New River Gorge

Your Guide To West Virginia: National Parks, Scenic Trails + More

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LOOKING TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA’S NATIONAL PARKS AND SCENIC TRAILS?

Looking for a state with an abundance of outdoor adventures? West Virginia is a fantastic place to explore the wilderness with its 41 state and national parks. No matter your type of adventure, West Virginia has something for everyone.

West Virginia’s National Parks, Scenic Trails and Recreation Areas: An Overview

West Virginia is known for its rugged landscape due to its hilly and mountainous terrain. Visiting one of West Virginia’s eight national parks is a perfect way to see this beautiful state. Here are the places we’ll go over in this blog post:

  • New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
  • Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park
  • Gauley River National Recreation Area
  • Appalachian National Scenic Trail
  • Lewis and Clark National Scenic Trail
  • Bluestone National Scenic River
  • Chesapeake Bay National Watershed

West Virginia National Parks

My own design of the national parks in West Virginia
Key note for the picture above of West Virginias national parks

There are six national parks in West Virginia. These include Harpers Ferry, Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Appalachian Trail, New River Gorge, Bluestone River, and Gauley River. Additionally, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the Lewis and Clark Trail pass through West Virginia, although are not technically counted as state-specific national parks.

Below you can find information on each of these sites.

1. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

New River Gorge

As one of the most popular attractions in West Virginia, New River Gorge offers plenty of scenic views and outdoor recreation activities. The New River is a rough, whitewater river that glides through West Virginia’s profound canyons. Contrary to its name, New River is one of the oldest rivers in North America.

This West Virginia National Park features over 700,000 acres of land surrounding the river, giving you plenty to see and do during your visit. This park is open 24 hours a day, year-round, making it a great destination to visit at any point of the year. As a bonus, it is completely free to enter! 

Things To Do

New River Gorge National Park is 53 miles long, so before you start exploring, pick up a map at one of the visitor centers. The three operating visitor centers can also provide you with helpful information on outdoor activities that are happening in the park.

Whitewater Rafting

How cool would it be to go whitewater rafting on one of the oldest rivers on the continent? You have the option to go on your own or take a tour with a licensed outfitter. The rafting season runs from April to October, and there are many different access points to begin your trip.

The river contains two very different sections. The upper and southern part of the river consists of big pools of water with calmer rapids. The lower and northern section of the river has extremely difficult rapids only to be used by expert and advanced rafters.

Whitewater rafting tours include trained guides who provide instructions, equipment, transportation, and meals. Choose a commercial outfitter to plan your next river adventure. Trips are based on your personal preference for level of difficulty, duration, and more.

Climbing

This national park has quickly become one of the most popular climbing spots in the United States, featuring over 1,400 established rock climbs. Climb up solid sandstone cliffs ranging from 30 to 120 feet in height. The majority of these climbs are considered advanced, so make sure that you are well-equipped for them if you choose to go.

Climbing is available year-round but the recommended times to climb are from late April to mid-June and mid-September to late October. Make sure to check out the regulations and guidelines before your next climb.

Hiking in West Virginia
Hiking

There are close to 100 miles of trails in New River Gorge with options for all fitness levels. Individual trails range from ¼ mile to 7 miles, although you can combine trails to extend the distance.

Generally speaking, there are seven hiking areas: 

  • Trails of Lansing and Fayetteville
  • Trails of Nuttallburg
  • Arrowhead Trails 
  • Trails of Cunard, Thurmond, and Stone Cliff
  • Trails of Grandview
  • Trails of Glade Creek
  • Trails of Brooks and Sandstone

Make sure that you follow the park’s regulations, stay off private property, and practice Leave No Trace principles.

Biking

This national park is one of the best places for mountain biking in the eastern United States. Take to the trails on your own or sign up for a bike tour through different bike shops or outfitters in the area.

The Arrowhead trails offer 12.8 miles of trails ranging from easy to moderate in difficulty. They include Clovis, Adena, Dalton, and LeCroy trails. There are other biking trails available in the park that double as hiking trails.

Currently, electronic bikes are only allowed on Stonecliff Trail. Visitors can also use their e-bikes on roads for motor vehicles.

Fishing

New River Gorge has diverse fish species, including walleye, bass, crappie, muskellunge, carp, bluegill, and catfish. Spring and Fall are the most opportune times to catch fish in the river due to the transition of water temperature. There are multiple public river access points within the park.

Make sure to buy a West Virginia year-long or three-day fishing license at a sports or bait shop before you go. Check out the National Park Service website for more fishing regulations at New River Gorge.

Cool camping spot in West Virginia
Camping

There is a whopping total of nine different camping areas in New River Gorge, although it is important to note that they are all backcountry sites. All campsites are located along the river and there is no access to water or hookups, and restroom access is limited.

All camping is free, and they are first-come-first-serve basis because reservations are not accepted. Campers can stay at their site consecutively for up to two weeks. The camping areas are 

  • Stone Cliff Beach
  • Army Camp
  • Grandview Sandbar
  • Glade Creek 
  • War Ridge / Backus Mountain
  • Meadow Creek
  • Thayer
  • Gauley Tailwaters
  • Brooklyn

Each site can hold two vehicles, two tents, and up to eight people. Quiet hours are from 10 PM to 6 AM, and dogs must stay on their leash. You can find more regulations on camping here.


2. Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

Harpers Ferry is a quaint town with gorgeous views and a ton of civil war history. There are numerous historical attractions, hole-in-the-wall shops, and breathtaking hiking trails in this small town. This West Virginia National Historical Park is great for both nature and history lovers.

Harpers Ferry wilderness

Things To Do

Harpers Ferry is located in a prime location where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. This town borders both Virginia and Maryland and could serve well as a stopping point on a road trip throughout the northeast. Explore the numerous points of interest, or adventure through the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains during your visit.

Check Out Downtown

There are plenty of historical museums, exhibits, and attractions that line the small downtown of Harpers Ferry. Stroll the streets and take in the teachings that the town has to offer. Some of the main attractions are

  • John Browns Museum & Fort
  • Storer College & The Niagara Movement
  • Black Voices: African American History
  • Industry Museum
  • The 19th-century landscape of the town museums
  • Master Amorers Quarters 
  • Civil War Museum
  • … and so much more!

Additionally, you can check out points of interest in the area that give you a taste of the surrounding wilderness at… 

  • The Point – where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet
  • Jefferson Rock – Climb 200 stone steps up to this vantage point overlooking the Shenandoah River 
  • The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath – cross the pedestrian footbridge to walk along the Potomac
Downtown Harpers Ferry at the train station
Hiking

If you’re the type of person who would rather be surrounded by nature than strolling through a town, Harpers Ferry has plenty of options for you too! The park has over 20 miles of hiking trails for all experience levels. Many of these trails also have exhibits on the path, so you’ll still get access to the history of the area.

Trails vary from a quarter mile along the river to eight miles in the mountains. There are options to extend the distance as well with the C&O towpath and Appalachian Trail nearby.

For more information on trail specifics, make sure to check out my post on the 11 best hiking trails in Harpers Ferry! The post also provides helpful information on parking, the cost of entering, and more.

Other Outdoor Recreation Activities

Harpers Ferry also offers opportunities for bikers and climbers!

Bicycling is allowed in the town of Harpers Ferry but is prohibited on the trails and on the road from the visitor’s center into town. The free shuttle buses have bike racks available for use. There are bike racks located in Lower Town for storing your bike when needed.

The best place to bike is the C&O canal towpath. Make sure to dismount and walk your bike across the pedestrian footbridge for the safety of other visitors.

Climbing regulations vary from Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, so make sure to do your research beforehand. Climbing in West Virginia in Harpers Ferry is permitted, excluding Jefferson Rock, Shenandoah Street Cliffs, and along Shenandoah Street in the lower town.


3. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park

The C and O Canal Historic Park in West Virginia National Park

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park is a canal that travels through Washington DC, Maryland, and West Virginia. In the early stages of the US transportation history, the canal operated for almost 100 years transporting coal, lumber, and agricultural materials. It is 184.5 miles long in total and now operates as a park for people to appreciate its history.

This towpath runs along the border of West Virginia and Maryland and can be accessed at multiple different mileposts. Enjoy the trail along the river by hiking, fishing, biking, or horseback riding. There are plenty of picnic areas along the way, too!

The towpath is open every day of the year from sunrise to sunset.

Looking for a cool place to stay near the northern part of the trail? Check out my post on the Blackwater Falls State Park Cabin Rentals!


4. Gauley River National Recreation Area

Gauley River WV

It’s obvious that West Virginia isn’t short on mountain views and grand rivers, but the Gauley River National Recreation Area is one for the books. This free-flowing river is 25 miles long and has some of the best rapids for white water boating on the East Coast.

There are no park facilities, so make sure to stock up on water and food and use a restroom before you visit. If you’re looking for where to stay, you can find lodging and camping in the nearby town of Summersville or at Gauley Tailwaters.

This West Virginia National Park is open year-round, though the boating season is from early September to mid-October. It is free to enter.

Things To Do

What activities come to mind when you think of a river? In Gauley River, there are two extremely popular outdoor adventures: whitewater boating and fishing!

Whitewater Boating

Whitewater boating is extremely popular in the Gauley River. The river drops more than 668 feet along its 25 miles and features more than 100 rapids. You are able to bring your own whitewater boat or schedule a trip through a local outfitter.

The upper part of the river is intense, so the minimum age is 16, and it’s recommended that you’re experienced. The lower part of the river accepts children ages 12 and up and isn’t as dangerous.

Fishing

Another popular outdoor activity is fishing in the Gauley River. You can catch smallmouth bass, trout, muskellunge, and walleye in this river. The best time to fish is in the morning or evening in the Spring or Fall seasons.

Public access points to fish in the recreation area include Masons Branch, Woods Ferry, and Gauley Tailwaters. This river follows general catch and release protocols. Make sure to check into regulations and pay for a West Virginia fishing license before your trip!


5. Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Appalachian Trail in WV

The Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles long that weaves through the entirety of the Appalachian Mountains. It was built by private citizens in the 1920s and is now operated by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and many other agencies.

This trail goes through fourteen different states and is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. The trail doesn’t currently have a visitors center, but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia!

Check out the trail in the northeast or south side of West Virginia.


6. Lewis and Clark National Scenic Trail

Lewis and Clark Trail

Want to walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark as they discovered America? This trail covers almost 5,000 miles and weaves through 16 states and more than 60 tribal nations. It begins in Pittsburg and goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

There is one visitor center in Williamsburg, West Virginia: the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. It consists of 22 islands and four mainland tracts dedicated to protecting wildlife in the floodplain of the Ohio River. Most of this wildlife refuge is located in West Virginia, but there are four other refuge islands in Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Some of the main historical attractions and places on this trail are 

  • The Ohio River 
  • Wheeling, WV 
  • Moundsville, WV 
  • Firemans Park 
  • Wellsburg, WV

Find more information on the history of these locations here.


7. Bluestone National Scenic River

Bluestone River WV

Want to check out one of West Virginia’s southern national parks? Check out Bluestone National Scenic River. This scenic river is named after its great blue limestone riverbed. The rocky 1,000-year-old gorge sculpted by this magnificent river is a sight to behold.

This West Virginia national park is open 24 hours a day year-round. There are two entrance points: Bluestone State Park and the Lilly townsite. You can also access the park seasonally from Pipestone Resort State Park.

Camping is not allowed, however, you can find lodging in the nearby Bluestone or Pipestem State Park. The nearest restaurant is located in Pipestem State Park near the base of the tram or in the lodge.

One of the best things to do in West Virginias national parks is to go hiking!

Things To Do

Known for its diverse wildlife and biome, this 10.5-mile protected area of the river is an outdoor sanctuary for its visitors. Bluestone National Scenic River is one of the most calming West Virginia National Parks.

Hiking

The Bluestone scenic river features a 9.5-mile moderate hiking trail that follows an ancient riverbank road. This trail also accesses the Bluestone State Park campground and connects to additional trails in Pipestem State Park.

Canoeing

Unlike many other rivers in West Virginia, Bluestone is a calm river, perfect for solitude. Canoeing is only operable at prime times in the year, as the water level is often too low for proper paddling. You can call 304-466-0156 for river level information – The river should measure between four and seven feet deep on the Pipestem gauge.

Hunting and Fishing

The calm waters of the Bluestone River make it a favorable place for anglers. The river hosts rock bass, smallmouth bass, and bluegill.

The diversity of wildlife also makes Bluestone a great area for hunting. Up to 70% of parklands are open for hunting and trapping. Keep in mind that all deer with antlers must have a minimum of 14-inch outside antler spread.

Even if you aren’t hunting, make sure to wear orange blaze to stay protected during hunting season in Bluestone.  Like any other state, you’ll need to get a West Virginia fishing and hunting license and check the regulations before you go.


8. Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Cacapon River WV

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed spreads across six different states. It is a drainage basin of creeks, rivers, and streams that run into a giant pool. It runs along the west side of West Virginia, and it offers plenty of outdoor recreation activities in the area.

The Chesapeake Gateway Network has key locations spread out across the watershed that provide opportunities for people to learn and help conserve the watershed. There is an abundance of attractions in the gateway network – recreational sites, museums, trails, refuges, orientation facilities, and more.

Since the watershed is huge, there are hundreds of adventures awaiting you. Some of the places that you can explore the watershed in West Virginia are

  • Cacapon State Park 
  • Lost River State Park
  • Berkeley Springs State Park
  • Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area
  • Dans Mountain Wildlife Management Area
  • …and so many more!

Choose your adventure between fishing, swimming, boating, paddling, geocaching, biking, hiking, or horseback riding. It is yours to explore!


About West Virginia

Now that we’ve dove deep into the specifics of each national park in West Virginia, let’s talk a little bit about the state itself.

West Virginia Map

History of West Virginia

West Virginia was one of the first two states that formed during the American Civil War – splitting from Virginia in 1863. The land was originally part of the British Virginia Colony and the western side of Virginia.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the state’s population grew as citizens sought out job opportunities in the coal and lodging industries. However, during the mid-20th century, the population began to decline when its inhabitants sought work elsewhere.

The entirety of West Virginia’s history has been affected largely by its terrain and natural resources, which have driven the state’s economy and brought tourists to the area.

Location and Landscape

West Virginia, also known as the “Mountain State,” is located in the central-eastern part of the United States. It borders Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. It is ranked the third most-forested state.

This naturally beautiful state has three landscape provinces: the Alleghany plateau, the Alleghany Mountains, and the Ridge of Valley province. It seems that no matter where you are in West Virginia, you won’t be short on breathtaking views.


Planning Your Visit to West Virginia

There are a few things to consider when you plan your visit to West Virginia. Similar to other travel destinations, you’ll want to think about the duration, season, and target location of your trip.

Windy roads in West Virginia

Weather and Season

Because of its central eastern location, West Virginia has moderately cold winters and hot and humid summers. When exploring the outdoors, you’ll want to make sure that you prepare for what weather the season brings. Bringing adequate gear will make your trip more comfortable and enjoyable.

No matter the season, you’ll want to make sure you have proper shoes for exploring West Virginia’s outdoor scenery. The state is very hilly, so flip-flops or open-toed shoes just won’t do. Another great rule of thumb is to pack layers for temperature changes between the night and day.

Make sure that you look into the weather before your trip. Many of the activities in the area are season-dependent, so you’ll want to do some preparation beforehand. No matter where you end up, you can find fun things to do at any of these eight West Virginia national parks!

Getting Around West Virginia

Ranked as the tenth smallest state in the United States, it doesn’t take an annoyingly long time to drive through West Virginia. It only takes about three hours to drive east to west, and not much longer driving from top to bottom.

This makes exploring West Virginia’s national parks extremely accessible, depending on how long you’ll be visiting. Keep in mind that despite the short driving time, the roads are sometimes narrow and hilly due to the mountainous terrain. The best way to get around the state is by car.

If you’re flying in, book your rental car with Rentalcars.com here!


Sunset in Harpers Ferry

RECAP: West Virginia National Parks, Historic Sites + More

There you have it! All of West Virginia’s National Parks. Whether you want to explore the state’s history, mountaintops, or river views, you have plenty to choose from when you go.

Happy trails!