A First-Time Visitor’s Guide to the New River Gorge National Park

A visit to the U.S.’s newest national park means adrenaline-filled outdoor adventures, fall foliage, and craft beers.

Tucked away in the mountains of West Virginia, the New River Gorge has largely been an underrated travel destination. Yes, locals have long known about this incredible natural playground—it’s been popular among white-water rafting enthusiasts for decades, and Appalachian families have lived symbiotically with the land for generations. But many people first learned about the New River Gorge in 2020 when it became the nation’s 63rd, and newest, national park.

Given the unique ecosystems here, that designation, and the additional protections it now receives, is well deserved. Despite its name, the New River is estimated to be between 10 million and 360 million years old, making it the second oldest in the world. The forest around it is home to over 1,500 different plant species, one of the most biodiverse in the Appalachian region.

Humans too have an ancient and storied presence here. Archaeologists have found human artifacts in the area believed to be at least 12,750 years old. More recently, between the late 1800s and the 1950s, the area was home to a large number of coal mines. Remains of these coal mines and the nearby towns can still be found throughout the park.

In the 1970s, the area began gaining popularity among outdoor enthusiasts and was first named a protected area in 1978 when it became a national river. It now offers a wide range of activities, including white-water rafting, climbing, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, climbing, kayaking, SUP, and even base jumping (at least for one day of the year, Bridge Day). For those venturing here for the first time, use this guide to discover what to do, where to eat and drink, and where to stay in the New River Gorge National Park.

Lay of the land

Map of the New River Gorge National park

The New River Gorge National Park is 53 miles long, following the course of the river.

Courtesy of National Park Service

New River Gorge National Park is 53 miles long and follows the course of the New River. It has several different access points, but it can take up to an hour on meandering backroads and byways to get between them.

First-time visitors are best off focusing on the area around the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, where many of the park’s most popular trails and attractions are accessible by a short drive, including the iconic New River Bridge—which, with a span of 1,700 feet, is the longest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s also a quick, five-minute drive from the visitor center to the charming small town of Fayetteville. Though just a few blocks long, you’ll find outfitters for the most popular sports (rafting, rock climbing, fishing, and mountain biking), as well as a solid selection of accommodations, shops, and eateries, in or within a few miles of town.

Itinerary: If you only have one or two days . . .

To get a good sampling of what the park has to offer, don’t miss out on a sunrise hike on the Endless Wall Trail, a half-day white-water rafting trip on the New River (also known as “the New”), and a sunset drive on Fayette Station Road.

For those with more time, head out on a half-day climbing tour with an experienced guide, then hike or mountain bike on Long Point Trail for a sunset view of the gorge. Alternatively, hop on the Kaymoor Miners Trail for a hike while learning more about local mining history. Once the sun goes down, mosey on over to nearby Arrowhead Bike Farm for beers and brats at its restaurant, the Handlebar, or the women-owned brewery, Freefolk, just a few more minutes’ drive down the road.

Things to do in New River Gorge National Park

The New Bridge at the New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia

Views of the gorge and iconic New River Bridge can be seen on several hikes throughout the park.

West Virginia Department of Tourism

Hike in, near, or around the gorge

If you only have time for one hike, opt for the Endless Wall Trail, an easy, 2.2-mile loop that takes hikers past a dramatic view of the New River Gorge and Bridge at a vista point called Diamond Point. It’s especially magical at sunrise, when fog and mist drift in and out the canyon.

Other appealing hikes near Fayetteville and the Canyon Rim Visitor Center include:

  • Long Point Trail (bikes allowed): This moderate, 3.2-mile-long out-and-back trail ends at the edge of a cliff overlooking the New River Gorge and the New River Bridge, on the opposite side of the canyon from Diamond Point.
  • Kaymoor Miners Trail: Brace yourself for a strenuous 2-mile out-and-back route that heads down into the gorge to see remains of a former mine and mining town. For a longer hike, this trail overlaps with the 8.6-mile Kaymoor Trail.
  • Bridge Trail: Beginning at a trailhead on Fayette Station Road, this 1.72-mile out-and-back trail is strenuous at times, as it meanders through shady forest, past some small waterfalls, and ends under the New River Bridge, offering a different perspective of the landmark.

Scenic drive on Fayette Station Road

Before the New River Bridge was completed in 1977, Fayette Station Road was the area’s main two-way road but is now a scenic drive popular among visitors. Full of hairpin turns and vista points, the road winds down to the bottom of the gorge, across a narrow bridge, and back up to the top. Take your time and make plenty of stops to enjoy the forest, river, and views of the iconic bridge along the way.

White-water rafting on the New River

New River Gorge NP, White water rafting, ACE Adventures

If you can, don’t miss the chance to go white water rafting in “The New”.

ACE Adventures

Whether you’re experienced or not, those who are able won’t want to miss the chance to go white-water rafting. With class II–IV rapids, broken up by stretches of calm waters, the New River is excellent for anyone new to the sport. Rafters can choose between a half-day adventure on the Lower New River (class II–IV) or Upper New River (class II–III) or a full day that includes both parts of the river and lunch.

Those with more experience should time their trip for “Gauley Season,” the six weeks after Labor Day in which the nearby dam-controlled Gauley River is open for white-water rafting. Gauley River trips are split between Upper Gauley, which runs through five class V+ rapids and a 14-foot waterfall, or the comparatively calmer Lower Gauley, which includes 13 miles of class III–V rapids.

Seven outfitters run rafting trips to both. We’d recommend Ace Adventures or Adventures on the Gorge for anyone staying around Fayetteville.

Jet boat tour from Hawk’s Nest State Park

For another way to experience the New, take a quick drive to Hawk’s Nest State Park for a jet boat tour with New River Jet Boats. The 30-minute boat ride (plus a 15-minute drive, each way, from the ticket counter to the boat launch) takes passengers into the national park, culminating with a stunning underside view of the New River Bridge.

To make an adventure out of it, park your car at the trailhead for the Ansted Rail Trail and hike the two miles down to the boat launch. This relatively flat path follows a peaceful, shady creek on what used to be a functioning railroad and ends just a few yards away from the boat launch ticket counter.

Rock climbing

Rock climbing at the Junkyard in New River Gorge National Park

While most climbing routes are more intermediate-level difficulty, the New River Gorge has some easier routes for beginners too.

Jessie Beck

The New River Gorge is popular among avid climbers, thanks to the over 1,400 established routes throughout the area. Although the majority of them are best for intermediate climbers (the difficulty grade ranges between 5.10–5.12), there are a few easier options ideal for beginners.

If you consider yourself a beginner, head out with an outfitter like Adventures on the Gorge, which runs half- and full-day climbing trips for adventures of all ages, levels, and abilities. For the experienced, we’d recommend a pit stop at Water Stone Outdoors for beta and local climbing guide books—as well as some great espresso drinks from its Range Coffee bar in the back of the store.

Mountain biking

Rather explore the trails on two wheels instead of two feet? Then grab a bike and hop on one of the area’s mountain bike trails, like the easy and scenic Long Point Trail, feature-filled Corona Trail, or the gorge-adjacent Kaymoor Trail. For all your bike needs—be it rentals, tours, gear, services, or even a tasty beverage after your ride—head over to Arrowhead Bike Farm. In addition to its full-service bike shop, it also has a restaurant, the Handlebar, which serves cold beers and warm brats (vegan options available), plus a campground and a small farm with a motley crew of resident goats.

Where to eat and drink

Some of the best places to eat in and around Fayetteville include:

Wood Iron Eatery

Open for breakfast and lunch with a variety of vegan, vegetarian, and meat options, Wood Iron Eatery is one of the best options for a fresh, healthy meal. Although it runs a limited, breakfast-only menu on Saturdays and Sundays, on weekdays, you won’t want to miss the selection of sweet and savory waffles, the “Big Green Bowl” salad, or heartier sandwiches and handhelds.

Freefolk Brewery

Just outside Fayetteville, the convivial Freefolk Brewery is a shining beacon of string lights on the edge of an otherwise lush, forest-lined byway. Inside, quirky pottery lines the walls behind the bar (think: ceramic mugs with faces molded onto them), while outside, a large yard with picnic tables invites visitors to linger on warm nights. Although its beers, which range from hoppy IPAs to tart farmhouse ales, are the stars here, don’t overlook the food menu either. The classic cheeseburger or house-made vegetarian beet burger are both delicious options.

Pies & Pints

The original outpost of a now regional chain specializing in beer and pizza, Pies & Pints is a solid, family-friendly option for lunch or dinner. Fans swear by its out-of-the-box topping combinations, like Tajín, jalapeños, and corn on an elote-inspired street corn pizza or an oddly delicious grape and gorgonzola, but you can’t go wrong with a classic combo either.

Southside Junction Tap House

For a touch of nightlife, head to Southside Junction Tap House, a cozy bar and restaurant in the center of Fayetteville that regularly hosts live music. Whether there’s a show on or not, nab a seat at the bar and order a local West Virginia brew (such as those by nearby Bridge Brew). For the hungry, worry not: Be it pickles or wings, the fried snacks are perfectly crispy, and locals swear by the burgers and (only sometimes fried) taco selection.

Where to stay

The living room in one of the apartments in Lafayette Flats in Fayetteville, WV.

For those looking for a convenient stay in town, Lafayette Boutique Flats in Fayetteville is an ideal option.

Courtesy of Lafayette Boutique Flats

Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals

Located on Fayetteville’s main thoroughfare in what used to be a bank, the newly opened Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals is a collection of well-appointed one-bedroom holiday apartments—complete with a full kitchen, bathroom, living space, and bedroom. Art by local artists lines the hallways and staircases in this three-story walk-up (unfortunately, there are no elevators and apartments are on the second and third floors), as well as the interior of each uniquely designed apartment.

Adventures on the Gorge

If you’d rather be surrounded by trees, grab a bundle of wood for your campfire and book yourself into one of the rustic, wooden cabins at Adventures on the Gorge; each is equipped with a fire ring and charcoal grill. Some deluxe options also come with a private porch and hot tub.

Although you’ll feel like you’re deep in nature while staying on this expansive, family-friendly adventure resort, the location is surprisingly central: it’s only a six-minute drive to Fayetteville and three minutes to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. While there, don’t miss a sundown drink at Smokey’s on the Gorge or Chetty’s Pub, two adjacent, on-site restaurants with striking, western-facing views of the gorge.

Camping

Within the park boundaries, there are a handful of primitive campsites (no drinking water and limited bathroom facilities) as well as options for backcountry camping. However, private campgrounds, such as those at Arrowhead Bike Farm, and state park campgrounds, like those at Babcock State Park (20 minutes away), are better options if you want amenities like showers, toilets, and potable water. No matter what you choose, remember that you are in bear country and should follow the National Park Service’s advice for staying safe.

The best time to go

Basejumper on Bridge Day at New River Gorge National park

Experienced base jumpers flock to the area on Bridge Day.

West Virginia Board of Tourism

Summer is the most popular time to visit the New River Gorge, but we’d recommend visiting in September or October, when the weather cools, crowds thin out a bit, and several locally loved events occur.

September marks the start of “Gauley Season” as well as the paddle-focused festival, Gauley Fest (it was on September 15 in 2022).

Additionally, on the third Saturday of each October, the area hosts Bridge Day, which is the one day of the year in which base jumpers are allowed to leap off the New River Bridge, drawing a crowd of jumpers and spectators alike.

Even if you don’t make either of these events, the dense forests around the river create a spectacular display during fall foliage season, which generally peaks around mid-October.

Park fees

Unlike many national parks, the New River Gorge is free to visit. There are no entrance or parking fees within the park.

Getting there

Most visitors to the New River Gorge drive from nearby states—it’s roughly five hours from Washington, D.C., four hours from Charlotte, North Carolina, three and a half from Pittsburgh and four from Columbus—or elsewhere in West Virginia. The nearest airport, Yeager International Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is a little over an hour away and has direct flights from Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte, and Orlando.

Jessie Beck is a San Francisco-based writer and senior manager of SEO and video at AFAR. She contributes to travel gear, outdoor adventure, and local getaway coverage.
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