When we planned our anticipated route this year, West Virginia was not on the list. But Betsy’s maintenance took us back to South Carolina, quite a ways off our planned route. So, we decided to swing through WV again before heading into Kentucky. The drive from NC to WV enabled us to enjoy rugged mountain scenery, pass through two tunnels, and marvel at the wildflowers that still adorned the median areas of the byways.
West Virginia’s welcome sign greeted us with their tag line, setting the tone for our short stay here.
Yes, we were going to get wild and feel wonderful afterwards! But hold that thought for a moment.
First, let’s talk about New River, which is one of the big draws in West Virginia. Although named New River, it is not new at all. In fact, it’s the oldest river in North America. Then why call it “new” if it isn’t? The National Park Service has a better explanation, click here to get the real juice. But I will break it down into fast facts for easy reading:
- The New River is a 320-mile river that begins in North Carolina and continues to Virginia via West Virginia.
- The river is unique in that it flows from south to north, unlike most other area rivers which flow toward the Atlantic Ocean.
- It sculpts the longest and deepest gorge in the Appalachian Plateau, cutting through the mountains as it flows south to north.
- Geologists have speculated that the New is the oldest on the continent and among the two or three oldest in the world, right up there with the Nile.
- No one knows the name’s origin, some say explorers found a river “new” to them and indicated it on a map. The name stuck.
- The New River is froth with white water rapids, making rafting a thrilling activity for folks of all ages and abilities.
Our first wild outdoor fun involved us two old geezers joining a troup of Boy Scouts for a little rafting thrill ride in the white waters of the river. We chose the Upper New River course, since it was described as dotted with bouncy, smaller rapids and had some of the greatest swimming holes you’ll see anywhere.
At first we thought we’d be in a raft with a group of people, but when we were given an option to ride in an inflatable “ducky”, Steve took it. Little did he know that the option he chose was commonly referred to as a “divorce ducky”. The very sensitive steering of the ducky almost lived up to its name for us, as we had a hard time getting coordinated and ended up “spinning out” several times. These things were nothing like the canoes and kayaks we’ve used in the past, and we won’t be trying them again! We finally got our act together after a “crew change” at lunch time. Despite the sunburn and sore upper muscles the following day, we both agreed it was exciting and we had a blast!
After rafting the river, we worked the heights over it. Our other wild adventure was leisurely, but a bit knee-buckling and stomach-churning if you have a fear of heights as one of the guys on our tour did. Imagine walking on a catwalk 2 feet wide, over an 1815 foot arch, 3030 feet long and 876 feet high. Yep, that’s it – a bridge walk under the New River Gorge Bridge, and over the New River rapids below.
The New River Gorge Bridge has become an icon of West Virginia. When it was finished in 1977, it cut travel time across the gorge from “45 minutes to 45 seconds.” It is considered a work of structural art – the longest steel span in the western hemisphere, and the third highest in the United States. It was the longest single-arch bridge in the world for several years.
If you’re old enough, you might remember the GMC Jimmy car commercial where they dropped a GMC off a bridge on a bungee cord. Well, this is the bridge! Click here if you’d like to see the original commercial and some other interesting videos about the bridge.
On our bridge walk day, we were hooked to a harness system that kept us safely attached to the bridge, just in case an unexpected crosswind blew us over. As we mounted the catwalk, we could hear and feel the traffic rumbling overhead on US 19, but it was reduced somewhat as we approached the stronger section of the arch in the middle.
Our guide not only lead us on the catwalk, but he also shared the history and facts about the bridge and its construction features. He pointed out that one million nuts and bolts were used to hold the bridge together, not rivets. This monolithic structure is always moving, swaying side to side (in feet, not inches!), reacting to temperature changes and weather.
From the catwalk we had fabulous views of the gorge, the rafters running the river, climbers on the rock faces and a freight train that looked like a toy from our vantage point.
We lingered and soaked in the scenery and breathed the fresh West Virginia air as we moved along. It was a very leisurely walk with several stops, and it took about an hour and a half to get all the way across the span.
The New River Gorge Bridge weighs 88 million pounds, and is built of USS COR-TEN Steel, which oxidizes with age and gives the Bridge its dark russet color.
And who says there’s no wildlife on a bridge? Several Peregrine Falcons were eyeing us closely, wondering what the heck we were doing in their domain.
After the walk and to get another perspective of the bridge, we took a 3.2-mile hike on the Longpoint Trail. It took us to a rocky outcrop long known as Long Point. The trail meandered through a field and forest before descending through another area full of rhododendrons and wildflowers.
Mid-way through our hike, the sky burst open and drenched us. But it created a cool effect, for the steam fog displayed a lovely mountain cloudscape that covered the gorge. We waited for a while, and the clouds lifted so we could enjoy another great view of the bridge.
West Virginians get to celebrate a Bridge Day Festival here every October. On that day the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic, allowing folks to explore and enjoy sports from the structure. This includes BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth) jumping, rappelling and zip-lining from the bridge. Wow, would we love to see that! If you’d like to jump off an awesome bridge legally, check out the next Bridge Day scheduled for October 18, 2014 here.
West Virginia has the steepest fines for littering we’ve ever seen, but apparently the litterbugs can’t read the sign…
Our home base was not exactly perfect, even if we were the only ones there. For $40 per day we got only water and electric, and the sites were not even close to level. Steve’s review of River Expeditions is here.
West Virginia is definitely a good place to get wet, wild and feel wonderful!
Next up: Heading into the horse capital of the world!