by Erica Lineberry – When will we get to go over the bridge?” my 5-year-old son chirped from the backseat, as shadows grew long across the highway. The bridge he was speaking of was none other than New River Gorge Bridge, also known as the second-longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. It was just another Friday evening in September, which, for our family, meant “yet” another weekend recreating in this scenic section of West Virginia.
New River Gorge West Virginia
Once the typical heat and humidity are ushered away by a changing season, nights turn cool and crisp, and that means fall climbing season. One destination we make sure to hit multiple times each autumn is the New River Gorge West Virginia. Recreation opportunities are in no short supply here, as the New River Gorge camping offers families’ a night under the stars, hiking through rhododendron tunnels, and scaling sandstone cliffs.
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Other families may seek out the New River Gorge with a different combination of fun in mind, like mountain biking, fishing, climbing, camping, and world-class whitewater to be found there (not to mention SUP, horseback riding, zip-lining, ropes courses, and even a skate park). Whether you’re seeking a peaceful wilderness experience, or an adrenaline-rushing natural high, you can find it all just minutes away from the New River Gorge’s adventure epicenter, Fayetteville, West Virginia.
New River Gorge Geography
This gem of an adventure town is within “weekend warrior” driving distance of many major East Coast cities. We live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and make the easy drive up highway 77. Depending on traffic, we can generally leave straight from my son’s school bus stop and arrive just before bedtime. It’s the perfect family road trip adventure.
If you are passing through the area for the first time, the Canyon Rim Visitor Center is a great place to start. Though the name may be “New”, the river is actually one of the oldest water systems in the world. The canyon walls were formed by erosion over a long period of time as the river carved its way through the rock.
Speaking of rock, the rock found in the New River Gorge is a very high quality Nutall Sandstone. This particular type of sandstone is made up of 98% quartz, and the result is bullet-hard stone that lends itself well to both traditional and sport climbing.
New River Gorge Driving Times:
- Charlotte, NC: 3.5 hrs
- Washington DC: 5 hrs
- Pittsburgh, PA: 3.5 hrs
- Cincinnati, OH: 4 hrs
- Richmond, VA:; 4 hrs
- Knoxville, TN: 4 hrs
New River Gorge | When To Go
The New River Gorge, known as “The New” to locals, can be a great destination just about any time of year, depending on the activities you choose. For climbers, ideal conditions are in the fall and spring, with lower rain percentages occurring in the fall months. For the past 3 years, the American Alpine Club has kicked off fall climbing season with an event called “The Craggin’ Classic,” a weekend long festival filled with vendor booths, slide shows, climbing clinics, and the swapping of tall tales around a campfire.
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Paddlers of all levels can stay entertained spring, summer, and fall along both the New and Gauley Rivers, while whitewater experts wait all year to test their mettle on the dam-controlled Upper Gauley during the 6-week window known as “Gauley Season.” This river is also home to the largest paddling festival in the world, Gauley Fest, which occurs every year on the 3rd weekend in September.
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Adventurous, multi-sport families may even want to consider entering Captain Thurmond’s Challenge, held every year in August. Teams or solo participants mountain bike 15 miles, paddle the New River, and end the day with an 8 mile run. The vibe is mellow, with fun being the ultimate goal, as most participants race just to finish.
Oh yeah, and that bridge I mentioned earlier, the highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the United States? People jump off of it, too! But only once a year on Bridge Day, a one-day festival that celebrates all of the thrilling activities associated with the bridge itself – including BASE jumping, rappelling, and zip-lining. Whether your aim is to participate as an adrenaline junkie, or as a bridge-side spectator, it’s an amazing event.
The New is notorious for unpredictable weather, and I’ve personally experienced just about every scenario possible – rain, snow, heat, cold – sometimes all in the same weekend. Last spring conditions were so spectacular that our family spent nearly every waking weekend moment there during March and April.
That said, we’ve also suffered through some of our hottest and most humid nights of New River Gorge camping during July and August, and frozen our bottoms off in early November. But regardless of Mother Nature’s weather service, I’ve always come back with a smile on my face.
New River Gorge Culture & Food
What the town of Fayetteville lacks in size (population 3000), it more than makes up for in character. In 2006 the community earned the honor of “Coolest Small Town in the USA” by Budget Travel, not only for endless recreation opportunities, but also for the eclectic dining opportunities that abound.
Many adventurers choose to start their day at the Cathedral Cafe, a paddler-owned coffee shop/bakery that took up residence in an old church building. The tall ceilings and stained-glass windows certainly add to the charm.
Two of the most popular places to refuel after a long day of exploring are Pies & Pints and Secret Sandwich Society. The former specializes in craft beers and funky pizzas with unique topping options, whereas the latter is famous for their selection of- you guessed it – gourmet sandwich offerings.
Where To Stay In New River Gorge
There are numerous New River Gorge campgrounds, many of which are owned by rafting companies, enabling visitors to book their accommodations and adventure opportunities in a singular package deal. Climbers tend to congregate at recently constructed campground provided by the American Alpine Club (AAC.)
| Related: Printable Family Camping Packing List |
Our favorite family New River Gorge campground is Chestnut Creek. The sites are peaceful, quiet, and shady, along with picnic tables and trash cans. The bathhouse is immaculate, and conveniently located to most of the sites. Group sites are available as well.
Check out Outdoor Families Magazine’s Family Tent Buying Guide to see the 10 best family camping tents under $100!
New River Gorge Guide Services
Whether your family is relatively new to climbing or paddling, or if you’re experienced adventurers looking for a custom “tour” of the area, the safest way to explore the New River Gorge is by hiring a guide. There are several reputable guide services in the area.
To start your day on the rocks, check out Hard Rock Climbing and New River Mountain Guides. For an excursion on the water, book a trip with Class VI or North American River Runners. And if you forgot to pack the bikes (or just ran out of room,) rentals are included in all half-day and full-day bike tours with New River Bikes.
New River Gorge Gear Shops
If you arrive in town and realize you forgot a key piece of outdoor gear, head to Water Stone Outdoors (aka “Waterstonia”), right in the middle of town. Even if your backpack is stocked, it’s worthwhile to check out the coolest outdoor store on the planet. Their motto is “Quality Gear and Friendly Advice,” so these folks are the go-to guys and gals for gleaning any local beta. They also offer the best selection of climbing shoes in the country, so if anyone in the family is looking to try before they buy, be sure to stop in.
For our family, the New River Gorge will always be a special place. In fact, we will soon be celebrating our 100th day at the New. As a young couple without children, this area represented a chance to get away together from a humdrum work week and spend quality time with each other on the rock. It strengthened our bodies, minds, and our marriage.
When our family expanded to include two crag-kids, this beautiful area has acted as a “reset” button after crazy, hectic weeks. Somehow, no matter how stressed, busy, sleep-deprived, or hectic our lives are feeling, a trip to the New allows us to put our literal and figurative baggage on a shelf in the name of family connection. Of course, those issues may still be waiting for us when we get back, but anything is easier after spending a weekend in the mountains.
Erica Lineberry lives in North Carolina with her husband and two crag-children, ages 5 and 1. In addition to rock climbing, her family also enjoys mountain biking, hiking, camping, and hanging out in the backyard. Follow her adventures on cragmama.com.