By SARAH JAQUAY
It’s been a half-century since John Denver’s “Country Roads” introduced the world to a vision of tranquility and belonging nestled among the northern Appalachians.
It’s an anthem about homesickness whose chorus is crooned the world over, regardless of whether singers have any idea where West Virginia is or not. Fortunately, most Buckeyes know where our southern neighbor is and often cruise through on Interstate 77 heading south to the Carolinas, Florida and other warm weather destinations.
There have always been reasons to linger in W.Va., especially for those who love the Mountain State. I could start at the top in Parkersburg and tick off interesting attractions all the way to Bluefield. But those reasons have increased exponentially with the recent designation (December 27, 2020) of the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve (NRGNP) as the newest unit in our fabulous National Park Service system. This new designation has “broadened our visitor base considerably. We’re definitely THE destination because we’re the newest national park,” notes Eve West, Chief of Interpretation & Cultural Resources at NRGNP.
New River Gorge has long drawn outdoor enthusiasts seeking adventures along the banks of one of the nation’s oldest rivers: gonzo whitewater rafters, rock climbers and base jumpers on Bridge Day every October. The New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highest and longest single-span arch bridges in the world. It’s been a magnet for daredevils since its completion in 1977.
I had the chance to check out our newest national park in May. After a sedentary, snowy winter, I was eager to see what adventures might be suitable for someone too long in the tooth to run class four and five rapids (the most challenging), go rock climbing or navigate aerial obstacle courses. Fortunately, one of New River Gorge’s premier resorts, Adventures on the Gorge(AOTG), offers adventures for all ages with plenty of civilized amenities. AOTG’s accommodations range from luxury cabins and “glamping” tents to rustic cabins and campgrounds. Most New River Gorge visitors I know are hardcore campers with lots of outdoor survival gear. I love exploring all day outside but prefer retiring somewhere with indoor plumbing, a good mattress, dining options and adult beverages. Adventures on the Gorge checked all those boxes and more.
After a smooth five-hour drive to AOTG (most of the route is I-77), we settled into one of their comfortable Sunnyside cabins and began looking for dinner. It was our good fortune that Mondays at Chetty’s Pub is “wing night” and they offer live acoustic music in an open-air pavilion overlooking the gorge. It’s a stunning setting. AOTG’s designers took advantage of the natural beauty by building along the edge where guests can soak in views of the iconic bridge and sylvan sunsets. After indulging in our fair share of wings, we wandered down to the pavilion to listen to the dulcet tones of a guitar player and singer.
I was worried about the guided mountain hike and flat water kayaking adventures I’d signed up for before arriving at AOTG. I was concerned I’d be the first one to succumb to “whinothermia.” That’s the condition where someone on (almost every group) trip who’s not prepared, has the wrong gear or no gear starts whining, “I’m too cold, hot, tired–Can you carry my stuff?” I was determined not to be that person.
Once I met my genial guide, Rocky MacDonald, I was relieved immediately. He’s an experienced climber, hiker, rafting guide and very chill. “Whatever pace you want is fine,” he said and he meant it. The weather was perfect, the trail not too crowded (although rangers say this part of the Endless Wall Trail can get crowded in summertime.) West Virginia’s ubiquitous wild-growing rhododendrons (the state flower) were blooming everywhere. At Diamond Point, sweeping views of the Gorge and the “Endless Wall” of Nuttall Sandstone (a much harder variety) made the gentle climb worth it.
The next day we drove to nearby Canyon Rim Visitors Center. It’s a great place to plan your visit. Eve West suggests three to five days for first-time visitors because “the park is so spread out, almost 73,000 acres.” She recommends starting with the exhibits and orientation film (don’t miss the overlook behind the center and easy hike to views of the Bridge) then driving the Fayette Station Road to explore the region’s coal mining and railroad legacy. Visitors can access a narrated tour of the drive via the NPS app. West also recommends stopping at the Grandview Visitors Center to experience the deepest part of the Gorge. One of her favorite scenic drives is the road to Sandstone Falls in the southern end of the park. There are many places to stay around the historic town of Hinton, including Airbnbs and Pipestem State Park. With over 100 miles of trails, it’s hard to choose but West suggests the Grandview Rim Trail “that has some phenomenal views with three overlooks and the highest vertical distance.”
In short, the New River Gorge is an established destination with a new imprimatur as a national park. But what’s in a name? It was always a gorgeous part of the Appalachians with adventures for all ages.
See https://www.nps.gov/neri/index.htm and https://adventuresonthegorge.com/ for more information.
Country Roads (& I-77) lead to adventures in America’s newest National Park
By SARAH JAQUAY