America’s Newest National Park Is Packed With Scenic Wonder and Eerie Ghost Towns

New River Gorge finally gets its due.

John Denver was on to something when he declared West Virginia "almost heaven" in “Country Roads," despite never having been there when he sang it. The state is a place of dizzying beauty. And now, it gets one more notch on its belt—and a more recent decree heralding its scenic beauty than a 40-year-old country jam—with the designation of New River Gorge as the country's 63rd national park and preserve. 

It's the third-such designation in two years, following 2019's induction of Indiana Dunes and New Mexico's White Sands into the America's Best Idea club, and it happened fairly quietly. 

In December, while everyone was busy talking about checks to Americans and small business bailouts, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) managed to tuck a provision into the latest COVID stimulus package that levels up New River Gorge from national river to national park and preserve status.

Leaf peepers, rejoice! | JPecha / E+ / getty images

This designation protects 65,165 acres of lush Appalachian mountains and forest as part of the preserve and 7,021 acres in and around the gorgeous not-so-new river (it’s actually one of the world’s oldest). This is just the sixth combo preserve and national park, and it’s a very big deal for mountain climbers, hikers, rafters, and anyone else who enjoys the great outdoors. 

National Park status allows nature to continue its triumphant work by providing the best environmental protections we have, including more ambitious political tools for river cleanup and mountain-face protection, according to Outside. It’ll also give an estimated 20% boost to West Virginia tourism, per Capito. 

“Being a national park is so much of a gold standard of approval and excellence,” she said at a press conference.

If you listen closely, you can hear the thud of Mountain Mamma and Mamma Nature giving a loud high five.

West Virginia’s mining past is on full display. | NPS photo/Louise McLaughlin

The Gorge's modern history wasn't always one of serene natural beauty: From the late 1800s to The Great Depression, New River Gorge was the wild west (Virginia) of coal mining—soot spewed out of coke ovens and workers often died in explosions, cave-ins, or gunfights. If laborers weren’t blowing cash at the now-crumbled Dunglen hotel and casino across the river from the town of Thurmond, they were burying it (an eccentric coal operator hid $21,000 worth of gold and banknotes that has since been found). “The only difference between hell and Thurmond was that a river ran through Thurmond,” the saying went according to The Los Angeles Times.

Eventually, the mines went silent. In 1978, the area was designated as a national river, though the presence of the ghosts of mining days past are present in all their eerie, fascinating glory now that the area is protected. 

Nature’s green tentacles have smothered the coal machinery and turned the towns that used to house thousands of miners into empty shells. In Thurmond, New River’s former heart, there are still a handful of people and a visitor’s center, but Nuttallburg, with its historic conveyor, and Kaymoor, found 821 steps deep into the gorge, only have ghosts paying taxes.

There is no better sunset in West Virginia. | Photography by Deb Snelson / getty images

Things to do in America’s Newest National Park

Nature’s win is ours, too. And now that New River Gorge has joined places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Zion in the elite national parks roster, there is no longer any excuse to allow this natural wonder to fly under your radar. 

New River Gorge carves a breathtaking swatch through the Appalachian mountains—the longest and deepest in the range—with all kinds of undisturbed wildlife. It's also an adrenaline-soaked playground for adventure sports. River rats can try whitewater rafting or kayaking the 53 miles of river—just be sure to brace yourself for its wild flip-you-off-your-raft Class IV and Class V rapids.

If you’re more of a land creature, I’ve spent some time at “The New,” and it’s a wild experience to explore what are essentially open-air museums in the ghost towns of coal boom times gone by. Don’t miss the surreal warning signs posted for miners, and there are some great not-so-strenuous hikes where you can swing past the coal towns, see some waterfalls, and snap pics with America’s longest arch bridge on the same trip. That iconic 3,000-foot bridge bridge—which towers nearly 900 feet above the river—was formerly the longest in the world, until the Lupu Bridge was erected in Shanghai in 2003.

The best view of the gorge is the most stomach-dropping. | Matthew T. Carroll / getty images

If you’ve extra hardcore, every year thousands of rock climbers scale the 1,500 or so hard sandstone trails above the river. Climbs range from 30 to 120 feet high and are considered hard with a rating of 5.10 to 5.12 (ratings 5.13 and above are for nutso elite climbers).

If you’ve got two wheels and know how to use ‘em, the New River Gorge has 12.8 miles of Arrowhead Trails mapped by a tiny army of more than 1,000 Boy Scouts. And there’s also some fantastic fishing as well—you’ll find smallmouth and rock bass as well as walleye and trout depending on the time of year.

The park is 70 miles from Charleston, WV; four hours north of Charlotte NC; and a 300-mile road trip from Washington, D.C. Get there now, before the crowds do.

Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.