There are all-season reasons to roam among the Northern Appalachians in W.Va. But springtime has its own special allure: the riotous blooming shrubs known as Mountain Laurel and Rhododendrons (they are different) scattered among the velvet green peaks. It usually happens in May and June. My husband and I were fortunate witnesses to the bursting white and lavender blossoms last May (2022) when we were on a mission to visit America’s newest National Park, New River Gorge National Park & Preserve (NRGNP.)
The New River Gorge is slightly more than an hour southeast of Charleston, W.Va. and easily accessed from Interstate 77, a major north-south artery running from Cleveland, Ohio to Columbia, South Carolina. The Gorge has long attracted outdoor enthusiasts seeking adventures along the banks of one of the nation’s oldest rivers: gonzo whitewater rafters, rock climbers, and base jumpers on Bridge Day every October. The New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highest and longest single-span arch bridges in the world. So it’s been a magnet for daredevils since its completion in 1977. The recent designation (December 27, 2020) of 73,000 acres in the Gorge as the newest unit in our fabulous National Park Service system “has broadened our visitor base considerably. We’re definitely the destination because we’re the newest national park,” notes Eve West, Chief of Interpretation & Cultural Resources at NRGNP.
I had the chance to check out our newest national park after a sedentary, snowy winter and was eager to see what adventures might be suitable for someone too long in the tooth to run class 4 and 5 rapids (the most challenging), go rock climbing or navigate aerial obstacle courses. Fortunately, one of New River Gorge’s premiere resorts, Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), offers adventures for all ages with plenty of amenities for apres activities. The Resort offers accommodations that range from luxury cabins and “glamping” tents to rustic cabins and campgrounds. Most New River Gorge visitors I know are hardcore campers who own lots of outdoor survival gear. I love exploring outside all day before retiring somewhere with hot showers, a good mattress, dining options, and adult beverages. Adventures on the Gorge checked all those boxes and more.
After a five-hour drive, we settled into one of AOTG’s comfortable Sunnyside cabins and began looking for sustenance. It was our good fortune that Mondays at Chetty’s Pub are wing night and they offer live acoustic music in an open-air pavilion overlooking the Gorge. Chetty’s is located in a stunning woodland setting. The Resort’s designers took advantage of the natural beauty by building along the edge where guests can soak in views of the iconic bridge and sylvan sunsets. After indulging in our fair share of wings, we strolled down to the pavilion to listen to the dulcet tones of a guitar player and folk singer.
I was concerned about being able to keep up on a three-hour guided mountain hike and a flat-water kayaking adventure I’d signed up for before arriving at the Resort. I was certain I’d be the first one to succumb to “whinothermia,” the condition where someone unprepared, has the wrong gear or has no water starts whining, “I’m too cold, too hot or thirsty–can you carry my stuff?” I didn’t want to be that person.
Once I met my genial hiking guide, Rocky MacDonald, I was relieved immediately. He’s an experienced climber, hiker, rafting guide, and very chill. “Whatever pace you want is fine,” he said and he meant it. The weather was ideal; the trail to Diamond Point Overlook wasn’t crowded (although rangers warn this segment of the Endless Wall Trail can be quite populated in summer.) Along the trail, we saw W. Va.’s ubiquitous wild-growing rhododendrons (the state flower) and Mountain Laurel everywhere. When we reached Diamond Point, the sweeping views of the Gorge and the “Endless Wall” of Nuttall Sandstone (a much harder variety that’s mostly quartz) made the leisurely climb worth it.
The next day we drove to the nearby Canyon Rim Visitors Center. It’s a great place to plan your park visit. Ranger West suggests 3-5 days for first-time visitors because “the park is so spread out.” She recommends starting with the exhibits and orientation film (and don’t miss the overlook behind the Center and easy hike down to views of the Bridge) and then driving along the Fayette Station Road to explore the region’s coal mining and railroad legacy. Visitors can access a narrated tour of the drive via the NPS app. West also recommends stopping at the Grandview Visitors Center to experience the deepest part of the Gorge. One of her favorite scenic drives is the road to Sandstone Falls at the southern end of the park. There are many places to stay around the historic town of Hinton, including Airbnb’s and Pipestem State Park. With over 100 miles of trails, it’s hard to choose but West suggests the Grandview Rim Trail because it “has some phenomenal views with three overlooks and the one with the highest vertical distance.”
The flat-water kayaking adventure at Summersville Lake went well too. My biggest challenge is not getting wet/falling in during transfers in and out of the kayak. The Resort’s guides made sure everyone’s transfer went smoothly. As we paddled around the massive lake surrounded by palisades and promontories of Nuttall Sandstone, rock climbers waved and gave us thumbs up, part of an unspoken code outdoor enthusiasts use to indicate: No matter what you watched on Netflix this winter, does anything beat this?
The short answer is no. To be sure, The New River Gorge National Park & Preserve and its premiere resort, Adventures on the Gorge, offer year-round recreation and creature comforts; but if you want to see the Northern Appalachians bedecked in purple, white, and lavender blossoms, springtime is the best time to be there.
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