There are moments, as you drift through the deep canyon walls of the New River Gorge, when it feels like you’ve got the whole world to yourself. It’s just you and the river, littered with massive, prehistoric boulders that were here when the coal mining camps were built, and the fur trading posts before them, and the Shawnee and Cherokee villages before those. In a river that geologists say could be one of the world’s oldest, you can lose yourself in time. Then the current picks up, and you’re back to paddling like mad, navigating the chutes and eddies of heart-pounding white water.
Since the 1960s, West Virginia’s New River Gorge has drawn adventure seekers to its rapids and rock walls, and those rafters and climbers have long considered it a hidden gem. But the curtain is being drawn back on the canyon, because part of it has become America’s 63rd national park.
At the end of December, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included a proposal from Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin III (D) of West Virginia to reclassify the New River Gorge National River’s 72,186 acres as a national park and preserve.
“It’s a real victory,” Capito says. “These things aren’t easy.” There has been a local push for national park status for years, both for the prestige of the title and the tourism dollars; West Virginia has among the lowest job growth in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. But there also has been some local resistance.
Capito first proposed a bill in 2019, and the natural attributes of the gorge helped move the measure along. “It’s an ancient river that flows south to north, which is very unusual,” she says. “It has multidimensional attractions: recreation, history, biodiversity.”
The gorge also offers a “spiritual aspect” and a “solitary kind of quiet,” Capito adds. “People are coming here from places that are busy and congested, and I think they appreciate that quiet. When you get down into the gorge, you’re removed from what’s going on in modern America. And it’s very unspoiled. We call West Virginia ‘wild’ and ‘wonderful,’ and this certainly is.”
The New River Gorge is located in southern West Virginia, roughly five hours southwest of D.C. The new designations encompass 53 miles of the New River (locally called simply “the New”) and the rugged tangle of Appalachian forest around it, which is crisscrossed by hiking and mountain biking trails, railroad tracks, and winding country roads. The area has been administered by the National Park Service, which maintains several visitor centers on the gorge, since it was given conservation status as a national river in 1978.
The updated title of park and preserve makes the New River Gorge only the second site outside Alaska to receive that designation. Most of the land — just over 65,000 acres — will be preserve. The park will cover 7,021 acres at the center, where the gorge is a mile wide and spanned by the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel arch span in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States.
The legislation was crafted with a nod toward tradition. Because hunting is not permitted in national parks, most of the area was designated as a preserve, which will allow continued access for hunters who have stalked whitetail deer on the sandstone bluffs for generations. And although BASE jumping is banned at Park Service sites, the legislation includes a provision that will allow Bridge Day — an annual October event that features jumpers parachuting the 876-foot distance from bridge to river — to continue.
Aside from the visitation increase that’s expected to come with official park status, altered signage, additional parking, and the closure of the park’s 7,000 acres to hunting, not much will change at the New River Gorge, and that’s the whole point.
“Part of the deal was to change as little as possible, in making this shift to a national park,” says Roger Wilson, president and CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, an outfitter with a sprawling campus overlooking the bridge. “That was extremely important to getting local buy-in from the communities.”
Wilson, who started guiding rafting trips in the mid-1970s, was an early champion of park designation, and part of what Capito calls a “ground-up initiative” to garner support for the bill that began in the late ‘70s, shortly after the river won its designation as a national river. “It started with a few of us just getting together and talking about what we could do for the area,” he says. “It just all came together within the past two years.”
There are some opponents to the re-designation, including sportsmen who protest the loss of the hunting grounds within the park, and those who worry the new status will lead to the overcrowding that plagues many national parks. But the move is generally a popular one among locals who would see the gorge — and all the history it holds — afforded the highest possible level of protection.
“Hunters can tell you stories about finding indentations, foundations, evidence of camps from way back when. There’s a lot of our past down there,” says Sharon Cruikshank, mayor of Fayetteville, which is poised to become the new park’s main gateway community.
History and heritage are woven into the fabric of West Virginia, where many residents can trace their lineage back centuries. Wilson’s forebears arrived at the New River Gorge in 1745. Cruikshank’s family members owned land along the banks of the New for the first half of the 20th century, where they ran a coal mine’s company store. Its foundation is still there, Cruikshank says, though most rafters float by without noticing it. “But now I know that history will always be preserved. Nobody can come in and dig it up or build over it.”
It’s a family affair for Capito, too. Her late father was West Virginia’s governor in the 1970s, when the New was being considered for national river status, but she recently discovered he always believed it ought to be a national park. Her bill’s passage feels a bit like fulfilling a legacy.
Even for those without familial ties to the West Virginian landscape, the New River Gorge, with its unusually warm cascades, towering stone ramparts and old-growth forest groves, speaks for itself.
“It is a natural wonder in the category of the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls,” says Chelsea Ruby, the state’s tourism commissioner. “Once you see it, it’s something you’ll never forget. It has flown a bit under the nation’s radar, but this designation puts it in its rightful place. We think people will be looking for a chance to spend time in the great outdoors and spend time in less crowded spaces, and we look forward to rolling out the welcome mat for all of America.”
Ruby says the New River Gorge and nearby areas welcome roughly 1.4 million annual visitors, but numbers at the new national park are expected to jump almost immediately. “When Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was re-designated a national park, they saw a 21 percent increase in visitation in the first year,” she says. “I think there’s great potential to far exceed the numbers we’ve seen before.”
Wilson hopes those visitors will leave with a new impression of West Virginia, and of Appalachia as a whole. He recalls seeing a tourism survey, from “probably 25 years ago, asking people around the country, ‘What is your opinion of West Virginia?’ The top response was, ‘No opinion,’ ” Wilson says. “I do think it gets overlooked. People think, ‘Well, we know there are coal mines.’ ” In actuality, of the state’s 15.5 million acres, nearly 12 million is forested land, much of it open to recreation. “It’s mountains,” Wilson says, “and rivers and trees, and laid-back people.”
It’s a state of tiny towns, adds Ruby; the largest city in West Virginia, state capital Charleston, is home to fewer than 50,000 people. Small places like Fayetteville, with a population of less than 3,000, face both challenges and opportunities as they prepare to be the hosts for a national park within a day’s drive of roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population.
Safeguarding the area’s charm and rural way of life, no matter how many out-of-towners arrive, is a priority, Cruikshank says. “There’s a way to grow with quality,” she says. “When you do away with your history, or you bulldoze that mountain, you can say, ‘Well, gosh, there used to be this great view here and you could see for miles, but now all I see are strip malls.’ Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and it’s hard to tell the story of that place. That’s not what we’re going to let happen here.”
But growth is, of course, inevitable, for the town and for the outfitters that already cater to rafters, zip-liners and climbers. At Adventures on the Gorge, there are plans to expand campgrounds, build a new welcome center, and renovate dining facilities.
“We’ll all prosper from it,” Wilson says. “I’ve said this all along; to me, this is a long-term gain for the local communities. I’m hoping this will help our company, but my main efforts are for the community as a whole over time.”
He hopes the New River Gorge National Park and the growth it sparks will do more than bring visitors to southern West Virginia. He hopes it’ll keep people there, too. “What’s the old movie where they build that baseball field?” he muses, thinking of “Field of Dreams.” “I truly believe this may be a way to keep your child or grandchild living in West Virginia. There are so many young people who leave the state to find employment, and they almost all return home for retirement. They want to be here — they just need the opportunity. If you build it, they will stay.”
Graphics by Lauren Tierney, design by Cece Pascual, photo editing by Monique Woo
PLEASE NOTE: Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.