West Virginia’s First National Park

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The number of states that have a National Park has increased to 28 now that West Virginia is home to the latest national park.

What is a National Park?

A National Park is a large area of land formed by the U.S. federal government to protect natural and historic features. There are 63 national parks in the United States (see the definitions for the various park designations from the National Park Service here).

Congressional Designation of New River Gorge as a National Park

West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve became the latest National Park when it was designated as such by the U.S. Congress in December of 2020. The new park encompasses over 70,000 acres along the New River, 53 miles of whitewater river that flows through deep canyons in West Virginia.

Landsat 8 satellite image coupled with SRTM elevation data showing  the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.  Image: NASA.
Landsat 8 satellite image coupled with SRTM elevation data showing the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Image: NASA.

Deepest and Longest River Gorge in the Appalachian Mountains

The New River’s name is misleading. The river is actually one of the oldest in the world and is around 300 million years old. Geologists believed the river existed before the Appalachian Mountains were created. As the Appalachians Mountains were unlighted, the New River was able to carve into them to maintains its ancient river course.

The creation of the gorge by the New River, exposed seams of coal, making the combustible sedimentary rock easy to access.

Photo of a coal seam exposed along a park trail within the New River gorge.
A coal seam exposed along a park trail within the New River gorge. Photo: NPS, public domain.

The headwaters of New River start in the mountains in North Carolina and flows through Virginia before entering West Virginia.

The park itself is located in southern West Virginia where the New River has carved out the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

A 65,000 Acre Preserve

The establishment of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve divides the park into two sections. 65,165-acres have been formed into a preserve with regulated hunting and fishing allowed.

The second section is a 7,000 park with four areas:

The Lower Gorge 

This area makes up the majority of the National Park. Most of the land is steep, rough terrain that overlooks the New River below. In the Lower Gorge, the New River cuts through hard Nuttall sandstone, a unique sandstone type that is 98% quartz.

Picture of the New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia.
New River Gorge Bridge. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Third Tallest Bridge in the U.S.

The Lower Gorge contains New River Gorge Bridge, which is the third tallest bridge in the United States and the fifth longest single-span bridge in the world. The bridge is a steel arch bridge 3,030 feet (924 m) long that spans the New River.

Construction on the bridge began in June 1974, and was completed on October 22, 1977

Thurmond 

A photo of the Thurmond post office next to train tracks in West Virginia.
The Thurmond post office built along the train tracks. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Thurmond is named after Captain W.D. Thurmond. He acquired 73 acres as payment for a surveying job in 1873 on which he built the town.

A photo of Captain W.D. Thurmond on a horse.  Date unknown.
Thurmond is named after Captain W.D. Thurmond who acquired 73 acres of land on which he built the town in 1900. Photo: NPS, public domain.

Thurmond was a boomtown built as a railroad town to accommodate the coal mining industry in West Virginia. Incorporated in 1900, Thurmond thrived during the first two decades of the 1900s as the coal industry boomed. The advent of diesel locomotives and a decline in area coal production led to the downfall of Thurmond which became a ghost town by the 1950s.

Most of the town is now owned by the National Park Service. The Thurmond Depot was restored as a visitor center by the National Park Service in 1995. 

A picture of Thurmond Depot and railroad bridge, West Virginia.
Thurmond Depot and railroad bridge. Photo: NPS/Louise McLaughlin, public domain.

Grandview

The horseshoe bend in the New River from one of the overlooks along the Grandview Rim Trail.  Photo: NPS /Kevin Daley, public domain.
The horseshoe bend in the New River from one of the overlooks along the Grandview Rim Trail. Photo: NPS /Kevin Daley, public domain.

Grandview is a hiking and overlook area of the national park. Grandview was transferred to the National Park Service in 1990 from the  West Virginia State Park system. With its national park designation, 368 acres in Grandview will be opened up for hunting for the first time ever.

The view of New River from Main Overlook, Grandview, West Virginia.  Photo: NPS, Dave Bieri, public domain.
The view of New River from Main Overlook, Grandview, West Virginia. Photo: NPS, Dave Bieri, public domain.

Sandstone Falls 

This portion of the Park is home to the largest waterfall on the New River and a unique botanical ecosystem, which is caused by the river flowing north across the region.

A photo of New River in Sandstone Falls, West Virginia.
Sandstone falls. Photo: NPS /Leah Perkowski-Sisk

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