new river gorge national park

New River Gorge is the second closest national park to Charlotte (closer than the Great Smoky Mountains but not as close as Congaree) and yet it’s taken us a while to visit. It’s the newest national park (thank you President Trump) and by all reports, a lovely natural area featuring one of the world’s oldest rivers and the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. 

We planned a quick visit this past January, on our way home from my uncle’s wedding in New York, hoping to spend the night in a cozy cabin and take a snowy hike along the gorge. We found a VRBO inside the national park and right on the banks of the New River! Thanks to a foot of snow over West Virginia, that plan didn’t happen, even though I had already ordered the limited edition New River Gorge Rumpl as a surprise gift for Greg. Back at home with our undeserved Rumpl, we were even more determined to make New River Gorge happen this year. 

We rebooked our cabin for Independence Day weekend and made a new plan to stop at the gorge on our way up to Indiana Dunes. This plan almost changed last minute when it looked like the Canadian border was going to open up! We’d been invited to a sweet friend’s bat mitzvah in Teeswater and promised to attend if we could get there. Then when we heard our two newest nephews (one born, one unborn) were coming to visit Charlotte for the Fourth of July, we had second thoughts about heading out of town.

To make a long story a bit shorter, we found ourselves on the road to WV early Friday morning, July 1. Greg had booked a whitewater rafting trip with a company who agreed that Eva, 4.5, could pass for 5 years old and come along. Rafting was out of the question for Rachel, so I made a fun plan for her and I to hike our own trail and explore the visitor centers. Rachel and I watched the other berries get their life jackets + paddles and head out in a repurposed school bus (a first for my kids). Six hours later, we were back to pick them up. 

Greg’s notes from the afternoon:

New River Gorge is known for its whitewater rafting. It took a lot of planning and coordination but we decided it would be worth it for most of our kids (and me) to experience the gorge *on* the river. So Friday morning we arrived at New & Gauley River Adventures, a cabin built into the side of a steep hill, where we were greeted by a cheerful shirtless mountain man. I could tell the kids were pretty nervous but our guide was so friendly and laid-back about everything that the kids shed the jitters and got excited. We geared up and loaded into a school bus which turned out to be a fitting mode of transportation for all the learning that would take place during our 6 hour rafting trip. We arrived at the put-in location and watched as the now barefooted mountain man guide carried huge rafts downhill, on sharp gravel, with a smashed toe that he would later tell us was “stepped on by a horse.” I was taking notes on what tough looks like. We set out on the river and learned so much about navigation, currents, paddling, balance, and rapid classes as we gently floated over mostly flat water and class I rapids for the first lengthy stretch. Our kids asked tons of questions along the way, told jokes, and listened to incredible stories of bears, eagles, and Bigfoot. The river was a perfect blend of calm stretches where we jumped out and swam, enjoying some breathtaking scenery, and exciting class II rapids – plus one exhilarating class III rapid aptly named “Surprise.” The captain probably later regretted mentioning the surprise rapid 5 hours before getting to it since almost every previous rapid was inquisitively compared to the impending surprise. “No, it’s bigger than that one” said the captain to each inquiry. “How much bigger?” replied our children, to be answered by the oft repeated line “It’s a surprise!” Turns out in addition to being useful for answering curious homeschool children, the rapid is named surprise because it has multiple peaks, and the third and tallest peak surprises everyone, especially if you are in a ducky (a tiny kayak). Only 2 out of 12 duckies in our group made it through without flipping over! In the raft, we settled in tight and paddled masterfully through surprise with the loud water barely muffling our shrieks of joy.

Other highlights of the adventure were our 3 oldest cliff jumping off of a 15 foot precipice, creatively named Jump Rock, and Aaron Henry getting to be the captain of the raft as the mountain man jumped out and went for a swim. We watched in awe as a majestic bald eagle soared overhead. Some downsides were the lengthy time between putting in and lunch. Note to self, bring more snacks. We were so hungry that mentions of wildlife were followed by thoughts of “Hmm. Is that kosher?” Also, the trip is long. The kids were exhausted by the end. Eva and Henry fell asleep on the bus ride back to the parking lot!

Nevertheless, the New River is an amazing river and I am grateful it is officially designated as a National Park. It’s not freezing cold because the dam actually releases water from the top, not the bottom. It’s the second oldest river in the world which makes the name all the more humorous. Lastly, the river is remarkably clean. Our knowledgable guide pointed out multiple signs of clean water including bubbles, the presence of insect eggs on rocks, and, my favorite sign, the smell. Each time we went through a tumultuous section we were treated to a wonderful aroma of “clean water” as our guide would say. All in all, we loved the whole rafting trip. We hope this is the start of many more New River adventures.

My notes from the afternoon: 

Rachel and I spent our first hour at the Canyon Rim visitor center. We tried the informative film, but Rachel preferred examining each of the Audubon Society stuffed birds to see what noises they made. We also got our passport stamp, of course.

Next, we rambled out to the marina for a ride with New River Jetboats. I say rambled because the 30-minute drive consisted of a narrow gravel path through the woods, where I found myself closing my eyes and praying no one was coming the opposite way. Branches scraped our van as we bounced along the trail. It was one of the most adventurous driving experiences I’ve ever had, but Rachel didn’t seem to notice. We jetted around the New River, which, although louder than I expected, was quite enjoyable. For legal reasons I’m not saying our elderly captain was intoxicated, although I would be surprised if he wasn’t. Either way it was a fun way to pass the time. 

We ventured out to our VRBO, or tried to, until we lost cell service and my map disappeared. I did find “Lone Oak Lodge,” but one peek into their dark scary basement sent me running for the car. It had all the marks of a serial killer’s lair. We took a scenic drive back toward the visitor center and hiked the Canyon Rim boardwalk instead of unpacking like I intended. Would I, next time, part ways for six hours? Maybe not. We try to find a good balance of spending time as family and also not missing out on memorable experiences because of our little ones.  

The rafters were chilly after their adventure, so we piled the three big girls into an old fashioned claw foot tub with bubble bath while Greg unloaded the car and I heated up dinner (Cookie + Kate’s Roasted Veggie Enchilada Casserole, one of my favorites for make-ahead travel meals). The cabin was an absolute dead zone for internet and cell signal. I totally felt like a millennial when I realized later that we could use the land line phone to make calls.

We sat down for kiddush in our riverfront cabin (a taxidermist’s paradise) as a thunderstorm rolled in. I woke up to a stuffed deer head staring at me the next morning. Shabbat was spent strolling along the Endless Wall trail, driving through the park under the bridge, and finishing our current read-aloud book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” (obviously leftover from our last national park trip).

The Endless Wall is a fantastic hike with stunning views of the New River. We spent a while at one of the overlooks, watching tiny rafters below go through the intense lower rapids. In retrospect, I’m thankful it worked out for us to visit over the summer instead of our original plan.

We hope to return to New River Gorge in the next few years. There is a lot more of the the river to see, and Greg is already planning another rafting trip when Rachel is big enough to go with us. I am determined to do the Bridge Walk sometime too!

=)

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