History and Stats
The area has been home to human civilization for thousands of years, with archeological records dating back well before the arrival of Europeans. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, small settlements were founded in earnest, often seeking to profit from the coal veins or rich timber harvests. With the arrival of a rail line in 1873, the region saw a short-lived population explosion that ended shortly after many mines became unprofitable.
Parts of the area were originally slated to be added to the West Virginia State Park system, but would later be combined and put under the authority of the National Parks System.
As per the legislation signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, the New River was designated as part of the National Parks System “for the purpose of conserving and interpreting outstanding natural, scenic, and historic values and objects in and around the New River Gorge and preserving as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the New River in West Virginia for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
Date Founded: November 10, 1978
Size: 72,808 acres
Elevation: 2,487 (Grandview), 1,087 (New River)
Rainfall: 41in, 62in of snow
Visitors: 1.1 million a year
Fees: There is no fee to enter New River Gorge National River, however, with so many other parks within the National system, we would be remiss to not point out the America The Beautiful Pass, which applies to over 2,000 different sites, offering free entry, reduced campsite fees, and countless other incentives.
“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
The park was formed specifically to protect the area around the New River Gorge Crossing and stretches for over 50 miles along the banks of the river from the Bluestone Dam to Hawk’s Nest State Park. Conservation of ecology, history, and wildlife all play a major role in the park’s mission.
Additionally, the park is home to many outdoor activities that go beyond vistas and the over 50 miles of hiking trails. The New River contains what is considered some of the best whitewater rafting in the country, and the surrounding area contains well as over 1,000 different climbing routes. It is also considered a prime site for bird watching, canoeing, fishing, and biking, among other activities.
There are two main Visitor Centers within the park, Canyon Rim, and Sandstone, while two more seasonal outposts operate during peak season.
Canyon Rim Visitor Center is open daily with the exception of November 24, December 25, and January 1 from 9 to 5. The Canyon Rim Visitor Center features informational exhibits on the wildlife and history of the Gorge as well as informational films and Ranger-led programming. It’s defining attribute is undoubtedly its amazing view of the New River far below. The structure itself was designed to take advantage of natural features to eventually blend into its surroundings.
Sandstone Visitor Center is open daily from 9 to 5 from April through November and then is open on a limited schedule through March. It features a short film on the history of the New River as well as exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the region. Its floor features a map of the New River watershed, while there is a garden on the grounds showcasing the native flora and fauna.
Thurmond Depot Visitor Center is open seasonally June through August from 10 to 5. It is housed in a restored rail station and offers a unique window into the nation’s past as a major producer of coal.
Grandview Visitor Center is open from May 28 through September 3 from 12 to 5. It is home to the highest views of the New River Gorge, at over 1,400 ft above the water. It features Ranger-led walks and talks as well as outdoor theater during the Summer months.
Beckley, a town of around 17,000, is a major hub for Southern West Virginia, and all of the amenities one would expect from a small town can be found here. Beckley is roughly a 30-minute drive, though there are many other smaller towns and villages in the area.
There are eight different primitive campgrounds available within the park, as well as backcountry camping. Full information on these sites can be found here.
Additionally, there are multiple varieties of campgrounds in the surrounding area.
With multiple towns and villages in the region, there are many options for lodging in a range of prices.
As the sites are primitive, we recommend at least Novice preparation, and definitely Intermediate or Advanced if you’re inclined to camp at a more difficult site or go into the backcountry. That said, if you’re looking for some light day-hiking while staying in a hotel or RV park nearby, Newbie preparation will suit you just fine. You can find printable PDFs of our packing guides and more in our Traveler’s Tips.
The park offers an extensive and rotating catalog of programming, ranging from guided hikes to mountain biking to Tai Chi and more. Further information and the programming calendar can be found here.
There is also a great deal of focus on the region’s wildflowers, with several programs centered around the area’s flora. More information can be found here.
Additionally, there is an app available to embark on a self-guided car tour of the region’s African American heritage. More information can be found here.
We were only within the park for a few hours, though J has camped in the area and rafted down the New and nearby Gauley in the past. We greatly enjoyed the view, the rich information provided and the wonderful detour of crossing the New River on the valley floor, scooting through the remains of twin coal villages.
Things we’d like to try next time
We would definitely stay in the area for a longer time, likely hiking into the backcountry or just staying a few nights at a primitive site. With two fully staffed Visitor’s Centers, there is no shortage of programming available, and it would be easy to make a few nights’ stay fly by. The lure of rafting is just too good to pass up, and one we’ll likely bite on the next time we’re in the area.
- The park has an active webcam, and the broadcast can be found here.
- Hawk’s Nest, part of West Virginia’s State Park system, abuts one end of the park and is not to be missed, offering fantastic views, Civilian Conservation Corps work at its finest and a quaint Country Store.
- All of the primitive campgrounds allow for access to the New River, but as the current is incredibly strong, lifejackets should always be worn.
- Cam’s Ham in Huntington, WV is a roughly 2-hour drive west, and if you’re heading that way, it’s wonderful a no-frills gem of American cuisine. You can read more about Cam’s and other standouts in Eating Across America.
- The area offers some of the only Class V rapids close to the East Coast. A Class V is amazing, but not for the faint of heart.
- Both of the major Visitor Centers of the park were constructed with Green Architecture as a prime consideration, and as such are both low impact and highly efficient structures.
- It is possible to cross the New River without going across the massive bridge, but it requires a bit of a detour to the valley floor. We highly recommend it.
- There are many more activities and parks in the area, including the birthplace of Booker T. Washington and Appomattox Courthouse. More information can be found here.
What’s your favorite vista along the New River? Have you ever been rafting in the area? Is there another hidden gem of a restaurant we missed? Did we miss anything else?
Read more about our experience at the New River Gorge National Park here.