In my home state of West Virginia, I’ve been visiting the New River Gorge area since I was a child and I was ecstatic when it became an official National Park in 2020. So if you love the outdoors, then get ready because you have so many options! So many it might be hard to narrow it down in fact. Here are some of the best things to do in the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
So what can you expect? Think hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, climbing, and more. But you don’t have to be an outdoor adventure adrenaline junky to love the New River Gorge (but if you are…you’re in the right place). There are flat boardwalks, historic sites, pleasant drives, and easily accessible viewpoints.
This is also an area with so much history. As a West Virginia native, I grew up learning about the state’s coal mining history. But for those unfamiliar, the park gives you a glimpse into the state’s past and to learn about how the coal industry (1800s-early 1900s) affected the people, the environment, the economy, and the country.
Table of Contents
- New River Gorge National Park Overview
- Things to Do in New River Gorge
- BONUS: More Things To Do
- Planning Your Visit to the New River Gorge
New River Gorge National Park Overview
The New River Gorge Bridge
So what makes the New River Gorge special? Oh boy this is a hard one. Is it the wonderful mountain scenery? The world class white water rafting?
Or is the New River Gorge Bridge? If I had to pick, I’d probably say it’s that last one. Maybe it’s because I grew up just about an hour and half from it, but I love that bridge.
What makes the bridge special? Well for one, you have to picture the gorge itself. The gorge was carved by the New River over the course of several millions of years. And when I say carved, I mean it. The sides of the gorge are steep through this section of the Appalachian mountains.
Did you know, that despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers in not only North America but also the world? For example the Nile River and Colorado River are much younger!
So how do you cross that gorge and river? Well prior to the New River Gorge Bridge, you had to take a windy mountain road down one side, over a small bridge, and back up the other side. The journey took about 45 minutes.
This had to change. But what kind of bridge would be best to cross a 3,030ft wide gorge that’s 876ft above the New River? Multiple designs were considered but ultimately one was chosen. At the time, it was the longest single span arch bridge in the world. (It’s currently the longest in the Western Hemisphere and 3rd longest in the world.)
In 1977 the New River Gorge Bridge opened. A difficult 45 minute journey was reduce to one minute. But this bridge isn’t just functional. It’s beautiful.
For real. This bridge is beautiful. In fact it’s one of the most photographed places in West Virginia. (And it’s also in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic resource.)
We (as in West Virginians) love this bridge so much, we hold a special day for it: Bridge Day. It’s the 3rd Saturday of every October.
During Bridge Day, the bridge is closed to traffic and pedestrians can explore and walk across it. There’s music, food and craft vendors, and more. It’s West Virginia’s largest one-day festival.
And, for those who are really adventurous, you can even BASE jump from the bridge. There’s also rappelling under the bridge and a high line (kind of like a zip line) that takes you from under the bridge down to Fayette Station Road.
These extreme sports are only available on Bridge Day.
Is There a Fee to Enter New River Gorge National Park?
There is no fee to enter the New River Gorge National Park!
Are Dogs Allowed?
Yes!! The New River Gorge National Park is one of the few national parks in the country where you can explore the park and its trails with your dog.
But there are a few rules you’ll need to follow:
- Pets are not allowed in any park buildings or visitor centers.
- Pets must be on a 6ft or less leash.
- Pick up your pet’s poop and throw it away. Seriously do this. If you don’t want to bag your dog’s poop, don’t bring them.
- Bring lots of water of pet to drink when hiking. Streams in the park may contain harmful bacteria or parasites.
- Pets are not allowed at ranger led programs.
When Is the Best Time to Visit the New River Gorge?
I would suggest April through mid-November. Visitor Centers should be open, tours are being offered, and the weather is warm.
Trees will be getting their leaves in April (so if you want green, wait for May). And if you want fall color, head to the New River Gorge in late October or early November.
Expect crowds in the summer months (like you would at any National Park). And expect the most people during Bridge Day (the third Saturday in October).
For my whitewater enthusiasts, tours on the New River are offered April through October.
But for those wanting to paddle the Gauley River – one of the best whitewater rivers in the country – you’ll need to plan to come during Gauley Season. Gauley Season begins the first weekend after Labor Day, and continues for six weekends (five 4-day weekends, and one 2-day weekend).
In terms of the best time of year, this is definitely a case of do as I say not as I do as I have a tendency to visit in the winter.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have lots of memories of visiting during the summer as a child and teenager (but just with blurry, out of focus photos).
In the winter, there aren’t as many tours offered, some visitor centers are closed, and the same thing for restaurants. But it’s also much less crowded. This past year we spent a handful of days in the park during the week (in February) and I often only saw a couple of people at each of the sites.
Places to Go in the New River Gorge National Park
So you’ve got one of the oldest rivers in the world that winds its way through a mountain range. There are only a handful of bridges along the 53 mile stretch of the New River (through the Preserve). And, in case it wasn’t clear, these are windy mountain roads. Sometimes made up of gravel.
So let’s just go ahead and state the obvious. Driving anywhere is going to take a long time.
If you want to see the whole park, like all of the major areas, you’re going to need several days. You can sweep in and visit in just a day, but you’re going to have to significantly cut things out.
So let’s break down the various parts of the park.
This is the area of the park concentrated around the New River Gorge Bridge. It’s probably the most popular part of the park too. But you’ve got lots of things to do here. If you only come for 1-2 days, I’d concentrate your visit here.
Thurmond Historic District
In the early 1900s this was one of the richest towns in WV. It was at the heart of coal production. And then it died and became a ghost town. There’s a lot of history here and a walking tour you can do, but I wouldn’t consider it a must-see. I haven’t included it in my list below.
A note on driving distances, in case you weren’t convinced. It’s ~30 minutes from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to Thurmond. There’s also a viewpoint (Concho Rim Overlook) that kind of overlooks Thurmond and a bend in the New River. It’s also 30 minutes from Thurmond to that overlook…because you have to drive the small mountain road all the way back out to the highway and then back in. They aren’t directly connected even though they are literally right next to each other.
This area is all about the great views. It’s got one of the best overlooks in the whole park (directly off the parking lot, no real hiking required). Plus some interesting hiking trails that I really liked. And it’s just a short 15 minute drive out to a second overlook (and then up a lot of steps).
This waterfall spans a section of the New River and is pretty impressive. However it’s located at the far southern end of the park and it’s a very long drive to get there. I’d make this a proper day trip and include stopping for lunch. Also if the water’s up, you won’t get super close to the falls.
New River Gorge Map
Below you can find a map of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The National Park portion (dark green on the map) is fairly small. Most of the National Park is concentrated around the Canyon Rim Visitor Center with a few additional pockets scattered around the key historical and natural sites mentioned above. The Preserve portion is much larger (lime green on the map).
Did you know that before the New River Gorge was a National Park, it was designated as a National River. There are several other nationally protected rivers in the area including the Gauley and the Bluestone.
Things to Do in New River Gorge
1. Canyon Rim Overlook
I would definitely suggest starting your visit here. This is not only the main visitor center but also the one right by the New River Gorge Bridge.
After you park, follow the signs towards the Scenic View to come to not just one but two overlooks.
The first viewpoint will put you at about level with the highway (and the top of the bridge). If mobility is a problem for you, this is still an amazing view of the bridge.
For those not afraid of a few stairs (and by a few I mean a lot), then head on down the steps towards the lower viewpoint.
Here the trees open up and you get a better angle at that beautiful arch. One positive about visiting in the winter is that the trees have no leaves and you can better take in the whole expanse of the bridge.
And you might just start to realize just high up that bridge is. There are a lot of displays around the viewpoint to give you more info. My favorite mentioned that the Washington monument and two statue of liberties could fit under the arch (from river level) with 20ft to spare.
After getting your fill of the bridge (for now), head into the Visitor Center. I would definitely spend some time here going through the various historical, natural, and cultural displays.
They’re clustered in a large room opposite the gift shop. Even just spending 20 minutes reading through the ones that catch your eye will teach you a lot about the area and all the sites you’re about to see.
2. Bridge Walk
Are you afraid of heights? No. Good. Because you should definitely consider doing the Bridge Walk.
Here you have the opportunity to take a guided tour and walk the 24in catwalk on the underside of the bridge. Yes, as in, you’ll be walking a ~2ft wide catwalk roughly 850ft above the river.
If I wasn’t terrified of heights like this, I would have done it. As I think it looks amazing. But full disclosure, I did not.
Here are the details. Tours are 2-3 hours. You’ll check in at Bridge Walk and then they’ll shuttle you to the north side of the bridge where you’ll then head towards the start of the catwalk.
The catwalk is 2ft wide with a sturdy railing. And don’t worry, you are securely fastened into a safety cable. There’s no chance of falling from the bridge.
You’ll then walk the entire 3,030 ft expanse (pausing and learning about the bridge as you go). There’s plenty of time to stop for photos, ask questions, and learn about the bridge and park. At the end, you’ll ride the shuttle back.
Now tours are expensive (starting at $75 in mid-2023), and you’ll need to reserve in advance.
3. Fayette Station Road
Before the New River Gorge Bridge was constructed, this small windy 100 year old road was the only way drivers could cross the gorge. It took about 45 minutes.
But today this road is a scenic drive (one-way only).
It starts near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and then makes its way down to the New River. You’ll cross a small bridge and then make your way back up. Along the way you’ll have great views of the gorge, bridge, and remnants of old communities. There are plenty of pull-offs and chances to stop and explore.
At the bottom you’ll find a couple of larger parking lots where you can walk out onto the rocks for a better view of the bridge from below.
Expect to spend about 1.5 hours exploring the road. And don’t forget to listen to the audio tour! Learn about the bridge, how coal mining affected the region and people, and the old townsites of Fayette and South Fayette (both along the Fayette Station Road just on opposite sides of the river). The life cycle of these coal mining towns were characteristic for this region.
To start the driving tour, leave the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and return to Route 19. Turn right (north) onto US 19 and take your next right onto Lansing-Edmond Road (County Route 5 and 82). In 1/4 mile, turn right onto the road with a road sign marked “Fayette Station Road.” The road forks almost immediately; take the left fork.
The audio tour will help you find your way.
4. White Water Rafting
This is easily one of the best things to do in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. I’ve been hearing about how amazing the New River (and the Gauley River) are for whitewater all of my life.
If you like whitewater rafting, then add this to your list immediately.
In the park and preserve itself, the New River has trip running from April through October (from the Bluestone Dam to Hawks Nest lake). And you have two big choices.
The upper (southern) part of the river has long pools and some easier rapids up to Class III. You’ll find a variety of trips and opportunities utilizing this stretch. Best for intermediate whitewater paddlers.
The lower (northern) part of the river, aka the Lower Gorge, has some of those big boy rapids (Class III to Class V). These are some big, forceful, and powerful rapids. Advanced and expert paddlers only. Make sure you’re ready for it.
Are you a whitewater enthusiast? Just north of the New River Gorge is the Gauley River – one of the best whitewater rivers in the country. If you want to try your hand at tackling the Gauley, you’ll need to visit during Gauley Season (early Sept through mid-Oct). Learn more about whitewater on the Gauley.
You can venture out on your own if you’re experienced, but there are plenty of licensed outfitters that offer guided trips. I suggest utilizing an outfitter if you’re new to the area or rafting.
5. Endless Wall Trail
If you can only hike one trail in the park, I’d suggest this one. It’s got views of the bridge and the gorge, and though it’s over 3 miles, the elevation isn’t that bad.
There are a couple of ways to hike this trail. You can hike it as a loop or as it out-and-back. I actually suggest hiking it as an out and back. I’ve done both, and there’s no real benefit to doing the loop.
- If you want to hike this as a loop, park at the Endless Wall. You’ll walk along the road from the Nuttall parking lot to the Endless Wall parking lot at the end of the hike.
- If you want to hike this as an out-and-back, park at Nuttall.
- And if it’s busy, park at whichever one you can. (Note parking along the road here is illegal.)
- You can also park at the Endless Wall parking lot, and then hike out to Diamond Point and then just head back the way you came. This is my least favorite option however as you miss a lot of the smaller viewpoints.
I like to hike this as an out-and-back because once you leave the Nuttall parking lot, the trail zig zags for just a 1/3 of a mile before you reach the cliff edge. Then the trail follows the edge until you reach Diamond Point.
Starting at Nuttall means you’ll have lots of smaller overlooks and viewpoints before you reach the big one – Diamond Point.
Be very careful around any of the viewpoints. You are on a cliff edge. Watch your dogs and your kids!
Once you’ve had your fill, there’s one last viewpoint to find. The last time I hiked this trail we missed it (and went too far), but there’s a small side trail leading out to another point just west of Diamond Point (it’s before Diamond Point if you’re coming from the Endless Wall Parking lot).
This one has a clear view of the bridge. (Yep, I love that bridge.)
After taking in the New River Gorge Bridge, it’s time to head back to the parking lot. Or to finish the loop if you started at the Endless Wall lot.
6. Long Point View Trail
If you want to hike a fairly level trail with the best view of the New River Gorge Bridge, then this is the trail for you.
The trailhead is located right outside of Fayetteville in the Canyon Rim area of the park. It’s got a nice sized parking lot nestled into a neighborhood. But this is a popular trail. Expect crowds if you come at peak times.
The trail starts off pretty flat heading away from the parking lot. You’ll go through (and over) some muddy fields via a boardwalk before entering the forest proper.
Stick to the Long Point Trail as you hit the two intersections (the Fayetteville Trail crosses through this area), but the signs are very clear.
Near the end of the trail, you’ll start to head down through some rhododendron and out towards the point itself. And I do mean down. Watch your footing and know that what you go down, you’ll have to climb back up.
As you near the overlook, the land will start to drop away on both sides.
BE CAREFUL! There are no railings along the trail and these are cliffs. Watch your dogs and your kids.
Finally the trail will spit you out at the Long Point Viewpoint. And you’ll see the pride of the New River Gorge National Park: the New River Gorge Bridge.
7. Rock Climbing
The New River Gorge has some amazing sandstone cliffs that are perfect for rock climbing. There are over 1,400 established rock climbs in the park.
The cliffs range from 30-120 feet in height and the rock is very featured, alowing for lots of different routes. However most of the climbs favor the advanced and expert climber (5.9 and harder).
But if you’d like to try out rock climbing, there are several outfitters you can choose from. Their climbs may technically be outside of the park, but you’ll still be in the area. Check out Ace Adventure Resort, Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, and Adventures on the Gorge.
Though you can climb anytime, the main climbing season runs from late April to mid June and then mid-September to late October.
8. Mountain Biking
You might think that with the steep gorge mountain biking wouldn’t be possible. Well prepare to be surprised! The New River Gorge has several mountain bike trails (with several leaning more towards the easy side as well).
If you want to mountain bike, head to the Arrowhead Trails. Here you can find 13 miles of mountain biking trails (you can also hike here too). It’s located in the Canyon Rim District right near the Long Point Trail.
For a full list of trails, check out the National Park Service mountain biking page.
9. Visit the Grandview Overlooks
One of the best districts in the New River Gorge National Park is Grandview. And you’re coming here for the views.
Your first stop is the Main Overlook right off the parking lot and near the seasonal visitor center. It’s perched 1400 feet above a bend in the New River.
It’s the second best view in the park in my opinion (the bridge being number one of course!).
There are also a fair amount of trails in this area, including my third favorite in the park. Before leaving the main overlook parking lot, definitely consider hiking the Castle Rock Trail (see #10 below for the details).
Driving Distance – it takes about 1 hour to get from the Canyon Rim District to the Grandview District. Be sure to factor driving time into your days!
Once you’ve had your fill, hop in the car and drive the 10ish minutes to the Turkey Spur Overlook.
You can hike all the way out there, but as long as the park’s not busy, I’d recommend driving. (The parking lot at Turkey Spur is very, very small.)
At the Turkey Spur Overlook you’ll have to climb about 150 steps to reach the top of the rocky outcropping.
But then you’ll be treated to nearly 360 degree views.
A visit to Grandview is one of the best things to do in New River Gorge National Park.
10. Castle Rock Trail Loop
This short loop hike in Grandview District will take you to another overlook (the North Overlook) as well as wind along the bottom of the sandstone cliffs in the area.
You can hike this trail in either direction, though it may be easier to hike this in a counter clockwise direction and start on the Castle Rock Trail. But basically you hike about a 1/2 mile on the Grandview Rim Trail at either the start or the end of the loop.
The Grandview Rim section of this loop is fairly level as it winds through the forest. You’ll pass a sign for the North overlook. This short spur will take you to a small (but still impressive overlook).
The Castle Rock Trail portion of the trail is narrow, and winds along the base of cliffs. You’ll get an up close view of the sandstone cliffs and, not to sound like a geology nerd, but the rock formations are beautiful!
I struggled to get good photos of the side of the cliffs, but trust me this short trail is worth it.
11. Sandstone Falls
The southern most district in the park is Sandstone and it’s main attraction is Sandstone Falls – the largest waterfall on the New River.
Sandstone Falls actually marks a transition in the New River. The river at the falls is 1500ft wide, but right after the falls the river enters the New River Gorge and becomes a narrower and roaring (and rapid-y) river.
You can take a series of boardwalks and natural trails to several islands and viewpoints around Sandstone Falls. Be very careful! Many people have drowned at Sandstone Falls.
This was my third favorite district of the park (after Canyon Rim and Grandview), not because the falls aren’t impressive (though only expect drops of 10-25 ft) or beautiful – they are – but the driving to get there was more than I expected.
Okay so driving times. It’s an hour from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to the the Sandstone Visitor Center. I suggest stopping at the visitor center to learn more about the falls if you have the time. Regardless if you stop or not, you’ll start the drive to the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk after you exit the interstate.
Now Google Maps estimate here is inaccurate. It takes at least an hour to go from the Sandstone Visitor Center (and the interstate) to the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk. ONE HOUR AFTER YOU GET OFF THE INTERSTATE. They are actually quite close, but on opposite sides of the river.
So if you’re coming from Fayetteville area, it’s going to take 4 hours roundtrip just in terms of driving. Definitely make a visit to Sandstone Falls at least a 1/2 day trip.
If you want to visit Grandview and Sandstone, I suggest combining them into one day (this is what we did). It’s about 20 minutes from the Grandview Overlook to the Sandstone Visitor Center.
After you get off the interstate, you’ll drive 10 miles on a windy highway down to Hinton. Along the way, you’ll pass by the Sandstone Falls Overlook.
You can pull over and take a peak if you have time. But you are up on the hillside looking down at the Falls. You are not close.
Keep on driving then onto Hinton. I suggest stopping for lunch/dinner either on the way there or on the way back if you are around a meal time. If you’re grabbing food in Hinton, try the following places:
At Hinton you’ll cross a bridge and drive 8 miles back up on the other side. On this side you’ll find several overlooks, river access points, a view of Brooks Falls (Class III rapid), picnic areas, and more. We didn’t stop at any of these since we were in a rush, but there are stops you can make.
Finally you’ll reach the Sandstone Falls Boardwalk and day use area. The boardwalk is elevated and will take you to several viewpoints of the Lower Falls and to a larger viewing area of the Main Falls (though you’ll be pretty far away still).
At the end of the boardwalk, you can take the steps down to a series of rough trails to get a closer view of the waterfall. From the steps head straight and then you should hit a fork.
We went to the right and got a better view of the Lower Falls. We, however, were not able to go to the left and to the beach that’ll put you closer to the Main Falls due to, well, the water being up and the trail being gone.
I didn’t feel like plodding through a foot of water so we did not get a closer view of the Main Falls. If it’s been rainy (or snowy) then this may also be the case for you as well.
If you are in the New River Gorge for 3 days or more, I would suggest a visit to Sandstone. But if you only have 1-2 days, I’d focus your trip on the Canyon Rim and Grandview Districts.
BONUS: More Things To Do
Okay you want even more things to do? Well sure, I can do that! Now the items above are my favorites, but this is a National Park with lots of stuff to do. There are plenty of more hikes and areas to visit.
I haven’t done all of these (or they aren’t actually in the Park), but I wanted to give you more options!
Hawks Nest State Park
Hawks Nest is my favorite activity outside of the National Park. And it’s less than a 20 minute drive from Canyon Rim!
While the park is small, there’s lots of things to do.
- lodge and restaurant
- two overlooks (one at the lodge and one just slightly west of the lodge along HWY 60)
- the Cliffside Trail – my favorite in the park
- an aerial tram which will take you down towards the water
- jet boat rides along the New River
Babcock State Park
Head to Babcock State Park (just 25 minutes from Canyon Rim). The main attraction is the old grist mill on Glade Creek for some amazing photo ops. I came near sunset and it was gorgeous!
There are also cabins to rent at Babcock and the Island in the Sky trail (~1 mile) that’ll take you along a cliff and to a small overlook.
I’m not a big fisherman, but my father was. And if I was planning a trip with him, I would have worked in some fishing time. I don’t have a lot of information on this, but check out the National Park Website for more information.
Kaymor Miners Trail
If you’re in the mood to hike down (and then back up) 821 steps, then this is the trail for you. First you’ll follow a trail for about 1/2 mile to the Kaymoor coal mine site (don’t miss a view .2 miles down the trail off to the right). Then from the mine site, there are 821 steps leading down to the coal processing plant and old town site (though I’ve read they are behind a fence.)
Thurmond Historic District
In the early 1900s Thurmond was one of the richest towns in WV. It was at the heart of coal production. And then it died and became a ghost town. There’s a lot of history here and a walking tour you can do (self guided or ranger led at 11am).
Nuttallburg was one of the area’s coal towns that sprung up in the late 1800s and then vanished when production ended in the 1950s. A collection of empty buildings mining buildings are all that remains if you tour the area. The road to Nuttalburg is treacherous, so be careful.
Planning Your Visit to the New River Gorge
Where to Stay
I would suggest staying in Fayetteville, WV. You’ll be right by the Canyon Rim Visitor Center and in perfect position to take full advantage of what the park has to offer.
Another nearby town is Beckley (~30 minutes away) which has lots more hotel options. I like the Hilton here since it has good reviews.
Where to Eat
Since I’m usually in Fayetteville, this is where all of my recommendations are. MANY places are closed on Sundays, Monday, Tuesdays, etc. This is a small mountain town.
Tudor’s Biscuit World. Yes this is a regional chain. But if you are not from West Virginia, then you have to try it. Tudor’s is a West Virginia staple. As someone who’s eaten it lots of times, I got it twice in a 5 day visit. I miss it now that I live in South Carolina.
Pies and Pints. This is the original location of this pizza restaurant. It can get crazy busy here and parking can be a pain. But I love it.
Cathedral Cafe & Book Store. Former church converted into an artsy and delicious restaurant.
Wood Iron Eatery. Great food plus a nice outdoor porch (which was rare in town). One of the only places we could actually sit down to eat with Ellie (our dog).
Southernside Junction Taphouse. Great little craft beer taproom right in downtown.
The Handle Bar + Kitchen. Part bike rental shop, part restaurant and taproom. Great outdoor seating (closed in the winters – or at least when I was there).
Freefolk Brewery. THIS PLACE WAS THE BEST! Great beer, great food, wonderful people, and they even let us bring Ellie inside! And when it’s warmer, they have a covered patio and live music.
So how many days do you need? Well…it depends on what you want to do. If you want to visit Canyon Rim, Grandview, Sandstone, hike, bike, and like whitewater raft…then you’re going to need several days.
This is mostly due to just the driving times between the various stops.
These days aren’t packed…I get tired easily after a long hike (or white water rafting). And I hate itineraries that don’t plan for like food. I like to eat you guys.
- Hike the Endless Wall
- Canyon Rim Visitor Center & Overlook
- Fayette Station Road
- Bridge Walk (or drive down to Grandview, see the overlooks and Castle Rock Trail)
- Day 1: Same as above.
- Day 2: go whitewater rafting
- Day 2: spend the rest of the day visiting Grandview (if you didn’t the day before) or hike the Long Point Trail if you want to stay near Canyon Rim.
Three or More Days
- Day 1: Same as above
- Day 2: go whitewater rafting
- Day 2: choose how to spend the rest of your day – hike Long Point, visit Babcock State Park, Hawks Nest, or mountain bike.
- Day 3: spend the day out at Grandview (overlooks & Castle Rock Trail) and Sandstone (with a lunch/dinner stop in Hinton).