The New River is anything but. Beginning in North Carolina and flowing north across Virginia and into southern West Virginia’s lush forests, the 360-mile waterway meanders through the ancient Appalachian Mountains and is considered one of the oldest rivers in the world. It’s also responsible for much of the majesty at the heart of America’s newest national park: the sprawling New River Gorge National Park, which combines rugged beauty with vibrant biodiversity that experts say is more akin to parts of Central and South America.
West Virginia’s first national park, New River Gorge Park was officially designated on January 20 as the result of the pandemic-related stimulus package Congress passed in December. The recognition is technically a reclassification. Referred to locally as “the New,” the gorge’s scenic 73,000 acres have been protected as a national river since 1978. The new park encompasses 7,021 of the acres at the heart of the gorge, with the rest remaining classified as a national preserve open to hunting and fishing.
Located 4.5 hours by car from Washington, D.C., the area has long been known as an epicenter of eastern outdoor adventures. In the summer, visitors flock to the region to go rafting or kayaking along the river’s 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater, navigate its nearly 100 miles of hiking trails (plus 13 miles of single-track mountain bike trails), or rock climb up Nuttall sandstone cliffs that can reach 1,400 feet. Each October, on Bridge Day, base jumpers hurl themselves off of the dramatic New River Gorge Bridge, which spans the gorge 876 feet above the river and is the third highest in the United States. At 1 1/4 miles long, it’s the longest steel arch span in the western hemisphere.
“We’ve always known this place was special, a little-known jewel,” says Eve West, the park’s chief of interpretation. “Things are here on a macro-scale. It’s a real eye-candy park, a beautiful park. It’s easy to make yourself look like a good photographer here.”
The gorge also happens to be an outstanding birding destination, with more than 180 species documented in the new park. The area’s birdiness stems from its unique ecosystem, a blend of riparian areas, mixed mesophytic forests, pockets of grassy fields, and high bluffs that West calls “a biological crossroads” forged by geography and geology. Among its roughly 1,500 types of native plants are a kaleidoscopic array of wildflowers that blossom each spring with the arrival of hordes of neotropical migrants. Swainson’s and Cerulean Warblers highlight the 35 wood warbler species that pass through the park annually, at least 26 of which are breeders. In addition to its birdlife, the New is home to two dozen different salamander species and sought-after mammals like northern river otter.
“What’s always been surprising to me is how it’s been an overlooked region in terms of conservation for avian life,” says Paul Shaw, co-coordinator of the annual New River Birding & Nature Festival. “But people are finding out about it now.”
Making people aware of the area's natural splendor is a goal of the New River Birding & Nature Festival, which has introduced visiting birders to the gorge and its surrounding state parks since 2002 (the festival was held virtually in 2020 and will be again this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Festival-week lists often run upward of 140 species, with the variety due largely to the benefits of birding by elevation.
“You can bird all the way down the mountain on one side, cross the river, and bird all the way back up the other,” says Rachel Davis, another festival co-coordinator, who has led trips through the gorge since 2007. “You’ll see all these habitat changes. When you’re birding down a mountainside, you get to see treetop birds at eye-level.”
Voted the country’s top hiking trail in a 2015 USA Today reader polls, the 2.4-mile Endless Wall loop is accessible from the park’s visitors center on U.S. Route 19 and flush with rhododendron thickets, making it a hotspot for elusive Swainson’s Warblers. The gorge’s lower slopes are great for spotting Indigo Bunting and Yellow-throated Warbler, Shaw says, as well as Louisiana Waterthrush and Hooded Warbler. Reach the more upland woodlands and you might see a Scarlet Tanager or Pileated Woodpecker among the vireos, thrushes, and other songbirds. The south-side plateaus on the rim of the gorge provide second-growth habitat perfect for Blue-winged Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats.
Great Blue and Green Heron are residents in the spring and summer months along the river, which also supports nesting Common Mergansers and hungry Bald Eagles. Then, flanking the gorge itself, the same canyon terrain that makes the New a premier rock climbing destination provides breeding opportunities for Common Ravens and Peregrine Falcons, the latter of which also nest on the bridge. (The falcons are likely descendants of the hacking program that successfully restored the species in the gorge in the mid 2000s.) Other raptor standouts include a healthy population of breeding Broad-winged Hawks, three species of owls, and the occasional Golden Eagle during the colder months.
Feeling adventurous? You don’t need to parachute off the bridge or go whitewater rafting. Instead, bird the canopy via zipline with one of the several local adventure companies offering aerial tours of the park’s northern woods. Some courses connect more than a mile of forest and have platforms as high as 85 feet in the air. Consider it the ultimate cure for warbler neck.
With the new designation, local officials and business owners are hoping for the type of increase in visitors Indiana Dunes experienced in its first year as a national park, on top of the pandemic-fueled jump the area already saw in 2020 as people turned to the outdoors for socially distanced activities. They also hope it helps cast a region known for being ravaged for decades by timber and coal extraction in a new light; the designation is part of West Virginia’s larger ongoing efforts to replace mining with ecotourism as the state’s chief revenue source. The gorge itself is a testament to nature’s resiliency: Cleared twice in past centuries for logging and mining purposes, it’s regrown into a teeming ecological gem.
“Some visitors comment on the unbelievable amount of water in our wide rivers and beautiful streams, some comment on how alive and green everything seems to be, some comment on how beautiful the mountains are,” Davis says. “One thing they all have in common: People are awestruck and inspired by the life that is here.”