This Is the One Day You Can (Legally) BASE Jump in a National Park
New River Gorge’s Bridge Day is back, now with a shiny new NPS status.
When West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, it was a remarkable feat: a 22,000 ton stretch of steel spanning the gaping 3030 foot wide gorge, 876 feet above the churning, ice cold New River. It cost $37 million dollars, created four lanes of traffic, and cut the local commute from 45 minutes down to just one, bypassing winding Appalachian mountain roads. After it was completed, it stepped into its place as the longest single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2013, after only 34 years, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its engineering significance. It even has its own stamp.
During construction, people would look at the span and marvel. Perhaps even wondering what the views were like from up way there, a mere couple hundred feet shy of the Eiffel Tower, or if the construction workers were bothered by the wind. But one intrepid guy named Burton Ervin looked at it and thought: “A man could jump off of that.”
Ervin was a coal mining foreman, Korean War Army Vet, and self-described hillbilly. He was also a skydiver jonesing for a new challenge. He saw it in the New River Gorge Bridge, later telling the local news, “I wanted to try something that you may or may not be able to achieve.”
But he was no dummy. He did his research, flying above at different times of day to test the wind, swimming in the New River below to test the undercurrents. Then, two years after the bridge opened, in the dead of night on Friday, August 17, 1979, he strapped a parachute onto his white Elvis-style jumpsuit and leapt into the darkness. About 200 spectators gathered for the event, which concluded when he splashed down into the water.
The stunt was not only illegal, but ill-advised in many ways—there’s technically no footpath on the bridge to keep him out of the way of vehicles, for one—but all area daredevils saw was that it ended… well enough. They began jumping off the bridge themselves at all times of day. Ervin noticed the trend, and urged local officials in Fayetteville to create a day where it would be legal to jump off of the bridge during daylight hours, providing jumpers with a safe outlet while creating revenue for the city at the same time. (According to his retelling, he told the Chamber of Commerce, “You’re not gonna stop these people from jumping off the bridge. You could make money off of this!”)
Ervin helped establish the first New River Gorge Bridge Day in 1980. Two people parachuted from a plane down to the bridge, five parachuted down into the Gorge, and certificates were given to 5,500 people who were the first to walk the span of the bridge. And though it was Burton’s first and last time organizing the event—“I’m just trying to live a good hillbilly life and have a little bit of freedom,” he said—a tradition was born.
Bridge Day is now the oldest and largest organized BASE jumping event in the world, with 100,000 spectators annually (BASE is an acronym referring to the fixed objects from which they jump: Buildings, Antennas, bridges or “Spans,” and cliffs or “Earth”). It’s held annually on the third Saturday of October, and after a two year pandemic-fueled hiatus, the festivities are back.
A lot has happened in these past two years, including New River Gorge becoming the country’s 63rd National Park in 2020. Which means that come October 15, it will be the only National Park that legally allows BASE jumping. Burton Ervin would be so proud.
Luckily, the National Park designation—or, more specifically, the 1965 law that prohibits “aerial delivery” of people or goods into national parks—won’t spoil the Bridge Day fun. This year’s event will still evoke aspects of that first celebration, imbued with Burton’s daredevil spirit. For 10 hours, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, and for six of those, it becomes a plaything for the adventurous, their onlookers, and anyone who just loves a good vantage point for scoping out fall foliage.
For the NPS’s part, they’ll provide a special use permit that lets BASE jumpers land in the park, and offer support in the form of rescue boats for water landings. Interpreters will also roam around the Bridge. Behind the scenes, the NPS sits as a non-voting member on the Bridge Day Committee.
The day’s schedule includes a 5K, rappelling down the bridge (with experienced teams chosen ahead of time by lottery), guided Bridge Walks on the catwalk 25 feet under the roadway, and High Line riding for the adrenaline-seeking general public. Whitewater rafting trips provide a different perspective of the BASE jumpers from below, as do shuttle trips down to the bottom of the Gorge (you can also hike the nine mile round-trip trek).
Should you feel the call of BASE jumping—congrats! For you, there’s the option to go solo, strapped in tandem to a professional, or be flung off with a human catapult. And you wouldn’t be lonely: Participation has grown quite a bit since that first jump in 1980. In 2019, Bridge Day saw 300 jumpers from all over the world, participating in 790 jumps; the youngest BASE jumper for the event so far has been 19 years old, the oldest, 81. And it’s a creative bunch. There have been clown jumpers and flying pigs. There was a Bridge Day wedding in 1990 where they tied the knot then jumped (and, thankfully, did not get… knotted up). A few jumpers even donned Presidential masks and full suits. That’s commitment.
October 7 is the deadline to sign up to jump, and this one is especially good if you’re a beginner. Thanks to the bridge’s low height, rescue personnel in the water, accessible day-of training, and experienced staff on hand, the Bridge Day jump is one of the safest first BASE jumps you can make, and attracts about 100 newbies every year. (To solo jump, you must already have 50 skydives under your belt, but if not, there’s always the tandem option.)
For the rest of us who like to watch, festivities start at 9 am and end at 3 pm. If you want to get an early start, October 14 marks the Taste of Bridge Day at the Adventures on the Gorge resort, with 16 vendors serving everything from crab boils to pizza. So go ahead… gorge yourself.