National Park

New River Gorge National Park and Reserve is a wild and wonderful adventure


63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: visit every national park in the United States. Avid backpacker and public lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a little van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing the best COVID-19 safety protocols along the way. Parks as we know them change quickly and she wanted to see them before it was too late. New River Gorge is his 62nd visit to the park.

“I’ll call you Han, because today you’re riding solo.”

My rafting guide, Matt Zickafoose, was everything I dreamed of when I signed up to shoot Upper Gauley’s legendary Class V whitewater. A true Appalachian blue rat who had grown up in West Virginia, Zickafoose, otherwise known as Foose, was unquestionably badass. From his wild, sun-stained blonde hair to his frizzy pirate mustache, I was certain when I met him that this was the guy who was going to take me down the river in one piece.

Although not technically inside the national park proper, the Gauley empties into the namesake New River Gorge waterway, which is one of the most famous whitewater centers in the world. The New, as it is affectionately called, can be rafted all year round, while the Gauley rears its mighty head in autumn; Beginning the weekend following Labor Day, a controlled torrent of water measuring nearly 2,800 cubic feet per second is released from the Summersville Dam, creating the perfect conditions for running breathtaking, technical rapids. ‘adrenaline. The highly anticipated event, commonly referred to as the Gauley Season, attracts over 60,000 people each year.

Rafting boats descend a calmer section of the New River.

This was my third day in the area, and while I enjoyed the breathtaking fall foliage and otherworldly friendliness of the locals, the thought of enduring drop after drop of whitewater from class IV and V made my chest tight and my palms sweaty before I even set foot in the raft.

With minimal instruction on how to navigate the river’s more extreme challenges, each person in my party of seven grabbed a paddle and dropped into our inflatable polyvinyl boat. The mood was tense as Foose cracked jokes and barked orders meant to help us survive our first big rapid of the day, the insignificant one with the sardonic name.

We rowed hard to the right, then leaned over to absorb the impact of a huge thwap of water that engulfed our raft, soaking me to the skin. “Not bad,” Foose said as he steered the ship to calmer waters. “Now you only have four classes five to go!”

Things continued in the same raucous fashion – our guide shouting a series of stern orders to lead us between the rocks safely, then cracking jokes about local history and why the nearby seawall wasn’t called Gauley Dam (hint: try saying it out loud) . When we finally got back to the takeout, six hours later, Foose threw me a cold PBR, which I drank heartily like it was manna from heaven.

My mind was clouded from spending all day in the relentless waters of the Gauley, but I couldn’t help but smile dazedly from behind the aluminum rim of my beer can. In less than 72 hours, I had hiked to wooded lookout points, scaled Nuttall sandstone, and been soaked head to toe in the river. West Virginia had certainly earned its statehood slogan – the place was truly wild and wonderful.

63 New River Gorge Traveler Parks Info

Cut: 72,808 acres (national park and reserve)

Location: Central West Virginia, near Charleston

Created in: 1978 (national river), 2020 (national park)

Best for: White water rafting, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, bird watching, wild camping

When should we go: Fall (30 to 71 degrees) has the perfect moderate temperatures for hiking and climbing, not to mention the return of the heralded Gauley season (and eager crowds to match these weekends). Spring (27-70 degrees) is also a fantastic time to enjoy pleasant hiking and climbing, while summer (55-77 degrees) is considered hot and humid, an ideal time to enjoy swimming, rafting and other water sports. Winter (19 to 42 degrees) is the season to escape the hordes, if you don’t mind the cold.

Where to stay: The only official campsite in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is a series of free primitive sites near the water, each accessible by a maintained gravel road. If you’re looking for creature comforts to spare, Adventures on the Gorge hosts a host of well-appointed cabins and glamping tents; facilities include restrooms, hot showers and an on-site restaurant, Smokey’s, which overlooks the gorge.

Mini adventure: From the town of Fayetteville at the north end of the park, travel the three miles to Long Point; the trek is relatively flat and shady, but the payoff is huge, with impressive views of the New River and its famous steel arch bridge. Then, for a different perspective of the viaduct, take a scenic drive down Fayette Station Road, with its hairpin bends and canopy of beech and hemlock. Pro tip: Plan your trip for late afternoon so you can watch the day’s rafters float under the old Fayette station bridge.

Mega Adventure: Go rafting all day. The national park and surrounding area is something of a mecca for whitewater enthusiasts, with fun-filled, challenging options available for adults of all experience levels and children over six. The Upper New River is a great starting point for beginners and families with youngsters, while the Lower New River offers more intermediate rafting for those not afraid of the splash zone. In the fall, the roaring Gauley River begins its brief but choppy season, with bucket-list-worthy rapids ready for the brave.