Bridge Walk. You step along a catwalk below the bridge roadway, safely tethered in with access to handrails on each side. A guide shares the history of the area and interesting facts about the engineering marvel. The view — breathtaking.

The third Saturday in October draws thousands to Bridge Day. They come to walk, join a 5K run, or watch the thrill-seekers who 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. 

Naturally, hiking attracts all ages, and the park offers more than 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. Rock climbing in the “Grand Canyon of the East” appeals to enthusiasts year-round, and hunting is permitted in some areas of the park. Fishing, with a license, promises a variety of bass, walleye, crappie, bluegill, carp, and catfish. And, photographers love it, too.

Whitewater rafting, however, claims the most excitement. The upper course works 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 — and a swirling vortex. Pretty scary. Perhaps I should have left rafting to the more experienced crowd, like those who challenge the Gauley River, also within the national park’s grounds. It ranks as one of the top five rafting rivers in the world. 

Lodging options run from bare-bones platforms for tent camping to comfy log cabins with outdoor hot tubs. Adventures on the Gorge is the premier outfitter offering everything from accommodations to guided activities with transportation, restaurants, swimming pools, and adventure gear. You’ll find cabin rentals and bed and breakfast rooms in the nearby town of Fayette or numerous RV parks and campgrounds in the region.

I highly recommend a visit to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine to better understand the dangerous work done by coal miners. You ride through the dark passages of a vintage coal mine with a veteran miner. At various stops, this guide provides firsthand accounts of how past miners spent their days. The idea of working in a space no higher than three and a half feet astounded me. You can also visit the period coal camp buildings throughout the grounds. Kids will enjoy the adjacent Youth Museum highlighted by Thomas the Tank Engine exhibits. 

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Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Bridge Walk participants.

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