New River Gorge: newest national park, coal mining heritage

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Those are the opening lyrics to “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a Billboard hit 50 years ago for balladeer John Denver and one of the Mountain State’s four official songs.

West Virginia – known for coal mining and rugged Appalachian terrain – also is home to our newest national park, on 70,000 acres of forest and canyons that follow 53 miles of a national river.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is deemed precious for more than its showstopping scenery. The park’s old forest ecosystems are among the world’s most diverse. Myriad creatures, some endangered, and migrating birds seek refuge here. Myriad plant species flourish.

Whitewater rafters might find the challenge of their life on the tempestuous river, but calmer waterways connect too. Remnants of coal mining and a railroad boomtown remain as ghosts of long-ago lives.

Most popular hiking trails are the moderate-difficulty Endless Wall (2.4 miles through forest , then a creek crossing before following a cliff’s edge) and Long Point (1.6 miles through field and forest, en route to a rock outcropping).

“It’s all about the river,” says Lizzie Watts, park superintendent, to explain the area’s overall significance. She acknowledges that coal mining has contributed to acid rain but adds that “Mother Nature can recover quite nicely if you give her the time.” The coal industry is in a steep decline.

New River Gorge Bridge, the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 2003 (when a new bridge in Shanghai opened), cut the 45-minute drive up and down eight miles of mountain gorge roads. Now the trip near Fayetteville takes more like 45 seconds.

A tethered, guided walk under the 3,030-foot-long bridge takes two to three hours and is popular with tourists, who follow a catwalk suspended 876 feet above the river.

The bridge is open to pedestrians, rappellers and parachutists on the third Saturday of October for Bridge Day. The extreme sports opportunity is the state’s largest single-day festival.

Looking for a one-stop base to sleep, eat and arrange soft- or hard-adventure outings? Within view of that imposing bridge is Adventures on the Gorge, a 350-acre and mostly wooded resort, near Fayetteville.

AOTG is on the rim of the national park, offering campsites to modern cabins that sleep two to 12. Expect Wifi, cable TV, an equipped kitchen and (in some) a hot tub.

Add a couple of onsite restaurants and bars, plus dozens of activities for timid to daredevil souls. That means playgrounds and ziplines, swimming pool and whitewater rafting, a treetops canopy tour and aerial adventure park. Hike, rock climb, paddleboard, kayak. Yoga, paintball, laser tag and horseback riding are options too.

Enrich a West Virginia trip with these stops:

The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs: The spacious, genteel resort for nearly 250 years has attracted U.S. presidents, other dignitaries and celebrities willing to pay big for a little R&R in an elegant setting.

The 11,000-acre resort’s interior designer is Carleton Varney, also responsible for the colorful decorating at Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Both historic properties shun too-casual attire and post a dress code online.

Bunker Tour, White Sulphur Springs: Long hidden at The Greenbrier is a U.S. government relocation post, built 720 feet into a hillside and under a hotel wing during the Cold War.

The top-secret facility stayed that way for three decades, until The Washington Post exposed it in 1992, and was designed to house 1,100 (think U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and beyond) during a national emergency.

Within 112,544 square feet are dormitories, workspaces, a cafeteria, medical clinic (with dental, surgical and intensive care areas) and more. A tunnel entrance door weighs 25 tons and was built withstand a nuclear blast.

The 90-minute bunker tour is both astounding and a little eerie. Forget about taking photos: No cell phones or cameras allowed. Postcards available.

Tamarack, Beckley: Under the red roof off Interstate 77 is fine art to folk art, regional food and beverage specialties, demos by artisans and art classes for the average traveler.

All West Virginia counties are represented among the juried merchandise, made by 2,800-some residents. Go for music, a gallery opening or lunch too. A taste of Appalachian cuisine might mean pickled eggs and beets, fried green tomatoes or apple butter at this large, engaging cultural center.

Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, Beckley: Former miners talk frankly about the evolution of their dank, dirty and dangerous work during a 35-minute underground tour of an historic coal mine. Learn why the folk song “Sixteen Tons” was spot-on in its description of the consequences of company housing.

Also on the museum campus: restored and furnished coal camp buildings. See how the superintendent’s house differed from a bachelor miner’s quarters. Open April to November.

Last: quick trivia for you.

The other three West Virginia state songs are “The West Virginia Hills” (an 1885 collaboration), “West Virginia, My Home Sweet Home” (composed by a military officer in 1947) and “This is My West Virginia” (the 1962 work of a jazz musician).

“On, Wisconsin” became our state song in 1959, about 50 years after William Purdy composed it as a college football song. A state ballad (“Oh Wisconsin, Land of My Dreams” by Erma Barrett of Juneau County and granddaughter Shari Sarazin of Mauston) and state waltz (“The Wisconsin Waltz” by Eddie Hansen of Waupaca) were added in 2001.