WVA’s Dazzling New River Gorge
Stunning, Newest U.S. National Park is Different in many Good Ways
By Rich Grant
America’s newest national park — New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia — is so new, you can’t even buy a kitchen magnet with that name on it yet.
But that’s going to change. And so is the whole concept of tourism to Southern West Virginia.
Take Me Home
It was 50 years ago that Bill Danoff and his wife Taffy Nivert collaborated on a song with John Denver that came to be called “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Recorded by John Denver in 1971, it was a platinum single and is still selling millions of digital copies.
In 2014, it became one of four “official state anthems” for West Virginia.
For people in West Virginia’s tourism industry, the song was pivotal and the history of tourism to the state can be divided into two periods: BC (Before “Country Roads”) and AD (after John Denver).
Song About VA
Now people in the neighboring state of Virginia will tell you that with lyrics like “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Shenandoah River” (they’re both mostly in Virginia) the song is not about West Virginia at all. Except that it is, and forever will be.
With its nice imagery and catchy melody, people will be singing “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” 100 years from now.
But the image of West Virginia was anything but “heaven” before John Denver.
West Virginia has over 1,000 named mountains and is almost entirely mountainous.
If you need statistics, there is more mountainous land per square mile in West Virginia than in any other state.
It was in the heart of Appalachia, has a heartbreakingly sad coal mining history, and is the center of the current opioid crisis.
The New West Virginia
However, there’s also a “new” West Virginia, too, in the southern part of the state-centered around the brand new New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
And while the actual New River is not new at all, it’s the river’s new designation as one of America’s 63 national parks that are going to change everything.
That will bring along with it new craft breweries, distilleries, chefs, BBQ joints, boutiques, live music, cute B&Bs, restored historic towns and re-interpreted history, all as a wonderful addition to the already many mountain recreation opportunities that have always existed here.
In fact, it’s all so new on the tourism front, they may want to consider changing the name of the state from “West Virginia” to “New Virginia.” Here are some of the things happening as of May 2021.
The New National Park
The New River has always been here. Some people think it’s the world’s second-oldest river, and it’s one of the few rivers on the planet to flow north.
In modern times it is known for offering some of the wildest white-water rafting in the East.
A New Preserve
On Dec. 27, 2020, some 70,000 acres and a 53-mile stretch of the river were designated as the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
Most of the area was inaccessible until 1873, but then the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad steamed up alongside the river because West Virginia was “King Coal,” home to the finest bituminous coal (the best burning coal) found anywhere in the world.
By 1950, West Virginia was also home to 125,000 coal miners working in 500 company towns built to house them. Even today, West Virginia is the second-largest producer of coal in the U.S., after Wyoming.
Today, much like it was in 1873, most of the 70,000 acres of the national park are only accessible by foot or by the river (which can be rafted and kayaked).
For those unfamiliar with West Virginia’s climate and landscape, the terrain can come as a shock.
The mountainous state is steep, wet, and almost tropical looking with an impenetrable thick green undergrowth that can be punctuated in spring with brilliantly colored rhododendrons — the official flower of West Virginia.
John Denver & Company worked very hard to build rhododendrons into the lyrics, but so few things rhyme with rhododendron.
Trails and Waterfalls Galore
Befitting a national park, there are trails galore with viewpoints, scenic drives, accessible waterfalls, and overlooks.
But New River is also a new concept in national parks. There are no entrances and no admission fees.
It’s a big, long, sprawling area of wilderness on both sides of a river.
One popular thing to do here is light adventure with rafting, rock climbing and zip-lining.
If your idea of adventure is just unorganized solo wandering, you’ll find that here, too, in a gorgeous natural surrounding filled with hikes and history.
I combined a scenic drive over a reproduction of the original Fayette Station Bridge connecting two old coal mining towns that have disappeared.
I hiked to waterfalls, enjoyed overlooks, listened to songbirds, admired the variety and color of rhododendrons along the trails, walked through old coal mining sites, visited the park’s two information centers, strolled the backstreets of historic towns, and had a simply wonderful and carefree day without crowds.
That was, of course, before heading to the many new distilleries and breweries in the area.
An Amazing Resort
Adventures on the Gorge (or “AOTG” as everyone calls it) has done everything right. Except possibly, pick their name.
AOGT does not quite capture that this is an amazing resort with 116 cabins, 103 campsites, a couple of casual (but fine dining quality) restaurants, a happening bar with live music, and a beautiful swimming pool, all at one of the most magnificent viewpoints of the gorge.
Oh, and they have adventures, too, such as 30 different whitewater rafting trips, rock climbing, zip-lining, guided hikes, standup paddleboarding, and more.
It’s a perfect destination for weddings, small meetings, family reunions, and couples looking for a quick escape.
Here’s the layout. There’s a main lodge where you can sign up and get “geared up” for any of the adventures on water or land.
Here also is a splendid coffee shop for breakfast, Smokey’s Restaurant for full breakfast or a lovely indoor or outdoor dinner of BBQ, rainbow trout, burgers, steaks, and salads.
The most fun is Chetty’s Pub, a local hangout of craft beers and music.
Across the paved road from the lodge, there are dirt roads leading through the forest to the 116 cabins, which are adorable knotty pine wonders with porches and chairs on the outside, and all the amenities modern travelers would want indoors.
The roads to the cabins are not lighted at night, adding to the magic as you wander back from the pub looking at nothing but stars above, and maybe a smartphone light on the trail.
The Mothman of WVA
During my day trip, I learned about the “Mothman,” a West Virginian folklore of a human-shaped body with blazing red eyes and the wings of a moth. Dread and disaster follow those who see the Mothman. So imagine my surprise when coming back from the pub, I stumbled upon the “Mothman,” complete with white face and red eyes, only to discover it was a friend from our AOTG meeting, blinded by my light while walking back to his cabin. Yikes!
AOTG was founded by four river rafting companies that “partnered up” in 2007 and has one mission – to make sure guests have fun and safe adventures. The staff is friendly and helpful and most important, they are all happy because they have landed in such a great place to work. They love it here and want to share their love for AOTG with you.
Fayetteville and Hinton WVA
These two towns will be the gateways to the new national park. Neither town has the infrastructure normally associated with a national park. Yet. But it will come. Fayetteville is downriver (but to the north – remember, the New River flows north) and is home to the New River Gorge Bridge, which at 3,030 feet long and 876 feet high is the longest single-span arch bridge in the U.S. (fifth in the world).
It is something to see, often floating above clouds that fill the gorge below. When the bridge opened in 1977, it cut travel time across the gorge from 40 minutes to less than one minute.
But do take the 40 minutes to drive down hairpin curves to the old Fayette Station Bridge, which is a beauty with river access and hiking trails along the way.
In the small town of Fayetteville, I loved dinner at Pies & Pints, which serves craft beers from the local Freefolk Brewery.
Hinton, at the other end of the new national park, is a historic railroad town and the access point to Sandstone Falls, the largest waterfall on the New River and quite spectacular. Hinton was once a coal and railroad boom town with saloons and bordellos.
It’s a lot sleepier now, but the boom left behind a town of wonderful brick and stone buildings, and it will be interesting to watch them fill up with breweries, galleries, and shops.
Going Down into the Mine
Between Fayetteville and Hinton is the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine – a hoot of a “must-see” roadside attraction where you ride on motorized carts driven by veteran miners some 1,700 feet into a coal mine. The mine has been expanded to allow tourists in.
The real mine here was only 36 inches high! Incredibly, miners would crawl into the earth following the coal seam, drill holes in it, stuff the holes with dynamite, yell “Fire in the hole,” blow the coal seam up, and then drag the blasted coal out on carts.
To make the mine high enough to stand in, the miners would have had to blast and take out rock, and no one was paying them to remove the rock.
Nobody was paying them much to remove coal either. Outside the mine, there are shacks and buildings that give you a good look at the poor living conditions of miners, most of whom were paid in company scrip that could only be used in overpriced company stores.
It’s not surprising to learn that there were many bloody battles between mine owners and striking coal miners in the war to establish labor unions and safe mining practices.
An average coal miner today makes $90,000 and has much safer working conditions.
Still, it would not be the job for me. Or just about anyone. On the tour, they stop the cart after the first bend in the mine, where it’s dark and the ceiling is low, and the guide asks if anyone is uncomfortable and wants to get off.
One big guy sheepishly raised his hand and we backed up to let him off. Happens on every tour, our guide said. Lots of people can’t stand the claustrophobia of a mine. But if you can, the tour is fascinating. When someone asked the guide, “Do we have to wear masks,” he replied, “I don’t give a damn what you do,” which got a big laugh and a round of applause in free-wheeling West Virginia.
The nearby Greenbrier Resort is about as far from a coal mine and as you can get. It could not be more deliciously old school with its manicured gardens, horse-drawn carriages, golf course, lakes, equestrian barns, and chapel. It’s a slice of the Old World, seemingly time-frozen during the Eisenhower administration, that has survived and kept a kind of early James Bond era elegance alive.
It is a gated resort, so when I pulled up to the guard station with shoulder-length hair and a bandana, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The guard asked politely, “checking in sir?” I said, “No. To be honest, I would just like to walk around the resort and take some photos.”
He could not have been more gracious. He told me where I might find free, non-valet parking, and ended with, “It’s a beautiful day for photos.”
The Greenbrier Bunker
Now that is wonderful. And so is the Greenbrier. It’s a photographic dream. But while the resort revels in its Old World charm, one thing that is new is public tours of one of the best-kept secrets in American history — the Bunker.
Built during the Cold War, it’s an underground city that was supposed to house the President and all members of Congress in the event of a nuclear war. Crazy? You bet!
You get to walk through a 25-ton blast door and down a tunnel that is 720 feet underground. There are dormitories and cafeterias that were designed to house and feed 1,100 people for 40 days.
Interestingly, the families of congress members would not be allowed in. All the family members would have to wait out the 40 days in the “Mad Max,” post-apocalypse ruins up above.
Still, I think I would rather be with them, than down in the Bunker watching Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnel sharing bunk beds.
White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg
These two charming towns have been living off their proximity to the Greenbrier for decades. Now, it might be the other way around. While White Sulphur Springs is a one-street town, but it’s attracting new fun spots like Road Hog BBQ, which is taking over an entire downtown block with a new distillery, brewery, and showroom for live music. There are almost a dozen breweries already throughout the valley.
Lewisburg is not undiscovered. This beautiful college town has already made lists as the “coolest small town in America,” and it just might be that with its revitalized main street, the historic General Lewis Inn, upscale restaurants like the very pretty French Goat.
And don’t miss, the hip, nearby distillery, Smooth Ambler Spirits, voted “America’s Best Craft Whiskey Distillery” by the readers of USA Today.
It’s a great town have a whiskey and wander around on the shady back streets of gorgeous homes and spreading lawns.
Visiting WVA Tips
Don’t expect to get anywhere fast in West Virginia. There’s not a straight road in the state. So download “Country Roads,” relax, and take in the scenery.
You might rent the movie “Deliverance” before going. That takes place in Georgia, but it will give you a sense of the wild and wooly West Virginia wilderness surrounding the New River.