New River Gorge: America’s Newest National Park
America’s First National Park, Yellowstone, opened back in 1872. Today, a total of 63 national parks (and 424 total National Park Sites) can be enjoyed. America’s newest national park, New River Gorge in West Virginia, just opened in 2020. This makes it the newest addition to the National Park System. This is a gorgeous park located within the beautiful Appalachian mountain range of southern West Virginia and is worthy of a stop by any nature lover, hiker, or photographer visiting or passing through the area. Even better, it is one of just a dozen or so free national parks. Yes, there is no fee to hike or park at this natural gem!
History of New River Gorge
New River runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia and then joins the Gauley River to form the Kanawha River in Gauley, West Virginia. Popular destinations located within the gorge include the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Most recently, the New River Gorge National Park became America’s 63rd national park
Congress established New River Gorge Park in 1978, although it did not become a national park until 2020. Today, 53 miles of this river and 40 miles of tributaries are protected. Despite the name, New River is considered to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Estimates place the river at an age of 65+ million years!
A whitewater rafting hotspot
Whitewater rafting on the New River is a very popular summer pastime. The southern portion of the river is home to more tame Class I-III rapids, which are ideal for anyone new to rafting or seeking a tamer family friendly adventure. The northern part of the river, known as “the Lower Gorge,” is home to Class III to V rapids. These are considered much more challenging and even dangerous, specially without expert guidance.
Many licensed guides offer trips on the New River. It’s best to leave the maneuvering up to experts. although you can run the river on your own if you are experienced. Trips vary from easy float trips, to intense all day adventures. Multi day trips also available. The season typically runs from April-October. It’s best to book in advance to ensure a spot.
Activities at New River Gorge National Park
America’s newest national park is located on 70,000 acres of land on the New River. Besides rafting, hiking and biking are great ways to explore the natural beauty. For anyone looking to keep the exercise to a minimum, there are a number of beautiful overlooks where you can gaze out upon the mountains. Even if you are just traveling through the area, it is worth a quick stop to hike a quick trail or enjoy the tremendous mountain scenery via Grandview overlook.
Other relaxing activities include: camping, fishing, and scenic drives. More adventurous activities include: rock climbing, kayaking, and stand up paddleboarding.
Hiking at New River Gorge
Even if you are just traveling through the area, it is worth a quick stop to hike or simply enjoy the tremendous mountain scenery via Grandview overlook. According to the NPS, the forests are home to the most diverse flora and fauna of any southern Appalachian river gorge. The Appalachians are amongst the most ecologically diverse forests in the country. This park is home to many diverse habitats including mature bottomland forests, wetlands, cliff and rimrock habitats, and unfragmented forests. Lots of unique animals call the area home including groundhogs, white tailed deer, bears, foxes, and river otters.
Trails vary from a quarter of a mile to 7, so you have numerous choices here. Grandview Visitor Center is the best place to plan your adventures as 6 miles of trails are available, plus you can enjoy the mesmerizing overlook. The 1.6 mile Rim Trail is a breathtaking moderate choice offering fantastic views of the river and gorge. The Tunnel Trail (although short at half a mile) is pretty cool as it features various tunnels and interesting rock formations.
The main overlook at New River Gorge National Park is the Grandview Overlook and what a grand view it is! From the 1400 foot elevation deck, you will take in a stunning vista of the New River Gorge. We were lucky enough to visit on a spring day and have the view completely to ourselves! In addition to enjoying a crowd-free experience, spring is also the time when gorgeous Catawba rhododendrons are in bloom! On a historical note, from the overlook can see the town of town of Quinnimont – the first mining town of the New River Gorge. It was the first town to ship coal on the C & O Railroad.
Other activities to enjoy at Grandview include: hiking trails, picnicking sites, and a visitor’s center (open June-August, Noon to 5pm). Special events include ranger led walks and summer theater productions.