Tucked away in the wild mountains of West Virginia is a pretty remarkable piece of engineering. A steel single-arch bridge, built in 1977, spans 3,030 feet over a valley, connecting U.S. Route 19 in a matter of minutes. At the time of construction, the New River Bridge was the longest single-arch bridge in the world, and even today only two bridges have surpassed its length. This bridge is the centerpiece to one of the most beautiful areas for outdoor adventure east of the Mississippi.
876 feet below lies the New River and it’s the reason it’s worth it to take a weekend and drive deep into the West Virginia Wilderness. The whole river is around 360 miles long and flows through three states. Located a little more than three hours from Pittsburgh PA, Columbus OH, and Charlotte NC and less than five hours from Washington DC, the 70,000 acres around the New River Bridge are home to some of the best climbing and whitewater in the country.
Let’s be clear; this isn’t the kind of beauty you just observe. In the gorge, you’re an active participant. You can whitewater raft, zip line, climb, hike, cable walk under the bridge itself, and backpack, and that’s just a tiny list of the incredible adventures you can experience in this stunning valley.
Time this trip out right and you’ll be able to see something truly unique. Every October the bridge is closed to traffic as the truly fearless among us basejump from the top of the bridge into the gorge below. Watch them drift like flying squirrels down almost 1,000 feet, all while thanking mercy your feet are on the ground. This year, Bridge Day is on October 15.
There’s no way to approach the gorge without winding up and down the lush green mountains of Appalachia, which is to say there’s no bad driving here. Whether you’re coming from north or south it’s likely that you’ll be taking U.S. 19, one of those highways that people who don’t like driving hate. Pull your car over at the top of any of the many rolling hills, and you’ve got yourself a scenic overlook; breathe in the mountain air, admire impossibly lush and green forests, and feel the power of the surging river, then get back in your car and hurry to Fayetteville so you can actually get out there.
Once in Fayetteville, consider taking a drive down Fayette Station Road. Before the bridge was complete in 1977, this 30-minute trip was the only way to cross the river. Start at U.S. 19 and connect with Country Route 5. A quarter mile and you’re at the beginning of your journey into the valley. Wind slowly down the mountain, taking narrow hairpin turns right on the edge of cliffs. Once at the bottom, cross the reconstructed Fayette Station Bridge and wind your way back up and reconnect with U.S. 19. Even though it took you 40 minutes to get down and back up the gorge, you’ll be back where you started in just one or two minutes thanks to the New River Gorge Bridge.
Explore one of the grittier eras of American history by taking a driving tour of the area’s coal towns. Hop on U.S. 19 South and twist and wind 30 minutes to Beckley, WV, a defunct coal town turned museum. After an unflinchingly honest account of the lives of these men, Head north on WV-41, You’ll climb and speed down more mountains you can count, eventually wrapping around The Summit Bechtel Family Reserve, the site of the Boy Scouts annual jamboree. If you’d like you can stop and enjoy the view, or simply admire it from the car. North of the reserve, you’ll follow Thurmond Rd about seven miles to Thurmond, WV. A booming town at the turn of the century and height of the coal mining boom, Thurmond is now a true ghost town, with a population of two. The town is registered with the National Registry of Historic Places, so it simply sits, waiting for someone to walk the streets of town again. A quick 30 minutes back on U.S. 19 brings you back to Fayetteville, where you can reflect on the hard look into our recent past.
There are lots of towns on the river, but most of the action is located near the Bridge, just outside of Fayetteville, WV.
If you’re planning on making a weekend outdoors, check out renting a campsite or cabin from an adventure resort. The area is home to two companies offering lodging and outdoor excursions to make the most of your time on the river. Both resorts hire expert guides to keep you safe on the river and in the mountains, and offer a wide variety of activities, from kayaking to paintball. The choice really comes down to which activities tickle you.
Ace Adventure Resort
1 Concho road, Minden, WV
Adventures on the Gorge
219 Co Rte 60/5, Lansing, WV
You can stay outside without paying adventure resort prices. There’s a reason these 70,000 acres are so lush and wild — it’s a National River. There are seven different public campgrounds located in the area, all of which have direct access to the river.
One thing you won’t find near the New River Gorge is cute bed and breakfasts. When you’re staying near the bridge, you’re expected to be outside. But if you’re not sold on sleeping outdoors, there are a number of perfectly nice, if formulaic, hotels in the area. The Comfort Inn New River in Oak Hill and the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Beckley are new, comfortable and close to the bridge.
129 S Court St, Fayetteville, WV
No matter what your plan for the day ahead holds, you’ll want to make sure you’re fueled up and ready to go. Vandal’s Kitchen can help you there. A local favorite, this quaint café boasts “the best coffee in the New River Gorge” but it’s the waffles locals won’t stop talking about. And you’ll enjoy knowing all the food in this country café is made completely from scratch, using local ingredients when possible.
312 N Court St, Fayetteville, WV 25840
After a grueling day outdoors, you might want to pamper yourself a little bit. That’s when you’ll want to head over to The Station. Attentive and friendly service, a warm atmosphere and an ever-changing locally-sourced seasonal menu make this local favorite worth a stop. If you’re just off the river, make sure you clean up first.
103 Elliots Way, Fayetteville, WV
If your night isn’t over yet, head on over to Whitewater Bar and Grill and party with your raft guide from earlier today. The food is just your typical bar fare, but the beer is cold and the locals are plentiful. Put on a friendly face and you’re guaranteed to walk away with new friends.
323 N Court St, Fayetteville, WV
Every region has their favorite fast-food chain. Culvers rules in the Midwest while In-N-Out owns the West Coast, but West Virginians are treated daily to some of the best biscuits to be found, fast food or not. Fuel up for a day of exploring, or soak up the beer hangover with a huge buttery biscuit, topped with gravy or made into a breakfast sandwich. You’re not going to regret a stop here, until you try to count the calories.
1 Concho road, Minden, WV
Whether you’re rafting, kayaking or swimming, you’ll want to spend some time in the river. ACE Adventure Resort offers guided trips in a huge variety of boats. You can choose a group tour with one guide for multiple rafts, or to have your very own guide. If you’ve never experienced whitewater, it is highly recommended you book a guide. You’ll be attacked by rapids upwards of Class V, and one good whirlpool will easily spill your whole boat.
If, on the other hand, you’re a confident river-human, just contact the state park for permits and call ACE for a simple boat rental.
219 Co Rte 60/5, Lansing, WV
For a more passive way to get your adrenaline pumping, hit up Adventures on the Gorge. They’ll take you through a course of zip lines woven into the hills, culminating in the longest line on the east coast. Tuck your knees and hang on as you rocket down a 3,150 foot cable at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, 200 feet in the air. If only you could always travel this way.
Both companies offer campgrounds, as well as cabin rooms for those not interested in truly roughing it.
513 Ewart Ave. Beckley, WV
If you’re not an adrenaline junkie you’ll still find plenty to do on the New River. The flowing waters were used to transport coal from small mining towns along the river to major cities.
Beckley, West Virginia, about 20 miles from Fayetteville, turned their old coal mine into a living museum; think Colonial Williamsburg, but with more coal and less workers rights. Take a train into the mine and shiver through a chilling account of life (and the loss of it) in the mines.
Can you combine a love of American History and the wild river? Of course. Take a hike from Fayetteville to the Kaymoor Mines, trekking through the dense trees along the way. Down 821 steps you’ll find an old processing plant, coke ovens and a town site right by the river. While it’s only a one-mile hike, this one is strenuous. A steep half-mile descent means you’ll want to be wearing good safe shoes, and bring lots of water.