There are moments, as you drift through the deep canyon walls of the New River Gorge, when it feels like you’ve got the whole world to yourself. It’s just you and the river, littered with massive, prehistoric boulders that were here when the coal mining camps were built, and the fur trading posts before them, and the Shawnee and Cherokee villages before those. In a river that geologists say could be one of the world’s oldest, you can lose yourself in time. Then the current picks up, and you’re back to paddling like mad, navigating the chutes and eddies of heart-pounding white water.
Since the 1960s, West Virginia’s New River Gorge has drawn adventure seekers to its rapids and rock walls, and those rafters and climbers have long considered it a hidden gem. But the curtain is being drawn back on the canyon, because part of it has become America’s 63rd national park.
At the end of December, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included a proposal from Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin III (D) of West Virginia to reclassify the New River Gorge National River’s 72,186 acres as a national park and preserve.
"It’s a real victory," Capito says. "These things aren’t easy." There has been a local push for national park status for years, both for the prestige of the title and the tourism dollars; West Virginia has among the lowest job growth in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. But there also has been some local resistance.
Capito first proposed a bill in 2019, and the natural attributes of the gorge helped move the measure along. "It’s an ancient river that flows south to north, which is very unusual," she says. "It has multidimensional attractions: recreation, history, biodiversity."
The gorge also offers a "spiritual aspect" and a "solitary kind of quiet," Capito adds. "People are coming here from places that are busy and congested, and I think they appreciate that quiet. When you get down into the gorge, you’re removed from what’s going on in modern America. And it’s very unspoiled. We call West Virginia ‘wild’ and ‘wonderful,’ and this certainly is."
The New River Gorge is located in southern West Virginia, roughly five hours southwest of D.C. The new designations encompass 53 miles of the New River (locally called simply "the New") and the rugged tangle of Appalachian forest around it, which is crisscrossed by hiking and mountain biking trails, railroad tracks, and winding country roads. The area has been administered by the National Park Service, which maintains several visitor centers on the gorge, since it was given conservation status as a national river in 1978.
The updated title of park and preserve makes the New River Gorge only the second site outside Alaska to receive that designation. Most of the land — just over 65,000 acres — will be preserve. The park will cover 7,021 acres at the center, where the gorge is a mile wide and spanned by the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest steel arch span in the Western Hemisphere and the third-highest bridge in the United States.
Even for those without familial ties to the West Virginian landscape, the New River Gorge, with its unusually warm cascades, towering stone ramparts and old-growth forest groves, speaks for itself.
"It is a natural wonder in the category of the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls," says Chelsea Ruby, the state’s tourism commissioner. "Once you see it, it’s something you’ll never forget."
Because hunting is not permitted in national parks, most of the area was designated as a preserve, which will allow continued access for hunters who have stalked whitetail deer on the sandstone bluffs for generations. And although BASE jumping is banned at Park Service sites, the legislation includes a provision that will allow Bridge Day — an annual October event that features jumpers parachuting the 876-foot distance from bridge to river — to continue.
Aside from the visitation increase that’s expected to come with official park status, altered signage, additional parking, and the closure of the park’s 7,000 acres to hunting, not much will change at the New River Gorge, and that’s the whole point.
"Part of the deal was to change as little as possible, in making this shift to a national park," says Roger Wilson, president and CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, an outfitter with a sprawling campus overlooking the bridge.
There are some opponents to the re-designation, including sportsmen who protest the loss of the hunting grounds within the park, and those who worry the new status will lead to the overcrowding that plagues many national parks. But the move is generally a popular one among locals who would see the gorge — and all the history it holds — afforded the highest possible level of protection.
"Hunters can tell you stories about finding indentations, foundations, evidence of camps from way back when. There’s a lot of our past down there," says Sharon Cruikshank, mayor of Fayetteville, which is poised to become the new park’s main gateway community.
It’s a state of tiny towns, adds Ruby; the largest city in West Virginia, state capital Charleston, is home to fewer than 50,000 people. Small places like Fayetteville, with a population of less than 3,000, face both challenges and opportunities as they prepare to be the hosts for a national park within a day’s drive of roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population.
Safeguarding the area’s charm and rural way of life, no matter how many out-of-towners arrive, is a priority, Cruikshank says. "There’s a way to grow with quality," she says.