Terra Galleria Photography

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve wrap up

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An eclectic wrap-up on New River Gorge National Park with more details about logistics (including a map with all locations in this series keyed), my timing, final impressions, the result of the image choice poll, and a bonus location.

Logistics

The closest major city is Charleston WV, 50 miles away, but I flew into Charlotte NC because of better flight connections. On the way to the park, I bought $60 of groceries, including 6 gallons of water. Besides gas and car rental, that was the extent of expenses for this trip.

There are so many entry points that the area is a bit of a maze. The Park Service cannot possibly have entrance stations everywhere, which is maybe why no entrance fees are charged. This moderate-sized park has no less than four visitor centers, however some are seasonal, and only the one near the New River Gorge Bridge was open. The staff provided excellent maps, including a comprehensive trail guide.

Few roads follow the inside of the gorge for any significant length. The most scenic are the Fayette Station Road under the New River Gorge Bridge and WV-7/20 to Sandstone Falls. Visiting multiple locations involves getting in and out of the park, driving slow rural side roads, often very narrow and winding. That was more time-consuming than I expected given the size of the park.

The only accommodations in the park consist of eight campgrounds near the river that are all primitive, with no water and vault toilets. The upside is that they are all first-come, first-serve, didn’t fill up while I was there, and were all free. The downside is that trains run all night in the gorge, and when you are in the bottom of the gorge in a tent, their sound resonates loudly. The very active railroad is part of the region’s history, but it is a big distraction in a national park. The nearby state parks, Babcock, Hawks Nest, and Bluestone, are surprisingly more developed, with facilities dating from the Civilian Conservation Corps, including lodging. Fayetteville is the closest town with amenities. The city of Beckley offers more accommodation options.

Bonus Location (11)

Only about 50,000 of the New River Gorge’s 70,000 acres are federal land, so there are private enclaves, towns, and even a state park within the boundaries. How does that work? Anything included in the boundaries is “authorized” to be part of the national park, but becomes so only after the land has been acquired.

Babcock State Park, one of the oldest parks in West Virginia, is located within the boundaries of New River Gorge National Preserve, but managed entirely independently. The well-developed 4,000-acre park features log cabin accommodations and campsites. Its Glade Creek grist mill from downstream is the most photographed scene in West Virginia, especially with autumn foliage. The front of the mill with the waterwheel faces east, but shadows make the light spotty in the early morning. I photographed it after the sun had disappeared behind hills in the afternoon. 

Timing

Since the beginning of this century, I’ve strived to visit new national parks shortly after they were (re) designated. In 2013, I showed up at Pinnacles at dawn on the first day it opened as a national park, and for White Sands, I made an effort to be inside at the very moment it became a national park. In early 2020, I had anticipated that New River Gorge National Park and Preserve would be established in the winter. Eastern parks are mostly woodlands that look stark when the trees are bare. When planning my April 2020 trip to Washington DC for NPCA’s Salute to the Parks, I had intended to drive to West Virginia to photograph New River Gorge “pre-emptively” so that I would have photographs with foliage on the trees in my archive, to complement the images resulting from the anticipated winter trip. However, that event got canceled, and the winter coincided with a peak of the virus.

I run two accounts on twitter. I’ve manually posted and interacted on my personal account @terragalleria since 2009. I started @treasured_lands in 2017 as a way to promote Treasured Lands and it is a semi-automated account. Comparing the follower counts of those two accounts is quite instructive. The followers of @terragalleria decisively thought that flying in December wasn’t worth the risk:

Maybe the followers of @treasured_lands don’t “know” me as well and therefore cared less about the risks to me and my family, which would explain that they were more equally split: My age bracket became eligible for the vaccine in April, but I waited two weeks for the California system (myturn.ca.gov) and my provider (Kaiser) to give me an appointment, to no avail, before finding one at the Santa Clara County website. I got the first dose of the vaccine on April 13. My estimate is that at the Levi’s Stadium, there were about 1,000 in the line in front of me. It stretched for 1.5 miles – I used a GPS app to track its length. The three weeks until the second dose, that was almost wait-free, and the two weeks of precautionary wait put my trip right in the middle of May.

In terms of timing with respect to seasons, I could have done worse. Snow covers the ground from at least mid-November to mid-March, and winter days range from mild to surprisingly frigid. A ranger told me that days with high temperatures 10F are not uncommon. Summers feel hot because of high humidity. This leaves spring and autumn as the most pleasant seasons. Even mid-May was a little warm for my taste, with high temperatures in the upper 80s. Wildflowers appear at the end of March, but trees leaf only in mid-April at the bottom of the canyon and early May at the rim. I was a bit early for rhododendrons and mountain laurel that peak at the end of May and early June, but there were already quite a few blooms. Spring is the wettest season, and because of that, chances of seeing an inversion with a sea of clouds are excellent. Autumn would be another great time to visit, with the color peaking around the third week of October.

Final image choices

Thank you again for voting and commenting on the Grandview image. I closed the poll after 100 answers – that’s the limit for the free polls on surveynuts.com, still much better than the 40 answers of surveymonkey.com.

Many mentioned the esthetics, mystery, and the special moment captured in A. That was narrowly edged by the more descriptive quality of C, and I was glad I dug C out, since C is preferred to D by a ratio of 3:1. It’s a difficult choice to make between A and C since both have merits.

For the back cover image, the Bridge works probably the best with the type thanks to its uniform sky, and has the advantage of immediately saying that New River Gorge is in the book. However, I am not totally sanguine about including an image with such a prominent structure, and I also prefer to show something that is not already included in the book. The Sandstone image has a composition similar to the one in the book, with the only difference being the time of day. That’s good, but since it was difficult to decide between A and C that have a vastly different character, I decided to use C for the main chapter image and A on the back cover – C was preferred to the dawn sea of clouds by a ratio of 3:1.

Final impressions

The third Saturday of October is Bridge Day, West Virginia’s largest single-day festival, during which thousands gather on the bridge to watch BASE jumpers. BASE jumping is generally illegal in all National Park Service units, and Bridge Day is the only time and place when it is legal. I didn’t know much about the New River Gorge besides Bridge Day. The park surprised me pleasantly. I thought it was one of the “best” among those designated in the 21st century. Gateway Arch is clearly the black sheep. Congaree, Pinnacles, and especially White Sands have beautiful natural features, but not much variety. Cuyahoga Valley and Indiana Dunes are semi-urban parks. They are all small parks – considering that most of White Sands is not visitable because of military activities. Only Great Sand Dunes, which shares with New River Gorge the distinction of being a National Park and Preserve in the continental U.S. compares if you count the preserve part. Besides parks in Alaska and parks in the continental U.S. that are islands, Great Sand Dunes is the 5th less visited park. New River Gorge is already the 22nd most visited national park. For good reason. I am looking forward to returning sometime in the autumn.

Part 4 of 4: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

4 Comments

  1. Karl says:

    Thanks for a very detailed chapter. I will definitely have to visit in the future! That maybe the only thing going for WV. There are still many southern states without National Parks !

  2. kouros Farro says:

    Thank you so much for the 4 part very detailed chapters about New River Gorge National Park. I have to say I missed visiting this location which seems to be not far away from Raleigh-Durham when I lived there for few years but have to definitely go back. Thank you for sharing these amazing pictures as well.

    • QT Luong says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Easy to miss locations in one’s backyard! Pinnacles is one hour and half away. I climbed there in the 1990s, but did not visit for photography until it became a national park in 2013.

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