New River Gorge National River in southern West Virginia from Fayetteville to Hinton Visited: July 27, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 67 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? 53 miles of protected river that cuts a profound gorge into the mountainous countryside. The New River boasts both excellent fishing and challenging whitewater. Alongside the river’s borders lie the remains of once great railroad towns and abandoned coal mines.
BEAUTY (10/10) The most beautiful place we have ever seen in the eastern United States. The trees are lush; the water is a warm 75°, the gorge dramatic, the river intense. Mist hovers above the water, exposed sandstone rock juts out from sheer cliffs, every bend in the river brings a stunning view. The New River Gorge Bridge, America’s second highest bridge crosses the canyon just south of Park’s northern River border. The man-made structure spans the River with a regal presence.
The New River Gorge feels like the tropics. Our entire boat vocally wondered if we were in a jungle. Maybe it was the three inches of rain the previous night or perhaps it was the inch that fell during our trip’s first two hours. It could have even been the hundreds of vultures sunning themselves in trees alongside the riverbank or even the intense greens of the flora. For us it was the smell, a smell of sticky growth and untold excitement. We all felt like we were in an adventure movie and a treasure was just around the corner.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) Reminders of King Coal emanate everywhere along the River. You see abandoned mine shafts and black veins on the exposed gorge rocks. Still-working coal-carrying trains roar through the valley on the river's edge. A once-thriving resort town and coal center, Thurmond, lies within Park boundaries. The town’s grand brick structures stand in ruin along the banks lending an eerie historical charm to the adventure.
The New River also enjoys a significant natural significance: it is the world’s second oldest river, junior only to the Nile.
CROWDS (9/10) On the ride to the departure spot, a river guide stressed to a busload of eager rafters, “Get to know the person next to you. Make friends. They could be the one pulling you out of the water.” Once we launched into the New River, our guide, Wriston, introduced our boat of nine whitewater neophytes to the basic rafting techniques and to each other. Both introductions were equally important.
Over the course of our six-hour trip we would get to know each other real well. We paddled together, worked through difficult technical rapids together, ate together, swam together, pulled each other out of the boat together and after the trip was over, drank soda and beer together.
Our nine ranged from ages 13 to 60 with wide ranging geographical and life experiences. We quickly bonded as a team, faced difficult challenges and had a rip-roaring time.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5) The Park, while close by Interstates 64 and 77, is demonstrably prohibitive. To fully experience the River, you need to be on it. Unless you are an experienced kayaker, the difficult Class III through Class V Rapids (VI being the most difficult) must be tackled with an outfitter and on a whitewater raft. If you are just fishing, road access to the New River’s banks is challenging. Once you leave U.S. Route 19, the roads pare down to a narrow tortuous unmarked one lane. Be very careful if you are driving at night.
Scenic views from above do exist at and around three of the Site’s four Visitor Centers.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5) The NPS bookstore was not too unique.
COSTS (1/5) 20 different whitewater outfitters operate nearby the New River. Full-day trip prices range anywhere from $75 to $95 per adult. We stumbled upon a $62 Tuesday-only rate from Appalachian Whitewater and left ecstatic with the product we received. If we were to return, we would use the same company. Half-day trips are available from some outfitters.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) The National Park Service takes a backseat to the many outfitters at the New River Gorge. It is probably for the best. There is no way that the federal government could offer a whitewater rafting excursion. This is not to say that the Park Service exists sight unseen at the New.
There are four Visitor Centers which provide information and give cursory explanations of the New. Our biggest complaint about the NPS Visitor Centers is their hours. They are all open from 9-5. Sounds fine, right? Sure, if you are just driving through the area and only want to look down into the Gorge. However, the full day rafting trips take place roughly from 9-5, making a VC visit impossible.
The NPS offers free camping at four separate campsites. We stayed at the Stone Cliff Campsite, a few miles from any VC. We arrived at 5:30 and were dismayed at the lack of any Ranger presence, especially since we were along the New’s riverbanks, it rained over three inches, there was no cell-phone service, the roads to and fro were extremely narrow and we were in the middle of Appalachia.
If the Visitor Centers stayed open a few more hours, they would greatly increase the numbers of people who need to use their services.
TOURS/CLASSES (10/10) We could not have asked for more from our Tour Guide, Wriston. He gave us a great trip, a comprehensive West Virginia and New River Gorge history, plenty of corny jokes and an intensive lesson on how to whitewater. Our safety and well-being lay in his hands and on his commands. We never felt in danger.
We have gained a burning desire to whitewater again as well as the confidence to attempt more difficult waters. Like the nearby (and much more difficult) Gauley River in September. It is a National Recreation Area and consistently rates among the Top 5 whitewater trips in the world.
FUN (10/10) Non-stop, roller-coaster, keep-coming-back-for-more fun. And not just the rafting. We jumped off 15 foot high rocks, swam through a Class III rapid and relaxed in the 75° water underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. Here’s another example:
Wriston asked for a volunteer. Of course Gab blindly offered her services. Her mission: Sit on the front of the boat through a Class IV Rapid, hold on with one hand while waving with the other. Pretend you are riding a bull. She succeeded, screaming and yelling through the entire thing while the entire boat wished they had volunteered first.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes.
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