“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although weird now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
I adore John Denver’s “Country Road,” which is synonymous with West Virginia all over the world. But I never would have visited “The Mountain State” had New River Gorge not been named the nation’s newest National Park. Maybe I was a little prejudiced after learning about its coal mining mishaps, which left an enduring stain on the otherwise beautiful state and its unpretentious people.
Whatever it was, I was wrong. West Virginia deserves your attention. Its newest and only national park is everything it’s cracked up to be; an outstanding place to river raft, mountain bike, hike, and rock climb. Although its 2020 designation was slightly overshadowed by the pandemic, my recent visit proved that the floodgates are open and ready to welcome new visitors to the rolling green Appalachians that are as big as any I’ve ever seen.
Here’s what to know and where to go.
I soon learned I was someplace special after landing at Charleston’s small mountaintop airport. That feeling continued as I drove through this beautiful mountain capital en route to my final destination, nearby Fayetteville, another adorable mountain town that serves as a gateway to New River Gorge National Park. Both towns were brimming with downtown art galleries, live music, delicious restaurants, and one-of-a-kind shops.
But I didn’t come to shop. I came to adventure. I was here for hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, and rafting on the world’s second oldest river under the nation’s third largest bridge. (Although toe holds aren’t my forte, New River Gorge is also known for some of the best rock climbing east of the Mississippi.) That’s a big deal, officials tell me, because West Virginia is within a day’s drive for two thirds of Americans.
On the first day, my buddy and I hiked the Endless Wall Trail to scout out some of the rapids we would be hitting that afternoon. Although I live in the mountain west, I was still intimidated by the near 1000 foot cliffs we walked around, stopping to take in the fantastic views at Diamond Point. After that we drove the 900 foot tall bridge back to Long Point Trail and openly wondered how they built said bridge while contemplating it at the end of the hike.
After a quick pepperoni roll, it was showtime. The Lower New River and its seemingly continuous barrage of class III, IV, and V rapids awaited us. We chose the highly-rated and experienced guides at Ace Adventure Resort to take us through the gauntlet and ensuing carnage. They did not disappoint. We laughed, delighted, cowered at times, but mostly braved the half-day experience. Better yet, only one of us got ejected into the water.
Early next morning, I awoke to three terrestrial booms, evidence that the historic mining industry still has a presence here. We actually stayed onsite at Ace Adventure Resort, which was only 10 minutes away from downtown and our hikes, and just 20 minutes from the whitewater itself. As for the digs, we enjoyed our rustic but hyper clean two bed private cabin with a deck and hot tub to soak in after a long day of adventure.
After hiking and rafting, we concluded our three-day tour with mountain biking on Arrowhead Bike Farm, which abuts the National Park and leads guided and rented bike tours on their own terrain and into the park. Before downhilling (and uphilling) some righteous single tracks, our guide assessed our skill level to pick the most appropriate ride, which was ideal for both our safety and enjoyment.
Not everything on our trip went smoothly. I’ve never made this many wrong turns while driving through “houses right next to the road” mountain towns. Not even Google Maps could get it right, once directing us to take a road that simply didn’t exist. But that’s about the only hiccup we encountered in this revered but sometimes overlooked land of Blue Ridge Mountains covered in canopy.
At last count, I was well on my way to visiting half of America’s National Parks. After visiting it for myself, New River Gorge is unconditionally worth its new park status. In fact, it’s the highest rated tourist attraction in the entire state—a perfect five stars, according to thousands of reviews.
John Denver was one of them. “Driving down the road, I get a feeling,” he sang over 50 years ago, that West Virginia is “almost heaven.”
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.