New River Gorge Becomes Newest National Park

 New River Gorge Sunrise, Grandview West Virginia
Sunrise at New River Gorge, West Virginia.

Brett Maurer / Getty Images

New River Gorge became the country's 63rd national park in January 2021, as part of a series of unexpected infrastructure and social projects included in a last minute coronavirus relief package. Despite the strange process that lead to its designation, the national park is very deserving of its new title.

New River Gorge has long been known for its namesake iconic river, which has carved through sandstone over tens of thousands of years to create a dramatic riverscape. Even though areas surrounding the gorge had been logged and mined for decades, the park managed to retain its wild beauty.

Fast Facts: New River Gorge National Park

  • Location: Southern West Virginia
  • Declared National Park: January, 2021
  • Size: Nearly 73,000 acres along 53 miles of the New River
  • Ecoregion: Mixed mesophytic forest
  • Yearly Visitors: 1.2 million in 2019
  • Fun Fact: The New River flows north as it winds its way through the Appalachian Plateau in West Virginia.

History of the Park

New River Gorge is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. It is the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.
New River Gorge is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. It is the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

Posnov / Getty Images

According to the National Park Service, the origins of the New River are almost as old as the Appalachian Mountains themselves. During the birth of the Appalachians 500 million years ago, the North American and African plates collided, forcing the earth up and forming mountains.

An ancient river, the Teays (once much larger, but then broken up by glacial action), drained from the steep edges of this new range, and over time, it got faster and bigger, cutting through the mountains. That process has continued until today, and this section of the ancient river has now sliced through 1,500 feet of rock to create the picturesque canyon that still contains powerful waters. All of this history might make it the second oldest river on the planet.

Before Europeans arrived to the area in the 1600s, Indigenous peoples had been living there for at least 11,000 years, according to archeological evidence. Those native groups are the ancestors of the Cherokee and Shawnee peoples, who fought the White settlers for over 150 years, but were forced off their land by the early 1800s.

Because the New River had cut through so much rock during its history, seams of good quality coal were easy to access. The industry prospered and the area was even connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1873 to facilitate moving mined coal. Soon, towns and settlements followed, and for almost 50 years, mining was a primary business, with at least one mine surviving into the 1960s. Today, rail yards, bridge piers, the ruins of coal mining towns, coke ovens, rusted mine cars, and other remnants of the industry can still be found throughout the park.

Coal car and mine entrance at the Nuttallburg head house, New River Gorge National Park.
Coal car and mine entrance at the Nuttallburg head house.

Dave Bieri / NPS

Besides mining, there were also subsistence farmers who had homesteads in the park. Red Ash Island was once used to quarantine people during a smallpox epidemic, and their gravestones can still be found in the new national park. There was logging as well, and the New River Lumber Company had several mills in the area, logging chestnut, oak, poplar and dozens more trees through the 1940s.

Like other parts of West Virginia, coal was once a dominant economic force, but as mining has decreased over time, outdoor recreation has filled at least part of that loss. According to the 2019 National Park Service Visitor Spending Effect Report, the New River Gorge National Park brought in more than 1.2 million visitors who spent an estimated $53.4 million in the region, supporting at least 750 jobs in the immediate vicinity.

National River Protection

On November 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the New River Gorge National River, which afforded it some protection from the National Parks System, but it was not considered a park in its own right, as it now is.

Ecosystem Restoration

New River Gorge National Park Observation Deck View

Dee / Getty Images

According to the National Park Service, the Appalachian Mountain forests are not only some of the oldest, but also some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Since the river first received national protection in 1978, it has been safeguarded from extractive industries, giving the ecosystem an opportunity to recover from the mining and logging it experienced throughout its history. Now that the area is a national park, it gets the gold standard in land protection.

Ecosystems

Holistically, the type of forest found at New River Gorge is mixed mesophytic, one of the most biologically diverse temperate biomes in the world. In general, forests in the region get a moderate amount of rain and elevation can change up to 1,000 feet between the river bed and surrounding plateaus. In addition, variations in sun exposure, soil, and weather create different forest communities, including oak-hickory forests in dry and sunny areas; scrub pine and oak forests on the ridge lines where there is poor rocky soil; tall tulip and poplar trees in the Appalachian cove forests found in valley areas; beech and maple hardwood forests on the damp northern exposed areas; and sycamore and river birch on river bottoms and floodplains.

There is also a wide diversity of habitats in the river itself, which has hydrologic features including pools, rapids, and waterfalls, of course, but also backwaters, glides, runs, shoals, riffles, and cascades that together provide a habitat for a wide variety of fish and amphibians.

Animal and Plant Life in New River Gorge

The New River Gorge National Park is part of the southernmost range of some northern animals and the northernmost range of more southern ones, and the area is also used as a migration corridor by many species. In addition, because the gorge is so old, there are some unique species that have adapted to specific niches, including fish that are endemic to the river.

By the Numbers: Plant and Wildlife

New River Gorge National Park is home to:

  • 1,383 different species of plants
  • 65 species of mammals
  • 40 species of reptiles
  • 50 species of amphibians
  • 89 species of fish
  • Countless migratory birds.

The park includes essential habitat for endangered mammals like the Allegheny woodrat (in fact this area might include its core population), a species of special concern in West Virginia.

Old mining shafts also provide the perfect home to the 10 species of bats that live in the area. Two species of bats that are on the federal endangered species list, the Virginia big-eared bat and the Indiana bat, as well as the eastern small-footed myotis, have been found in the park.

Peregrine falcons, New River Gorge
Young peregrine falcons at new River Gorge National Park.

Gary Hartley / NPS

Birds that use the area as an important breeding ground include wood warblers, vireos, and thrushes, and hawks migrate through the park as well. In addition, a peregrine falcon breeding program and a bald eagle population is slowly growing there.

West Virginia is home to 34 species of salamander, more than almost any other state, and species of special concern that are believed to live in the park include the black-bellied salamander and the eastern hellbender (the giant salamander). In addition, 40 species of reptiles call the park home, including species of special concern like the common map turtle, broadhead skink, eastern worm snake, rough green snake, and eastern river cooter.

There are 89 species of fish found in the New River and its tributaries, including 46 native species like flathead catfish, green sunfish and brook trout and eight endemic fish, as well as one type of eel and 42 introduced species of fish.

The Nuttall sandstone cliffs alone include over 350 different plant and lichen species, some of which are rare. And due to the various types of plant communities and ancient and protected nature of the park, at least 1383 different species of plants can be found there.

Other Attractions

Castle Rock Trail, New River Gorge National Park
Castle Rock Trail, New River Gorge National Park.

Carey Woods / NPS

Though it was once heavily damaged by the logging industry and coal mining, the New River Gorge is now a serious adventure destination. New River's rugged canyon has been well-known as a world-class rock climbing and water sports destination since it was designated a national river in 1978, but there are other popular activities there, too:

  • Rock climbing: The sandstone walls at New River Gorge National Park, ranging between 30 feet and 120 feet in height, feature over 1,400 routes for climbers.
  • Whitewater rafting and kayaking: With 53 miles of undammed whitewater, there's plenty of room for experienced water sports lovers, including a 13-mile section of the Lower New River that has lots of class IV and V rapids (the most technically difficult and dangerous).
  • Warm-water fishing: Due to warmer waters than are typically found in the region, as well as 12 public-access points in the park, it's a well-known fishing destination for smallmouth bass, walleye, carp, and other native and non-native game fish.
  • Mountain biking: Built by the Boy Scouts, there are almost 13 miles of mountain bike trails.
  • Hunting: Detailed maps show the specific areas where hunting is allowed in the park. In general, hunting is not permitted in safety zones near public areas and the Grandview section. Hunting permits, rules and seasons are all governed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
  • Camping: Tents or RVs are allowed at nine primitive camping sites within the park boundaries. Primitive camping means you must pack in and pack out everything you will need and facilities are not provided.