America’s Newest National Park Has Some of the Nation’s Best Fall Foliage

The New River in West Virginia may be one of the oldest rivers in the world, but it’s also the namesake of America’s newest national park: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The park, which includes 70,000 acres of land along the New River, has played a key role in history — from providing subsistence to Indigenous communities and early pioneers to accommodating coal mining, logging, and railroad expansion. 

These days, the river and surrounding land are best known for whitewater rafting, hiking, and rock climbing. And, the park happens to have some of the best fall colors in the American East. Here’s everything you should know about America’s newest national park, including why it just so happens to be the perfect place to visit in the fall. 

Things to Do in New River Gorge National Park

New River Gorge National Park is a playground for adventure — and much of the fun revolves around the New River. On the southern part of the river, the water tends to be calm, providing visitors with excellent fishing, particularly in the spring and fall. Spend enough time with a line in the New River, and you’ll come across various types of bass, walleye, carp, and catfish, among others. Those looking for a bit more adventure can brave the Class III to Class V rapids found on the northern section of the river with a local rafting guide; plan your excursion using this NPS resource. Prime whitewater rafting season runs through October.

Meanwhile, the vertical sandstone cliffs that tower 1,000 feet above the river have long been sought out by rock climbers from around the world. There are around 1,600 established climbing routes in New River Gorge National Park, many with stunning views over the gorge. 

In addition to hiking and biking (more on the former below), visitors to the park can travel back in time with a visit to Nuttallburg Mine, a significant 1800s coal mining town, and Thurmond, a historic railroad community. And perhaps most importantly, visitors won’t want to miss a stop at the Grandview overlook, which has some of the best views in the entire park, and a visit to gushing Sandstone Falls.

Two people hiking at New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia

Courtesy of West Virginia Department of Tourism

The Best Hikes in New River Gorge National Park

Arguably the best way to see the fall foliage is to get out on the trails. Long Point Trail is an easy favorite with an iconic view of New River Gorge Bridge, one of the most scenic overlooks in the park. The moderate hike is 3 miles round trip.

Another popular hike in New River Gorge National Park is the Endless Wall Trail. This thrilling route traverses the rocky cliffs that tower around 1,000 feet above the river. Although comfort with heights is a must, the hike is rated as easy-to-moderate and is around 5 miles round trip.

Camping in New River Gorge National Park 

Unlike most national parks, which have limited, reservation-only campsites, the camping inside New River Gorge National Park is plentiful and first-come, first-served. Plus, there are no permits and no pesky fees; camping is completely free.

Better still, most of the camp spots are set along the New River in wooded areas, with beautiful views. Just keep in mind that all the camping within the park is primitive. That means there is no drinking water or hookups and the bathroom facilities are quite limited. Campers will need to pack in water and firewood and pack out their waste.

For a full list of camping areas, including a rundown of rules and the park’s backcountry camping options, click here.

Those looking for more developed campgrounds can find them surrounding the park — checkout those operated by The Outpost and American Alpine Club — and in the neighboring Babcock State Park

The Best Time to Visit New River Gorge National Park

Like most parks, New River Gorge National Park tends to be busiest in the summer. But those willing to don a light jacket in the fall will be treated to the season's reds, oranges, and yellows while enjoying fewer crowds.

Activities like hiking, fishing, biking, and rock climbing are best enjoyed in the fall when the weather is cool, but not cold, while sports like river rafting tend to wrap up by the end of October.

Getting to New River Gorge National Park

The closest airport to New River Gorge National Park is West Virginia International Yeager Airport (CRW), which is just over an hour from the park by car. Travelers can also take Amtrak’s Cardinal passenger train, which travels between Chicago and New York City and makes stops at three locations in the park, three days a week.

Those looking to enjoy the fall colors on a road trip, will find the park off Route 19 between the West Virginia towns of Beckley and Hico, and off Interstate 64 between Mossy and Sandstone. The New River Gorge National Park is a fairly direct drive from major hubs like Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Pittsburgh.

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