In southeastern West Virginia, a forested gorge surrounding one of the world’s oldest rivers has just joined the U.S. National Park System.
The New River Gorge, formerly a national river, was upgraded to a national park and preserve as part of the COVID-19 stimulus package signed by the president on December 27. The rugged stretch of Appalachian canyon has been a world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destination since its 1978 national river designation. It encompasses more than 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of whitewater, which winds through towering sandstone cliffs that reach up to 1,000 feet in some areas.
A little over an hour’s drive from West Virginia’s capital, Charleston, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve will measure about 7,000 acres around the heart of the gorge, which already has a number of designated trailheads and a visitor center, Outside magazine reports. The remaining 65,000 acres will be classified as a natural preserve, which makes it accessible to backcountry hunters. In total, the 73,000-acre national park and preserve will include three locations that are already managed by the National Park Service (NPS)—the Gorge itself, the Gauley National Recreation Area, and the Bluestone National Scenic River.
In addition to its outdoor adventure offerings—which include Class IV and V whitewater rapids, more than 1,500 rock climbing routes, and hiking and mountain biking trails—the New River Gorge area is home to wildlife such as white-tailed deer, river otters, and bald eagles. West Virginia’s white and pink state flower, the great rhododendron, also blooms throughout the area during summer.
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve marks the United States’ 63rd national park and 20th preserve. It’s one of five existing “combo parks” in the country, with the other four located in Alaska. West Virginia government officials originally brought forth the proposal in 2019, arguing that an NPS designation could boost tourism in the region.