In 2021, West Virginia’s New River Gorge became the 63rd national park in the U.S. It offers whitewater rafting, free primitive camping, and much more.
The name New River is a misnomer, as the river is one of the oldest in the world. New River Gorge National Park covers 53 miles of the 320-mile-long river.
The most iconic image of this park is the New River Gorge Bridge, which is 3,030 feet long and has a 1,700-foot arch span. Every year on the third Saturday of October, Fayetteville, W.Va., hosts Bridge Day, where BASE jumpers leap off the bridge, others rappel, and thousands of people watch from above.
Here’s our insider’s guide to where to go and what to do at New River Gorge National Park.
A Guide to Exploring the New River Gorge Park and Preserve
When to Visit
Most activity in the park happens from spring through fall, when it’s more enjoyable to raft, hike, camp, and climb.
This park is open year-round, but Grandview Visitor Center and Thurmond Depot are only open seasonally from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
We visited during a weekend in June when there were plenty of people but still found a campsite at Meadow Creek on a Friday night without any issues.
New River Gorge Park and Preserve: What to Do
You can run the river yourself or go with a licensed outfitter with guided trips of varying levels and lengths. The northern part of the park has rapids ranging from Class III to Class IV. The southern half has rapids ranging from Class I to Class III.
My dad went rafting on “The New,” as many people call it, back in 1980, and he said it was the best way to see the gorge. I didn’t go, so rafting is definitely at the top of my list for our next visit.
Instead, we saw the rafters go under the bridge when we drove across the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge on the Fayette Station scenic drive. There are plenty of put-ins in this area of the park as well.
Whenever you plan for water activity, it’s a good idea to check the water levels and recent closures or park alerts.
This park is a popular destination for climbers, as the Nuttall sandstone cliffs are perfect for climbing. There are over 1,400 established rock climbs within New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Of the routes, 51.2% are sport climbs, 32.4% are trad, 13.8% are bouldering, and 2.5% are toprope. Most routes are 5.9 and up.
For last-minute gear and maps, check out Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville. No permit is required to climb.
The park is huge, so if you only have one day, pick only one or two of the seven different areas to explore.
We chose the Sandstone-Brooks area in the south because it has a waterfall, 1,500 feet across, and it was closer to where we started our day. The trail is a 0.4-mile ADA-accessible boardwalk roundtrip out and back.
At the end of the boardwalk, stairs go down toward rocks, where you can explore more.
If you have more time, we recommend the 3.2-mile Grandview Rim Trail hike to see the river bend as well as the 1-mile Tunnel Trail.
Campgrounds and Primitive Camping
One of my favorite parts about this park is that there is plenty of free primitive camping, and you don’t need a reservation. The nine areas that offer this are Stone Cliff Beach, Army Camp, Grandview Sandbar, Glade Creek, War Ridge/Backus Mountain, Brooklyn, Thayer, Meadow Creek, and Gauley Tailwaters.
The Burwood Group Campsite near Canyon Rim Visitor Center requires a Special Use Permit. Contact the permit office at 304-465-6517 for more information.
We stayed at the Meadow Creek campground by the Sandstone Falls Visitor Center. It was a great stay, but there are train tracks nearby, and a train went by at 11 p.m. each night.
The site is first come, first served, and you can stay up to 14 days. There were individual fire pits, picnic tables, grills, parking spots, and pit toilets, and it was right by the river.
This park mainly offers day hikes, but suggested trails for backpacking are Glade Creek, Kates Plateau, and Polls Plateau.
How to Get There
If you need to fly, Yeager Airport in Charleston, W.Va., is the best option to get to the park. It’s about an hour away by car to the New River Gorge Bridge and Canyon Rim Visitor Center, conveniently located on U.S. Route 19.
My boyfriend and I drove from Shenandoah National Park to Meadow Creek Campground in the southern part of the park, so we took Route 64, where the campground and Sandstone Visitor Center were right off the exit.
There are four visitor centers to visit for maps and historical exhibits. Canyon Rim Visitor Center is in the north by the bridge.
Grandview Visitor Center and Thurmond Depot are in the middle of the park and are both open seasonally. Grandview offers grand views of the river bend, and Thurmond Depot is a restored railroad depot. This site is one of the many historical sites of this park that reflects the state’s coal mining history.
Lastly, Sandstone Visitor Center is in the southern part of the park. It has a TopoBox, an interactive sandbox with a projector that helps teach about watersheds and topography.
Driving from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to the Sandstone Visitor Center takes about an hour, and it’s another half hour to Sandstone Falls, so plan accordingly.
This visit was my first time at the park, and while it was a short visit, it was a lovely one. I hope you enjoy your trip whether you hike, raft, climb, visit historical sites, or all of the above.