There are moments, as you drift through the deep canyon walls of the New River Gorge, when it feels like you’ve got the whole world to yourself. It’s just you and the river, littered with massive, prehistoric boulders that were here when the coal mining camps were built, and the fur trading posts before them, and the Shawnee and Cherokee villages before those. In a river that geologists say could be one of the world’s oldest, you can lose yourself in time. Then the current picks up, and you’re back to paddling like mad, navigating the chutes and eddies of heart-pounding white water.
Since the 1960s, West Virginia’s New River Gorge has drawn adventure seekers to its rapids and rock walls, and those rafters and climbers have long considered it a hidden gem. But the curtain is being drawn back on the canyon, because part of it has become America’s 63rd national park.
At the end of December, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that included a proposal from Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin III (D) of West Virginia to reclassify the New River Gorge National River’s 72,186 acres as a national park and preserve.
“It’s a real victory,” Capito says. “These things aren’t easy.” There has been a local push for national park status for years, both for the prestige of the title and the tourism dollars; West Virginia has among the lowest job growth in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. But there also has been some local resistance.
The New River Gorge Bridge spans the canyon 876 feet above the river. (Jay Young/Adventures on the Gorge)