A New Era for the New River
If you live outside the eastern third of the United States, the New River Gorge might not be a name you’ve encountered much. Humans in the region, however, are well aware of West Virginia’s natural hotspot. The river and surrounding area are renowned for outstanding whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and hiking.
Awareness of this gem will, no doubt, skyrocket now that New River Gorge is now officially the 63rd National Park!
In 1978, 53 miles of the New River entered the National Parks Service system as a National River. As part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, one of the Covid relief bills, the unit is now officially New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
The river’s source is in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. From there it flows northeast through Virginia, into West Virginia, where it joins the Kanawha River before dead-ending into the mighty Ohio River at the city of Point Pleasant (home to the Mothman).
Geologically, the New River and its gorge are quite interesting.
Ironically, many scientists believe the New River to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Though there is no definitive way of dating exactly how old the waterway actually is, most geologists believe it is easy to say it is one of the oldest rivers in North America and the Appalachian Mountains.
If the above image of the flow seems a bit odd, you haven’t deceived yourself. Most rivers in the Appalachian system generally move west-to-east, instead of north-to-west. Some estimates put the New River in its current course for at least 65 million years.
And what of the gorge? The typical drop from rim to river is around 1,000 feet. It is the longest and deepest gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. House-sized boulders litter the landscape. Hard sandstone and shale provide fantastic climbing.
If you are a whitewater enthusiast or a top-class climber, the New River Gorge provides some of the best terrain for your passions.
The river features Class II to Class IV rapids, which means neophytes and old pros can get their fix on the water. During the spring torrents, the classifications rise from the normal levels to a spectrum between Class IV and Class V, which typically requires a mastery of the craft to safely tackle.
On the climbing side, the walls display some truly gnarly technical ratings. Many of the routes are in the 5.10-5.12 range on the Yosemite Decimal System. Class 5 means the route requires technical experience; within the class, subgrades range from 0 to 15, so the New River Gorge packs in some serious rock!
But climbers and rafters aren’t the only recreationalists that flock to New River Gorge.
The architectural beauty in the first image of the article is the New River Gorge Bridge. This 3,030-foot steel beast is supported by an arch that is 1,700 feet long. For 26 years, it was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge; currently, it’s the fifth-longest.
When the bridge was completed in 1977, it was the world’s highest to carry a regular roadway across a span. It’s still the third-highest bridge in the United States. The road is 876 feet above the river! Visitors can actually stroll along a catwalk under the bridge via guided tours, garnering spectacular views of the river and gorge.
But the real draw 876 feet of air brings is not for walking.
The third Saturday of each October is Bridge Day.
On this date, daredevils from far and wide converge on the New River Gorge to take to the skies. Traffic is blocked and the fun begins. Some rappel from the bridge to the river. Some bungee. Others BASE jump (the “B” in BASE stands for bridge; the “ASE” is antennae, span, and earth).
Approximately 400 crazy people each year show up to challenge gravity on the New River Bridge.
With most of the National Park love going to the western portions of the country, it’s always nice to see something east of the Mississippi receive some recognition. New River Gorge National Park is just the thirteenth on the sun-rising side of our great, dividing waterway.
We could never close out an article on a National Park without taking a look at some of the critters and the plants that call the area home. All the following images are by the National Parks Service!