Thrillseekers from across the globe are converging on Fayetteville for the annual Bridge Day festival. It is the one day a year that it’s legal to jump off the 876-foot high span across the New River Gorge. (Oct. 19)
Perched atop a 1,000-foot gorge cut by the New River, nearly as old as the Appalachians in spite of its name, Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG) is a 350-acre wilderness resort and premier basecamp for exploring this lush, largely under-the-radar area of southern West Virginia. It won’t stay under the radar for long, though.
In December 2020, a 53-mile stretch of river was designated New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. AOTG’s location at the edge of America’s newest national park gives guests unparalleled access to all the area and park have to offer – not to mention activities onsite, including soaring zip lines and a formidable challenge course.
(Photo: Christine Loomis)
A pristine swath of nature today, this verdant landscape was once one of consuming bleakness, scarred by mines and nearly deforested to support railroads and extraction of coal from rich seams in the sandstone cliffs. Remnants of those days remain among the blooming Catawba rhododendron and thick forests.
That bleak history is as much part of the park as the raw nature that draws adventurers here. Exploring former coal towns and artifacts are among the singular experiences within this park, and coal trains chugging beside the river are reminders that past and present remain tightly bound.
In addition to an evocative setting, AOTG offers guests something else – talented guides who weave nature and history into every experience, bringing the totality of the New River Gorge into sharp focus.
Guests learn about river ecology, about local plants and wildlife, about the region’s past and present culture and what makes this place so special. They learn how coal shaped the evolution of the gorge and how nature reclaimed the land, all while defying rapids, climbing sheer rock faces or reveling in the easy solitude of forest trails.
New River Gorge Bridge Walk
A host of activities draw visitors, some led by park rangers, others by local companies. The indisputable high-profile adventure is a saunter from gorge wall to gorge wall along a 24-inch-wide catwalk suspended just below the New River Bridges roadway and 851 dizzying feet above the river. The Bridge Walk is not for the faint of heart.
Sure, your harness is tethered to a wire as you inch across the 3,030-foot span, but if looking into an abyss with little between you and it gives you pause, this isn’t for you. For the rest of us, it’s an exhilarating stroll with photo ops galore, though few images fully capture the potent thrill of the experience.
On the day I walked the bridge, an eerie mist curled around the catwalk and struts, moving with a creeping chill around us. We appeared to be walking into nothingness, a Sartre-esque nightmare of no exit. But when the mist finally faded with sunlight, we pointed our cameras down at distant rafters and kayakers navigating the gorge from an entirely different angle.
Stay at Adventures on the Gorge
Between adventures, guests at AOTG chill in one of 115 cabins or at tent or RV sites. Cabins range from rustic to luxe, some with full kitchens and hot tubs steaming under the stars. The resort has a BBQ-focused restaurant, Smokey’s, and Chetty’s Pub with a full bar and satisfying pub menu.
If you snag a late-afternoon seat on Chetty’s deck, the reward is views across the gorge lit by a burnt-orange sunset. There’s always the pool, too.
Hiking trails offer a way to experience the gorge intimately, to view its 1,400 different species of plants, its creeks and deeply wooded expanses up close, quietly. In spring, shocking pink blossoms frame the trails and lookouts.
My favorite hikes were to Long Point, where nothing stands between you and thousand-foot drops, and Endless Wall Trail, a forested loop over Fern Creek. You hike up to the rim where climbers access canyon walls and down again to the creek spanned by rough footbridges that seem to be hewn from the woodlands around them.
AOTG guide Mary Arritt is a wealth of information about everything along the trails, including how hemlocks are being vaccinated against a deadly disease and what kind of edible mushrooms grow in the gorge (no, she won’t divulge her secret mushroom-hunting spots).
Kayaking and whitewater rafting
The definitive gorge experience, however, is whitewater rafting and kayaking. I first rafted the New River 30 years ago. National-park designation has brought added infrastructure and options, yet the river remains unchanged in its enduring appeal.
Whether you want a family float trip on the Upper New or the big rocking waves of the Lower, the river will call you and guides at AOTG will help you answer the call.
No matter which part of the river you choose, one thing is certain: It will be the kind of day you remember, the kind of day that feeds the soul of those who embrace America’s wild lands and rivers wherever they lie.
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