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New River Gorge bridge
Skipping rocks in the New River below the New River Gorge Bridge.

New River Gorge is Gonna Get You

While many outdoor lovers trek to the dramatic landscapes of the western U.S., this Arizona family has become enamored with the lush greenery, ample water and cooler temps of Appalachia. Established as a National River in 1978 it was upgraded to a National Park and Preserve in 2020. The New River Gorge and nearby Fayette County is the perfect stop to discover the history, culture, adventure and stunning scenery of West Virginia

Why aren’t the Appalachians taller? (Science Alert)

Less majestic than the Rocky Mountains in the western US, the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia are actually one of the oldest ranges in the world. Created by the convergence of the North American and African plates during the formation of the ancient landmass Pangaea, rocks within the range are over ONE BILLION years old. When Pangaea separated so did the mountains and sections of the range actually exist in Arkansas, Morrocco and Scotland! (Check out this NPS page for a really great explanation.) Millions of years of erosion then whittled the Appalachians’ once craggy peaks into lush rolling hills teaming with life.

appalachain mountains labeled on pangaea
Appalachian Mountains were created when African Plate slammed into the North American Plate over 4000 million years ago. (Photo from NPS)

Why’s this canyon so special? (a little more science)

In an ironic naming twist, the New River Gorge one of the oldest canyons in the world. First carved by the ancient Teays river over 340 million years ago, the land has been continually eroded into the wide gorge by waters that flow north into the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River en route to the Gulf of Mexico. At over half mile wide and 1,000ft deep and housing a seam of coal, the gorge was both a boundary and artery during Industrial Revolution.

National park sites along pangaea boundary
The mountains formed by Pangaea actually extend all the way to Texas with multiple NPS sites along the way. (Photo credit NPS)

Choosing our adventure at Canyon View Visitor Center

Since we stayed at The Outpost near the northern entrance to the park, we only visited the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. Boasting ample parking and informative displays, we were able to complete the kids’ Junior Ranger booklets and glean intel about the best hikes, drives and vistas in the park. With over 100 miles of trails, it was hard to choose. So we opted to take a drive to the bottom of the gorge then visit Nuttallburg with our adventure pup Arlo.

junior ranger new river gorge
Kids being sworn in a Junior Rangers at New River Gorge NP.

Meandering down Fayette Station Road

When those huge seams of coal were unearthed in the mid 1800s, mining towns sprung up roughly every mile along the gorge. Originally connected by muddy cart paths and ferries across the river, populations boomed after the C&O Railroad’s completion in 1873 and again after Fayette Station bridge finally spanned the river for the first time in 1889.

dog on rail tracks
Completion of the railroad led to a population boom as mining company towns popped up through the Gorge.

From the Canyon Visitor’s Center, the road weaves under the more famous and recent New River Gorge Bridge twice before delivering passengers to the abandoned Fayette Station. Home to a busy rafting take-out, this is the best place to view the magnitude of the New River Gorge Bridge above.

fayette station bridge
We enjoyed watching the rafters clear their final rapids past the Fayette Station Bridge as they approached the takeout near a great swimming hole under the New River Gorge Bridge.

Marveling at the New River Gorge Bridge

The Fayette Station bridge was a fantastic time saver for those living in the bottom of the gorge. But the switchback roads leading down the canyon and back up again were still a 45-minute trip. Holding the record as the world’s longest single span bridge for 23 years after its construction in 1977, it cut travel time across the gorge down to 2 minutes. We took it in from all angles, driving across, winding beside and skipping rocks in the river below.

New River Gorge bridge
Skipping rocks in the New River below the New River Gorge Bridge.

Due to my lack of interest in heights, we didn’t partake in the walkway under the bridge. But I do enjoy spying others’ pics from the striking viewpoint and sharing that the experience exists through New River Gorge Bridgewalk.

under new river gorge bridge
View from beneath the New River Gorge Bridge.

Don’t get spooked at Nuttallburg

Remember that coal I mentioned earlier? During the Industrial Revolution, coal provided 75% of the nation’s energy. With factories sprouting up in every major city, the relatively smokeless seam that runs through the gorge was in high demand. Built for miners and in operation for over 80 years, Nuttalburg is a fantastic model of the company towns that prevailed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nuttallburg tracks
Tracks, one filled with coal and passengers, now disappear into the forest.

As the highway to Nuttallburg shrunk to a single lane of dirt, we felt a bit like Alice slipping into an abandoned Wonderland. Without markers along the paths, ruins are unrecognizable. The largest home in town, Taylor House, is engulfed by vines near the parking lot. Once the only entrance, the train station has been completely erased by nature.

nuttallburg train station
The train station would be indistinguishable without this sign.

Discover Henry Ford’s contributions to the site

The iconic tipple plays peek-a-boo from the parking lot while walking the 1.5mi trail through town. Once climbing halfway up the hillside to the coal mine above, its construction massively reduced time and injuries from the arduous path to the mine. After purchasing the mine in 1920 to control his entire production system, Henry Ford installed the massive coal tipple. It rapidly conveyed coal down the mountainside, then sorted and graded it before loading train cars below.

Always after efficiency, Ford also installed coke ovens at Nuttallburg which half-melted the coal in the absence of oxygen. As the second most important ingredient in steel behind iron ore, producing coke at the mine site expedited its delivery to foundries in the north. Like spooky buried beehives beside the tipple, the coke ovens whisper the backbreaking and redundant tale of those who once worked here.

At the far end of the ovens lies the company store. Once stocked with goods, most stores kept “tabs” only accepted company “notes” as payment. Perpetually indebted to the owner and unable to earn real money, many nineteenth century workers languished in towns like this. No homes remain, but the tiny foundations beside coal littered paths don’t paint a very bright picture of life as a miner.

nuttallburg store
It’s hard to believe this empty shell was once the bustling center of the town’s economy.

By our late afternoon visit, the kids and pup were too tired to climb the steep switchbacks of the 0.8mi Conveyor trail to the mine entrance, so add that to the list of reasons to return. The mine can also be reached on the 0.7mi Headhouse Trail at the top of the canyon. But it was raining when we got to the top, so we headed back to camp.

Missed Connections

One of my great regrets from our 2022 Summer Road trip was not allotting more time at this fabulous park. Covering over 53 miles of the New River, the park boasts over 100 miles of hiking trails leading to waterfalls, historic towns and stunning outlooks. When we return, here are some of the things we’ll be sure to check out:

  • Thurmond Historic District appears to be a much more intact town than Nuttallburg with a Depot Museum and active Amtrak station being open in the summer.
  • Sandstone Visitor Center lies at the southern end of the park along I64 where the fully accessible Sandstone Falls can be enjoyed by anyone.
  • Kaymoor Miners Trailhead, adjacent to Arrowhead Trails, is allegedly the most intense hike in the park. But who’s counting steps when you can see amazing historical relics?
  • Grandview Visitor Center and the nearby Castle Rock trail boasts fabulous view and exposed coal seams.
Nuttallburg tipple
Can’t miss a chance for an epic photo op with an iconic relic.

Eternally on the hunt for the science in every adventure.

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