By Jerry Ginsberg
America’s 63rd and newest national park was created earlier this year when the Congressional resolution authorizing it was buried deep in the text of legislation intended to address financial issues related to the COVID pandemic. Not one to look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, I am just grateful that these 73,000 scenic acres have been awarded the nation’s highest level of protection. Just 10% of this territory is included in the actual national park. The remaining 65,000 acres make up a national preserve. So, what makes this area special?
This is the first National Park Service unit in West Virginia and brings the distribution of National Parks to 29 states and 2 territories.
As mentioned last year in this space, after having ignored West Virginia for too many years, I vowed to not repeat that mistake. Keeping my word even sooner than I had anticipated, adding New River Gorge National Park to the august rolls of our national treasures has acted as a magnet to draw me back once again to the Mountain State.
Counter to its name, the New River is one of the very oldest rivers on the entire North American continent. Its ancient course and the mountains flanking it have been sculpted here over many millions of years.
As a result of the river’s waters slicing into the land during these ages, the twisting fifty-three mile long gorge that we see before us today lined by dense forests and conspicuously stratified sandstone was slowly formed and is now the new park’s scenic centerpiece.
This land combines a pastoral natural beauty with a variety of recreational activities including rafting, canoeing, fishing and rock climbing. Then there is the ever present history of the coal mining that took place here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
New River Gorge doesn’t possess the breathtaking views of Yosemite or the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. The land here is much more subtle. You will need to work a bit harder, look and see more deeply into the essence of this undulating land to come away with some winning images.
New River Gorge National Park boasts at least 1500 varieties of plants, flowers, birds, deer and many smaller creatures. The many wildflowers burst forth in spring, small birds like blue jays and cardinals flash by in an instant and the deer scamper shyly away, but they’re all there for us to enjoy.
Among the prime photo spots within this new park are:
Grandview Point and its nearby trails. The central mountain faces west so it is front lit in the late afternoon when the shadows creep up the valleys, but can also be very worthwhile for a backlit sunrise.
Sandstone Falls at the park’s south end. You will need to drive through the town of Hinton; Speed Limit 25! The many separate cascades are interesting in both early and late light. Stroll the boardwalk spanning the river; then get off it down onto the ground. It is my personal favorite spot in this park for its tranquility and unlimited compositional variations.
The bedded sandstone of the gorge itself. Found along the roadsides and trails and facing in every possible direction.
Of the many hikes available, I recommend the Endless Wall trail for the best look at the geology underlying the area. If you don’t want to do the entire length of the 2.5 mile trail, reaching Diamond Point at just one mile out will provide the best of the best.
The much heralded New River Gorge Bridge with its huge arched framework. If you’re really into bridges, this one is best photographed from the very lowest observation platform about 30-40 minutes after official sunrise.
While you’re here, take the interesting drive through nearby Fayette Station Road.
The once prosperous, but now deserted town of Thurmond with its railroading and coal industry history is a park highlight. Railroading is still omni-present here. You will find RR crossings, trains and their distinctive whistles wherever you go throughout the area.
I had intended to explore the highly vaunted historic farming village of Nuttalburg, but it proved to be inaccessible due to a washed-out road. Perhaps next time.
Roads within the park are paved, but narrow and winding. Access to the park’s many points of interest is generally via surrounding high speed highways leading to a myriad of tiny mountain roads that enter the park’s interior. It’s all very reminiscent of the song “Take me home, country roads,” by the late John Denver.
Getting there: While this is a fairly remote place, it is within a day’s drive of about half of our country’s population. If traveling by air, the nearest options are Charleston, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Ohio, or Richmond, Virginia.
Towns surrounding the park are Beckley, Fayetteville, Mt. Hope, and sleepy Hinton with its feeling of bygone days. Of these, the most centrally located spot in which to make your headquarters is Beckley.
Sleeping – Most national chains are well represented. In addition, there are many local establishments including country cabins, many offered by local outfitters.
For a rental vehicle, just about anything will suffice. That said, a rear hatch always makes moving camera packs in and out much easier.
Eating – Like most anywhere USA, the many fast food chains offer just what you would expect. There are a few more upscale local options including some micro-breweries, all providing several more eclectic choices.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.