Those evocative words—the opening lyrics of Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver—epitomizes West Virginia. We have long sought to visit there. Pasted on the side of our travel trailer is a map showing all the states we have been. There was a blank spot where West Virginia belongs. Finally, on our forth year of the Adventures of Grammi and Grampa, we crossed into West Virginia and set up camp.
We parked our camper at Little Beaver State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains located near the town of Beckley. Our campsite, under the cool shade of towering old trees, had the spaciousness of a state park campsite that I alluded to in our previous post. It was a tranquil setting where the sounds of nature filled the air. It could not have been a more perfect place. It was “almost heaven”.
Our main objective for coming to this part of the country was to visit New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Ironically named, New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. It flows for 360-miles northward cutting through a deep sandstone canyon. The national park, encompassing over 70,000 acres and stretching for 53-miles, serves to protect and preserve a portion of this unique slice of nature and its past culture.
Coal mining and logging brought the railroad to the gorge in the late 1800’s. It provided the only highway to dozens of towns that sprung up along its path. Now, the land, under the supervision of the U.S. Parks Department, is being reclaimed by the forest. Traces of the past—old ruins, foundations, abandoned roads, cemeteries—lie hidden in the trees.
The national park is divided into four main areas of interest—Canyon Rim, Thurmond Historic District, Grandview, and Sandstone. Each provides access to scenic sights and abundant recreational adventure. We first went to the visitor center at Canyon Rim where we spoke to a park ranger. He gave us maps and pamphlets, and suggested things for us to see and do. He helped us come up with an itinerary for the next four or five days.
We browsed the exhibit room filled with photographs and artifacts from generations past. We watched a short orientation film highlighting the area’s history and significance. We got our first glimpse of the gorge and the river from the back deck of the visitor center. The view was spectacular! As I gazed across the vast expanse of the forest where the river disappeared, I wondered how we were going to see all of its glory.
A short accessible walk from the visitor center descends to an observation deck for a view of the New River Gorge Bridge. The iconic image is one of the most photographed places in West Virginia. The bridge, so beloved by West Virginians, was featured on the state coin minted in 2005. It is truly a structural work of art.
The bridge is celebrated every year on the third Saturday in October when it is closed to motor vehicle traffic and opened to pedestrians. Bridge Day, as it is referred to, is a festival drawing thousands of people atop the 3,031 foot span. It features live music, food vendors, craft artisans, and extreme sport activities like BASE jumping and repelling. I doubt if we would ever go there during that crowded time, but it does sound like fun.
While we were there, I wanted to take a walk across the bridge’s catwalk. The Bridge Walk Tour is available from a private vender for a cost of $72.00. Safety equipment is provided and a harness must be worn to attach to an overhead cable as you walk across. I thought I had convinced Grammi it was safe and a worthwhile adventure. “The views will be spectacular”, I told her. However, when we arrived at the bridge, Grammi reneged, saying she didn’t think she could do it.
Before the New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, crossing the gorge was a tedious and lengthy trip down a steep, narrow road with sharp hairpin turns, crossing a one-way bridge, and winding back up the other side. Following the recommendation of the park ranger, we journeyed through time as we drove down the historic 100 year old Fayette Station Road.
Along the way, scenic pull outs reveal stunning views and a perspective of the New River Bridge from underneath. At the bottom, we stopped to put our feet in the river. We waved at rafters in inflatable boats as they floated pass en route to the next whitewater. The journey across the gorge took us about an hour.
Next we drove to Thurman Historic District. The last seven miles was on WV Route 25, a rough and narrow road with an occasional pull-off to allow for oncoming traffic to pass. A combination train trestle/oneway road took us over New River and into town.
Thurman, once one of the bigger towns along the C&O Railway, was the quintessential boomtown abuzz with activity. The train tracks served as the towns main street where shops, saloons, hotels, boarding houses, and other businesses did remarkably well. However, as the demand for coal laborers subsided, Thurmond, like many other towns along the railway, slowly became a ghost town.
Thurmond now serves as a link to the past. Foundations mark where businesses once stood. Those buildings left standing are being preserved. The old train station was restored as a park visitor center and furnished to recapture the days when a multitude of passenger trains came through town every day. A self-guided walking tour passes the old buildings with storyboards describing the history. We took the time to read all the information. It gave some insight to the town.
The next morning we went to Grandview, and a grand view it was. From the main overlook was a spectacular panoramic view of a sweeping bend in the river. Like a tree covered version of Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, the u-turn in the New River was spread out before us. Below, along the river, we were delighted to see a train chug along the tracks, adding to this incredible scene.
As we hiked along the Rim Trail, more viewpoints revealed a little different perspectives. All just as stunning as the last. I have come to a point in my journeys over the years where I have seen many extraordinary sights. I have discovered it is not only what you see, but how does it make you feel. Does the sight before you stir an emotion? Many times it does.
I have experienced the true meaning of a breathtaking view. The knees became weak. The body quivers. Words get stuck in the throat as it is difficult to take a breath. Grandview was not that, but it is a beautiful place and it brought me a nostalgic feeling as I thought about all the people that worked and lived in the gorge. For that reason, I shall remember looking across the New River Gorge.
Along the trail we came across a picnic area and playground where we stopped to drink some water and eat a snack. With just the two of us there, Grammi climbed on the swing. She swung to and fro as she moved in the swing. I was happy to see she is feeling better.
We still have four more days at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. What I have shared so far is just the first couple of days. Not all of the days we have left will be packed with as much adventure as the last couple, but there will still be much to share. However, this post is getting lengthy. I will leave the rest of the story for the next post.
So until then…Happy Days and Safe Travels.