Hidden away in the COVID-19 stimulus package passed by Congress on Dec. 27, 2020, was a pleasing bit of “pork” that resulted in the designation of the nation’s 63rd and newest national park — New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

Situated in southeastern West Virginia, this rugged 73,000 acre stretch of Appalachian canyon land, coursed by the roaring New, Gauley and Bluestone rivers, has long been a world-class hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and whitewater rafting destination. It was recognized as far back as 1978 as a national river based on its natural beauty and recreational features.

The upgrade to national park status will help elevate the gorge to a more road-trip worthy destination for adventure seeking visitors from across the country and it will provide a boost for local businesses — including dozens of tour companies and trip outfitters.

“Redesignation of the national river to a national park and preserve will shine a brighter light on West Virginia and all that it has to offer, and provides another catalyst for our tourism industry and local businesses,” said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. She originally proposed a park bill in 2019 along with her fellow senator from the state, Sen. Joe Manchin, who added “this designation will increase the international recognition by highlighting West Virginia’s world-class beauty and resources.”

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve becomes

one of just a half-dozen dual-status or “combo parks” — those that include both park and preserve. The park proper measures 7,021 acres around the heart of the gorge, with the remaining 65,165 acres classified as a natural preserve, making it accessible to backcountry hunting and fishing. The park and preserve includes three locations that were already managed by the National Park Service (NPS) — the Gorge itself, the Gauley National Recreation Area and the Bluestone National Scenic River.

Known simply as “The New” by locals and frequent visitors, the Gorge features 53 miles of free-flowing whitewater, including numerous Class IV and V rapids. One of the most popular stretches is the “Lower New,” a 13-mile gauntlet of wild Class V rapids that is often cited as the most challenging whitewater in the eastern U.S. Seasoned outfitters like Adventures on the Gorge run a variety of rafting trips ranging from wild to mild.

It’s not all about whitewater at the Gorge. Rock climbers flock to the area, particularly in the spring and fall, to take on the park’s more than 1,400 established routes on hard sandstone walls and cliffs that reach up to 1,000 feet in some areas. There are numerous other hiking and mountain biking trails as well.

The New River Climbing School hosts daily climbing and rappelling courses perfect for beginners and intermediate climbers. Joining the long list of things to do in the park are some relatively new adventure activities such as ziplining and stand-up paddle boarding.

The national park designation also is a signal that West Virginia is moving away from its one-time prominence as a coal mining state and towards one with increasing emphasis on conservation and recreation. The outdoor recreation industry in West Virginia is currently a $9 billion industry that supports more than 91,000 jobs. Sens. Manchin and Capito predict that making New River Gorge a national park could boost visitation by 20%.

www.nps.gov/neri, 304-465-0508