In the late afternoon, after a physically hard day of building trails, a group of shirtless young guys take turns belaying each other as they scramble up a huge rockface. These climbing-lovers are answering the call of southern West Virginia’s Nuttall sandstone. Named for early coal developer John Nuttall, its 98% quartz composition means it’s one of the hardest sandstones you can find. “This is the best sandstone on earth,” says rock climbing guide Paul Nelson, who moved here from Utah. “People come from all over the world to climb.”

aerial view of water between two tree-covered mountains

Then there’s the population drawn here by the rivers. Hang out in the New River Gorge for a few days and you’re likely to meet young rafting guides, middle-aged rafting guides who’ve been navigating the New and Gauley rivers for decades and people over 50 who started as rafting guides and moved up to manage or own recreation outfitter companies. They come here for the drenching, tricky rapids and the natural beauty of the river ribboning its way through a deep, forested gorge.

The river gorge and its sandstone walls are two big reasons that this area became the United States’ newest national park in December 2020. I spent a few days exploring the milder adventures of New River Gorge National Park in May.

people walking wood path through forest

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

This isn’t a park like Yellowstone or Yosemite, where people drive in through clearly defined entrance stations. I spent my whole time here confused whether I was within the park boundaries or not. The park encompasses about 7,000 acres, set mostly in the heart of the gorge, and the preserve is another 65,000. A 53-mile stretch of the New River has been a National Park Service (NPS) unit since 1978 but now has been upgraded from national river to national park.

At the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, Superintendent Lizzie Watts talked about what a special place the New River Gorge is. “Only 5% of the world’s rivers flow north,” Watts said. Those that do, like the New River, bring warm water up, creating warm water fisheries. The nearby Gauley, also popular with rafters, is 20 degrees colder. Birders come from all over the world to see a sensational collection of warblers, and rare plants, such as the Virginia spiraea, thrive here on the Appalachian plateau. During my visit, the rhododendron thickets made pink explosions throughout the forest, providing more bird habitat. “More than 1,500 animals call this corridor home,” Watts said.

The new park designation has people pouring into the gorge, ready or not. Watts said hits to the website were up about 90% in the New River Gorge’s first four months as a national park. “And the businesses we deal with around here all the time, they’re up in early reservations by 50%.”

Things were already busy from people wanting outdoor vacations through the pandemic year. According to counters on the trails and roads, visitation was up about 15% in 2020 — and that was before the national park designation. Watts advised arriving early in the morning if you want to hike the park’s two most popular trails, Endless Wall and Long Point. “Being a gorge, there’s not a lot of flat space. So not a lot of flat space means there’s not much parking in a lot of areas.” It’s possible there may be shuttle buses in the park’s future.

misty mountains and bridge

Several visitors’ centers orient people to the park with natural and cultural exhibits. Canyon Rim Visitor Center features viewing platforms of the New River Gorge Bridge. Just try to visit the park without coming home with dozens of photos of this iconic bridge, the longest steel span in the western hemisphere, that had the honor of representing the state on a 2006 quarter. It’s a thing of beauty, whether on a blue-sky day or when partially obscured by early morning mist rising over the river.

The New River Gorge area is one of North America’s vital carbon sinks. According to the NPS, it absorbs about 145,715 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. That equals the annual electricity use of more than 21,500 homes.

black cabin in the woods

Adventures on the Gorge

My home base for three nights was Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), which bills itself as America’s premier whitewater rafting resort. It started out 50 years ago as a primitive campground for folks exploring the New River. But now it’s grown to encompass 116 cabins, 103 campsites, several restaurants and a whole menu of outdoor activities. The resort offers a variety of accommodations and price points, from campsites to rustic cabins with shared baths to nice two-story, two-bedroom units with private hot tubs on their decks. The cabins are spread out over a large, forested area so you never feel cramped.

Like other local businesses, AOTG’s fortunes are tied in with the park’s; 65% of its outdoor activities take place on park land, including rafting, hiking and rock climbing. Rafting is still king here, with AOTG offering a variety of river trips, ranging from peaceful to thrilling. I took a half-day trip on the Upper New River, suitable for ages six and up, with rapids classed I to III. It was a relaxing trip on a drizzly day with a guide who has been rafting the New River for 32 years. AOTG provided wetsuits and splash jackets, which made going out on a damp and chilly day much more comfortable. We spotted one bald eagle and a bazillion trees.

people climbing a rock wall in forest

The rock climbing in New River Gorge is better for intermediate and advanced climbers, Nelson said, because it doesn’t erode into beginner-friendly routes up the rock faces. Still, AOTG has a secret place they take beginners, which I got to experience. I’d never tried rock climbing before, and it soon became obvious I’m not a natural. Not only does it take strength and agility but also the willingness to stick your hands deep into dark crevices in rocks. Folks, the state of West Virginia is full of copperheads. But some of the beginners in my group were able to block this threat out of their heads and make astounding progress up the rock face. AOTG provided the proper shoes, harnesses, ropes and experienced guides to make sure nobody fell to their doom.

person walking on narrow wood branches between trees in a forest

My favorite outdoor activity was the Timber Trek Adventure Park. This involves the type of harness and carabiners you use for ziplining, but instead of gliding across lines, you’re walking across skinny logs and wires strung high up in trees. Unlike ziplining, the guide stays on the ground so participants have to learn how to lock and unlock themselves from safety lines without hands-on help.

tourist pathway through old mine

West Virginia cultural history

Long before the rise of the outdoor recreation biz, southern West Virginia’s three big industries were timber, railroads and coal. Coal, especially, is still in evidence, whether it’s driving past huge piles of coal waiting to be loaded on river barges or glimpsing the entrance to an abandoned coal mine. As Drema Hall Berkheimer wrote in her Appalachian memoir Running on Red Dog Road, her grandmother told her, “Make no mistake, you come from coal. Scratch any West Virginian a few layers down and you’re bound to find a vein of coal.”

Nowadays, with demand for renewable energy on the rise, West Virginia’s coal industry looks more precarious. But no matter personal opinions on fossil fuels, learning a little about the cultural history of coal gives visitors a more nuanced view of the state than just rafting its rivers and climbing its rocks.

A few miles outside the new national park, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine takes visitors into a coal mine that closed in 1910. On our train ride into the mine, Don Barrett, who was a miner for more than a decade, captured both the downsides of mining — aching bodies, long hours, accidents, pollution, black lung disease — and the financial boost to a state that now makes it onto top-10 poverty lists. “Here in this area, it used to be coal mines everywhere you looked,” he said. “You could quit one today and get another one tomorrow. But it’s not that way today. In the surrounding area, I know only three mines that’s working around here. And it used to be mines everywhere! This area used to be booming. Everybody was working. New homes going up. Kids going to college. New cars. It was mining. Plenty of mining was here. But it’s not that way anymore.”

I’m hoping that the new national park designation will provide economic opportunities for the locals while protecting the West Virginia’s abundant beauty, wildlife and natural resources.

Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat

person sitting on rock overlooking New River Gorge