Kipp (my boyfriend) and I recently spent almost three weeks in the New River Gorge camping and rock climbing. The gorge, located in Fayetteville, West Virginia, is absolutely a hidden treasure.
It’s breathtaking to watch the New River (one of the oldest rivers in North America) slice through over 3,200 feet of rock (cutting through the Appalachian Mountains) as it meanders downstream in fantastic whitewater fashion. Geologists today estimate that it took the New River anywhere from between 3 million to 320 million years to create the gorge that we see today. Established in 1978, the “New River Gorge National River” is a protected area including 70,000 acres of land along 53 miles of this beautiful waterway, preserving this portion of the New River in honor of its incredible beauty.
Of course, the forests draping the slopes of the gorge are spectacular as well (especially in the fall, when they are adorned in red and golden leaves). The river gorge is home to one of the oldest and most diverse collection of ecosystems in the world, and contains the greatest biodiversity in flora of any river gorge in the south and central Appalachian Mountains. Home to a variety of habitats, including large swaths of forest, cliffs, forest seeps and wetlands, as well as mature “bottomland” forests, the gorge provides a home for endangered mammals such as the Virginia big-eared bat, the Indiana bat, and the Allegheny woodrat.
What’s perhaps most remarkable is the way in which the gorge has retaken its wild roots and bloomed into an inspiring natural area again after enduring years of coal mining. From Grandview outlook, you can see the rail yards at Qunnimont, where people first shipped coal out of the gorge. At Diamond Point (another outlook), it’s possible to see the vestiges of Kaymoor, an old mining town nestled in next to the river. In many pockets throughout the area, visitors can find old rail yards and railroad depots, the remnants of old towns, and the gravestones of early homesteaders. The place contains a rich and whispered history.
Every morning while at the gorge I’d wake up at dawn and head out on a long run. With nothing but a few birdcalls and the morning mist surrounding me, I’d make my way along Endless trail, a single-track path following the top of the cliff line of Endless Wall. The trail is beautiful, taking you close enough to the cliff’s edge to catch glimpses of the river far below you, and hear its faint roar.
At points here and there along the trail, you can shoot out to lookouts, daring yourself to sit down on the edge of the cliff, legs hanging below, and look out at the incredible vastness of the space before you. Keeping my eyes out for black bears and other creatures, I loved watching the morning fog move through the gorge, oozing around the bends in the New River like a second river above the first: big, wild, and billowing. As the sun finally rose and began to shine through the mist, parting it, the river below (the real river) would catch the light and shine in a way that made it look like a metallic ribbon slicing through the landscape.
I’m not sure where I’ll end up after this road trip is all over. However, the New River Gorge, a place I first began to visit as an undergraduate at Duke, will always live close to my heart. What lucky beings we are to belong to this world, a world full of magical natural wonders. What lucky beings we are to study, appreciate, and fight for them.