West Virginia and the New River Gorge
By Bob Tagert
West Virginia and the New River Gorge
In December of last year we decided to get out of town for the Christmas holiday. We had an invitation from River Expeditions to stay at one of their luxury cabins for December 24 through the 26th near the New and Gauley Rivers and the town of Fayetteville, WV. Originally thinking this would be an opportunity to experience snow and the beauty of winter in the mountains, we dug out the winter gear, but as late December approached we realized the weather forecast was calling more for shorts and a sweater.
Leaving around 11 am on December 24, I headed down Interstate 95 toward Fredericksburg. I had convinced myself that all traffic had left days earlier…I was wrong. It took us two hours to cover the 47 miles from Alexandria to Fredericksburg. From Fredericksburg I took Route 3 west to Route 29 south to Interstate 64 near Charlottesville. I took I-64 west until it joined I-81 south and then I-64 west in Lexington, VA. As we exited I-81 we left the bulk of the traffic behind and entered the fog, which would be our companion until we reached our destination.
Upon our arrival at the River Expeditions compound we were still hampered by the fog. The compound was deserted and it took us at least half an hour to figure out where the cabin was located. We finally found it and indeed they had left the light on. We quickly unloaded and I cracked open a bottle of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whiskey and retired to the porch with a cigar. The temps were in the mid 60’s on this overcast night and the rocking chair made for a wonderful way to unwind from the drive.
The cabin was large with five bedrooms and two baths. The kitchen, dining area and living area were all open and very comfortable. On the back porch was a covered hot tub, which we put into action about an hour later. It was not what you would expect at the end of December in the mountains of West Virginia, but very pleasant all the same. The gas fireplace in the living area was nice but actually made the room very warm after being on for a while. We solved that problem by keeping the front door open.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning we decided to explore the compound in daylight. The rain had stopped but the humidity was still thick in the air. As we had determined the night before, we were the only souls around. Our cabin was at the bottom of a hill in a little hollow with three other identical cabins. Up the hill are a deserted camp store, showers, safari tents and smaller cabins. I am sure that in the summer months this is a bustling place with all of the activities that are available, however it was nice to have the place to ourselves for the next two days.
We decided to take a short drive to the town of Fayetteville, which is near the New River Gorge Bridge. Fayetteville was named after the Marquis de Lafayette, whose statue looks upon downtown Fayetteville from the Fayette County Courthouse lawn. Fayetteville, on the rim of the New River Gorge, sits above the lowest sulfur, highest-grade coal on earth, once mined extensively during the great coal boom of the early 1900’s. Fayetteville is also home to the New River Gorge Bridge, completed in 1977, and at the time was the world’s longest arch bridge.
The New River Gorge Bridge is a steel arch bridge 3,030 feet long. The roadway of the bridge is 876 feet above the New River. The New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world, and is currently the third highest in the United States. Construction began on the ridge in June 94, and completed on October 22,1977. At the time the bridge was West Virginia Department of highway’s largest project in its history, important both in terms of its overall cost, and that the Federal Government provided 70 percent of the funding. Construction gave a boost to the state and local economy and the completion improved transportation. The bridge cut the vehicle travel time from one side to the other from 45 minutes to 45 seconds.
The New River begins in North Carolina and flows “north” into southwestern Virginia and through a gorge in the Iron Mountains. After flowing north through Giles County, Virginia and the town of Narrows, the river crosses into West Virginia. Despite its name, the New River is considered by some geologists to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. The New River flows in a generally south-to-north course, at times cutting across the southwest –to-northeast- trending ridges and geological texture of the Appalachian Mountains, contrasting with the west-to-east flow of most other major rivers to the east and northeast in Virginia and North Carolina. This peculiar direction, together with the river’s many cuts through various erosion-resistant Appalachian rocks, reveals that the New River’s formation preceded uplift of the Appalachian Mountains.
Today, New River Gorge is renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities: whitewater rafting, canoeing, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, bird watching, camping, biking and just enjoying the solitude of the natural world. The lower gorge of the New River is a premier whitewater rafting location with imposing rapids ranging in difficulty from Class III to Class V, many of them obstructed by large boulders which necessitate maneuvering in very powerful currents, cross currents and hydraulics. The dams on the river schedule release of water on a regular basis, which can make the river a dangerous place to be for the inexperienced.
At the town of Gauley Bridge, the Gauley River flows into the New River and becomes the Kanawha River, which is a tributary of the Ohio River. Route 60 runs along the New River through many small towns, some left over from the coal boom days. We decided to take a drive along this beautiful and violent river. Deep in the gorge we were treated to waterfalls coming down the mountainsides and emptying into the river. The next minute we were climbing up the mountainside along hairpin switchbacks to the rim where the river was far below us. As we passed through small towns we could see small fishing huts on the other side of the river. As we entered the town of Boomer we noticed a bar called The New Place. As we pulled in we heard a voice a block away call out…I’ll be there in a minute! This was George Callison; the owner of the establishment…must have been a slow day. He drove up and unlocked the door for us. The next 45 minutes were spent in great conversation. In its hay day the coal operation near Boomer employed over 1200 people. Today it is fewer than 200. The New Place had been open for twelve years and was one of the few remaining bar/restaurants left in the valley. This place was a great find along the rolling river and hillside waterfalls.
When we left to come home on the 27th we decided to skip I-64 and I-81 and chose instead the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway, also know as “Corridor H.” This is a series of highways that cross through the middle of West Virginia. Traffic was fairly light and travel was easy. We worked our way northeast through the towns of Elkins, Thomas, Davis and through Canaan Valley, one of West Virginia’s premier resorts. Unfortunately there was no skiing as the temperature reached as high as 70 degrees on December 27 and you can’t even make snow in that kind of weather. Luckily, the temperature has now returned to normal and the ski season is in full swing.
Driving through the middle of West Virginia was not only more beautiful but it also took 2 hours off of our drive and there were no traffic backups until we reached the capital beltway. As spring approaches, think about a trip to West Virginia…it is Wild and Wonderful!