It was early June, more than a year since our family of four had ventured too far outside our central Ohio bubble. We knew we weren’t alone in our caution, as the pandemic’s uncertainty hung over our nation like a dark cloud.
But now, with the threat of COVID-19 receding as we approached the halfway point of 2021, we were ready for an adventure.
We wanted to be together, but after being cooped up for so long, we wanted some wide, open spaces too. So we headed to the New River Gorge in southern West Virginia to see if we could find action and relaxation among the rugged, Appalachian hills.
The short answer: Yes.
It’s also the centerpiece of our nation’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, which opened in December. The 70,000-acre park includes vast swaths of forestland along 53 miles of the river, from Bluestone Dam in Hinton to Hawks Nest Lake near Ansted.
Any new national park is a magnet for outdoors and history enthusiasts, and we found that to be true here. There’s also pent-up demand for vacationing nationwide, and exploring nature appeals to many people used to staring at four walls.
Our 3-day home was a comfortable, one-bedroom cabin (with a loft for the kids) at Adventures on the Gorge Resort, which abuts the national park a few miles south of Hawks Nest Lake. The New River has some of the best whitewater rafting in the world, thanks to an elevation drop of 750 feet over 50 miles. Adventures on the Gorge offers more than 20 excursions that cater to rafters with varying degrees of experience and risk tolerance.
The resort is a 350-acre hub for outdoor recreation, dining and lodging. There’s an onsite zipline course and an aerial obstacle course called TimberTrek, both which we tackled during our stay. Accommodations range from primitive campsites to vacation homes.
It beckons self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkies,” such as Stephanie Porco, from Rayland, Ohio.
“I have a little kid in me that just keeps bringing me back,” Porco said while gearing up for a zipline tour. “Yes, you’re going to get hurt, there might be some marks on your body. But the adventure is amazing.”
Whitewater rafting on the New River is this area’s “heart and soul,” says Kate Smallwood, with Adventures on the Gorge.
We chose a day trip on the milder “Upper” section of the New River versus the more tumultuous “Lower” end because we we thought would be better for our kids, 14-year-old Rosie and 12-year-old Max. Our trip included lunch and an opportunity to jump off a boulder into the surprisingly warm water. We chose to paddle solo in inflatable duckies that hold 1 or 2 paddlers, rather than join a larger raft team.
The youngest member of our group was 6-year-old Frances Sullivan, of Prior Lake, Minnesota. Her family of five was on their way to Virginia Beach. “Why not spend some time in the mountains,” said her dad, Barry.
Wearing life vests and helmets, we took off near the formerly bustling coal town of Thurmond and traveled five miles northward to the community of Cunard. We encountered intermittent Class I, II and III rapids, as the sky threatened to pour rain. A bald eagle soared overhead.
“It’s an absolute riot out here,” said veteran rafting guide Guido Passafiume. “It’s a great introduction to whitewater rafting for kids, then they can work their way up.”
Back on dry land, the morning’s participants met at the resort’s Chetty’s Pub, where we watched a video of our adventure, shot by resort staff. A copy was available for an extra fee. Passafiume presented Frannie with two free gifts: a certificate and a T-shirt that read, “Almost 7, West Virginia. “You were so brave today,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”
Zipping and trekking
Donning a helmet, gloves and a harness with a trolley attached to it, we joined several others for “ground school” at TreeTops Canopy Tour, a zip-line course with 10 zips and 5 sky bridges.
Within 10 minutes, we learned how to control the trolley and thus move effectively from one elevated platform to another. The hardest part was simply letting go. But once we did, it was pure joy to soar through the treetops which, on this tour, included a Hemlock preserve.
With each new zip, we experienced a seemingly unending stream of beauty: the gurgle of Mill Creek below, the hemlocks’ greenery, the pink and white blossoms of the rhododendron, West Virginia’s state flower.
Later, we moved on to TimberTrek Adventure Park, a challenging physical test of seven 7 above-ground obstacle courses. Max topped us all, completing the second-highest set of hurdles, far up in the trees, as we gazed admiringly at him from below.
A harrowing walk
A lofty highlight of the area is Bridge Walk, an eye-opening, somewhat frightening jaunt across and under the stunning New River Gorge Bridge, more than 876 feet above one of North America’s oldest rivers.
During construction of the bridge in the mid-1970s, a 2-foot-wide catwalk running just below the bridge allowed easy access for inspection. It was opened to public tours in 2010, through a cooperation among the West Virginia Division of Highways, National Park Service and Bridge Walk LLC.
“I like the aloneness of it,” Benjy Simpson, managing member of Bridge Walk LLC, told us. “You’re elevated, and it’s just you and the view.”
Our guide, Doug Coleman, gave photographer Wendy the opportunity to capture the bracing saunter just behind a larger tour group.
“We’re going to get hooked into the longest continuous-safety system in the world,” Coleman said as he connected Wendy’s safety cable, which attached to her body harness.
Walking the entire 3,030-foot catwalk can take several hours, and guides are in no hurry to speed you along. When you book through Adventures on the Gorge, the price includes a return trip by shuttle.
The journey along the 24-inch-wide path is a thrill. You hear and see the juxtaposition of nature and architecture. Traffic thunders overhead, vibrating the steel rails under your hands, as the New River churns below.
If you’re lucky, it’ll storm and foggy clouds will float amid the stunning structure, creating a dreamlike aura.
Come fall, the trees in the gorge turn gold and red. They make Bridge Day, held the third Saturday in October, a natural spectacle. The bridge will close to traffic and open to thousands of spectators who’ll watch hundreds of rappelers and parachuters make their descent.
“It’s an 8-and-a-half second fall to the ground,” Simpson says. “Some people count to five before opening their parachutes.”
Shooting at the Reserve
About a 20-minute drive from our cabin lies Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve, an incredible Boy Scout camp, where we spent an afternoon target shooting and marveling at the camp’s many amenities.
The 10,000-acre grounds can hold more than 60,000 campers. It opened a decade ago as a permanent location for the National Scout Jamboree, in part because of its proximity to the New River and the land that became the national park. It’s also a meeting site for various Boy Scout activities during the year.
For a fee, representatives will take resort patrons through its challenging sporting clay course, rifle range and pistol ranges. While a brief rainstorm postponed our target practice, the reserve’s Bill Garrett gave us a tour of the grounds.
While standing on an overlook gazing at the scout camp, Garrett boasted that Bechtel Reserve has more miles of zipline than anywhere else in the country. There’s an amphitheater that can accommodate up to 80,000 people, a new boutique hotel, more than 60 miles of ATV trails, 35 miles of bicycle trails, countless hiking trails a huge climbing wall and, much to the delight of our kids, the biggest skate park we’ve ever seen.
Mike tried his hand at sporting clay shooting, nailing several of the vivid yellow targets before a thunderstorm ended the game. A little later, we found ourselves at one of several pistol ranges, where Mike and Max skillfully rang up a high percentage of target hits.
“Our goal is to introduce this place to the general community here in West Virginia and the region,” Garrett says. “It’s just a one-of-a-kind place in our nation.”
The new national park
America’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in Glen Jean, received a national park designation in December.
Admission is free and we recommend starting your visit at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center in Lansing, where you can find maps, information, interpretive displays, and a bookstore. There are a couple of interesting videos playing in the center, one on the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, and another on formation of the gorge itself.
There are numerous hiking trails in the park, ranging from a quarter-mile to 7 miles in length. Some are well-marked and maintained by the National Park Service. Others are administered by the state, and there are several undeveloped trails. We hiked a short way to the lovely Sandstone Falls, which is the river’s biggest waterfall, measuring 1,500 feet across.
There are many more adventures for those seeking them out. For instance, the Boy Scouts of America created the park’s Arrowhead Trails, a stacked loop system of four mountain biking trails rated from moderate to difficult.
The last stops
After hiking, we took the Fayette Station road tour, an 8-mile trek along winding roads that took us around the foot of the New River Gorge Bridge, with several turnoffs where we could snap dramatic shots of the steel span.
We also paid a visit to Fayetteville, an old coal town with a funky shopping district that includes a Ben Franklin five-and-dime store and several restaurants. We popped into Cathedral Café and Book Store for some creditable paninis and cool drinks.
Before making our way back to the resort, we dipped down to Oak Hill to check out a place called Skyline Drive-In: Hank’s Last Stop, where legend has it that a cab driver realized that his passenger, country singer Hank Williams died en route on New Year’s Day 1953.
We stopped inside and, like typical tourists, snapped a few photos for posterity. Neysa Green, who co-owns the tiny bar with her husband, Ricky, graciously took our invasion in stride.
“People always stop here,” she said. “They must love the adventure.”
Indeed, we did.