Location: Glen Jean, West Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The New River Gorge is the longest and deepest gorge in the Appalachian Mountains and its name notwithstanding, it is one of oldest rivers in North America. There is geologic evidence that the river predates the rise of the Appalachian Mountain chain and has been cutting through the rocks as it makes it way northward towards the Ohio River, its direction being counter to most rivers in the eastern US. The river has exposed over 1000 feet of sandstone and shale and has uncovered four major seams of bituminous coal, some of the best “smokeless” coal to be found anywhere. It was this coal that led to the boom of the coal industry along the gorge when the railroad cut a path up the gorge in 1873. Over 60 mining communities sprang up along both sides of the river all along the 53 mile gorge and up many of the creeks. Mining operations continued through the early 20th century fueling the industrial revolution in the US. All of these mining towns are now ghost towns being slowly reclaimed by the forests. The best examples, today, can be found at the Kaymoor and Nuttleburg mines. The railroad town of Thurmond was the transportation hub for the railroad and during the first two decades of the 1900s was a classic boomtown. It was the largest revenue source for the Ohio and Chesapeake Railroad boasting 15 passenger trains a day serving 95,000 passengers a year creating the richest banks in the state. The Great Depression and the conversion to diesel engines caused the decline in Thurmond and today it serves as a Visitor Center for the National River with only three of the many building remaining in the center of the town. The New River Gorge National River was established in 1978 and encompasses 72,808 acres along 53 miles of the New River Gorge. In addition to the many historic landmarks in the park, the New River is also a premier location for white water rafting and cliff climbing. The rapids range in difficulty from Class I to Class V, some of which are large and imposing requiring tricky maneuvers in strong currents, crosscurrents, and hydraulics. Within the park are over 1400 established rock climbs where the hard sandstone provides a range of difficulties and heights from 30 to 120 feet.
1) There are four Visitor Centers along the length of the New River Gorge National River. The main Visitor Centers are located at Canyon Rim and Sandstone near the north and south ends of the park, respectively. During our visit we stopped at Canyon Rim Visitor Center which is located on US 19 at the awe inspiring bridge over the gorge. There is a short film that highlights the history of the region, as well as, some of the attractions to the gorge. Be sure to ask for a trails map as there are a lot of trails throughout the gorge. We also got a copy of the road tour that descends into the gorge, crossing at the old bridge for US 19 before climbing back out of the gorge. Finally, there is a nice overlook at the Visitor Center that looks 2 miles south along the gorge towards the remains of the Kaymoor mine.
2) There is certainly plenty to do in the park that could fill multiple days. Our goal was to see some of the gorge from the top and the bottom, away from the main tourist areas. We found an easy hiking trail, the Endless Wall Trail, that meandered along the rim of the gorge for about a 2.5 mile round trip. There are a number of access points along the trail for climbers and some spectacular views in both directions along the New River.
3) We also took advantage of the driving tour along old US 19 as it wound its way down into the gorge. Before the construction of the huge span bridge, it would take travelers 45 minutes to an hour to cross the New River by this route where today it takes less than a minute. Nearly all of the road is today one-way which was great!! The road is so narrow and the hairpin curves so tight that I don’t understand how two-way traffic was ever possible. There are a couple of pull-outs with interpretive signs, the best one under the huge bridge where you get a different perspective of its massive scale. You actually cross under the bridge twice on the way down and again on the way back up. At the bottom of the gorge you cross over the rebuilt “old” bridge over the New River before you can park at Fayette Station, the main pull-out for the white water rafters, to take a look at the river itself. The road back out of the gorge is again mostly one-way and you can get a good sense of the changing ecosystems as you travel back to the rim.
4) On our second day in the park we explored the ghost town of Thurmond, which they have reconstructed the train station as another Visitor Center for the park. There is an excellent museum in the train station describing the various uses of the station as it was the hub of activity for both the passengers and freight operations of the trains in the gorge. The main street of Thurmond is actually the three sets of train tracks along the river. In its heyday, Thurmond was a very busy place with 15 passenger trains a day and numerous trains hauling coal and timber out of the gorge. It was also the location of the machine shops and repair facilities for the railroad. Only 3 of the original buildings in the center of town remain today, most of the rest having been destroyed by fire over the years. Be aware that the train tracks are still very active. We saw two huge coal trains pass through the town while we were there.
5) There are two hiking trails that follow the river from Thurmond along the old rail road beds. As they are both along the old railroad beds they are relatively flat and provide a very easy walking surface. In many places you can still see the steel railroad tracks as they are being slowly covered up by nature. We did walk far enough (about 1.5 miles) along Southside Trail to see the remains of one of the many mining towns. There was not much to see of the town except a few stone foundations.