JILL GLEESON EXPLORES NEW RIVER GORGE PARK AND PRESERVE, AMERICA’S NEWEST NATIONAL PARK.
Jill Gleeson discovers that America's newest national park offers activities for all.
By all accounts, Long Point Trail should be bustling with hikers and mountain bikers. It’s known to be one of the most popular paths in West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, the country’s most recent national park.
The designation, which took effect earlier this year, is an upgrade of sorts from the National River status the New River Gorge earned in 1978. And it’s already brought more adventure seekers into the official boundaries of the gorge area. For park service purposes, those confines run for 53 wild miles from the town of Hinton north to Hawks Nest and encompass 70,000 acres, far more than only the river.
EXPLORING LOWER NEW RIVER
Unexpectedly, the path before me—which began with an easily accessed trailhead from a good-sized parking lot—is deserted. In fact, it’s quiet enough that not long into
my hike I see a big doe ahead, casually crossing the trail. She stops to peer at me, so unconcerned with my presence that her tail points downward, a sure sign of her relaxed state. I grin at her and she ambles off through the foliage, just beginning in this first week of October to blaze with fall’s vibrant colors.
I’m in the northern end of the park, home to the Lower New River. (The quirky waterway, said to be one of the oldest on the planet, flows south to north rather than humdrum north to south.) Corseted by a tall, tight gorge that funnels the river into raging rapids, the Lower
New is also blessed with sandstone cliffs that soar upward from its banks.
Here, visitors will find world-class rock climbing, whitewater rafting and mountain biking. Farther south, the gorge widens into something akin to a canyon, and the New calms, offering gentler pleasures like fishing and familyfriendly paddling of all sorts.
That’s not to say it’s all daredevil action on the Lower Gorge. There are a range of well-maintained hiking trails rated from easy to strenuous, some of them winding around the remains of the old coal mining towns that dotted this area a century ago.
I’m finding Long Point, which is about 3 miles total, to be a mostly flat, serene walk through a forest rich in pine, poplar, hemlock, oak, maple and beech. The trees arch over my head, shading me from the sun, their leaves glowing red here, yellow there. Closer to eye level, the rhododendron and mountain laurel, for which the state is famous, grow in great,
No matter the adventure you wish to experience, chances are you’ll find it somewhere in the Lower Gorge.
glossy thickets. I consider how this land must also dazzle when spring arrives and they are in full bloom.
Of course I’ve been to the New River Gorge before; the first time was nearly 15 years ago. Back then I led a far more sedentary life. I didn’t hike or bike, raft or ride. But part of my job as a writer is to experience new things, so I decided to visit the Lower Gorge, packing all the outdoor activities I could into two days. I zip lined and went horseback riding, even soared across the sky as a passenger in a World War II-era biplane. It’s not a stretch to say that no matter the adventure you wish to experience, chances are you’ll
find it somewhere in the Lower Gorge.
But most memorable of all the activities was rafting the New’s famed whitewater, swollen with spring snowpack melt into massive Class IV rapids. I was a disaster, falling twice into the raging water, even going so far as to get sucked under the raft, an exploit I imagine was akin to spending a cycle in a giant washing machine. But even as I bounced around in the boat, even as wave after icy wave slapped me square in the face, I grew only more ebullient. Rafting the New River down that impossibly rugged gorge was one of the most challenging and purely gratifying things I’d ever done. It made an outdoors person out of me.
Over the years I’ve returned many times to the Lower New area around the little town of Fayetteville, considered the gateway to the gorge. I’d never before hiked Long Point Trail, though. On this journey, I walk down the well-worn path, wondering how I managed to miss it until now. Because after a short scramble down a rocky incline, I finally arrive at the point from which the trail takes its name.
The large stone outcropping reaching into the gorge provides a vista so beautiful my jaw drops in amazement.
Before me unspools the famed New River Gorge Bridge. At 876 feet tall, it’s the country’s third highest bridge— and at 3,030 feet long, the Western Hemisphere’s longest steel bridge.
Every third Saturday in October, spectators flood the area to celebrate Bridge Day and watch fearless BASE jumpers leap from the bridge into the gorge. You’ll find information about shuttles, tickets and activities for the largest single-day festival in West Virginia at officialbridgeday.com.
I marvel at this mighty but graceful structure that straddles the dense foliage of the gorge. The leaves look spattered, as if by a careless painter’s brush, with the fiery colors of autumn. Far below I can spot the New River, the waterway that changed my life. I want to applaud the sight, but instead I whisper a heartfelt word of congratulations. I can’t think of a better site for America’s newest national park.