- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — At the bottom of the 174 wooden steps from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center to the lookout on the New River Gorge, Jim Dill removes his straw hat, as if he has entered a holy place.

“This is breathtaking,” he says softly as his wife, Rita, begins snapping photos. A few minutes later, he adds: “I can’t look enough. I’ve got a sore neck, twisting my head one direction and then the other.”

Mr. Dill, of Caldwell, Idaho, is one of about 300,000 people who stop at the New River Gorge National River each year. Most are here to get a glimpse of the famous New River Gorge Bridge and the canyon below. The steel-arch span, the second-longest in the world (after the Lupu Bridge in Shanghai), is a sight in itself, made famous by jumpers who parachute from its edge at a festival held the third Saturday of every October — Oct. 21 this year.

In May, Roads & Bridges magazine ranked it one of the top 10 bridges of all time, in the company of such icons as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Though they don’t yet have the numbers to back up their theory, guides with the National Park Service swear that tourism has increased since the release last year of the West Virginia quarter — a coin bearing the image of the bridge.

There is more to the New River Gorge than the steel that stretches over it, and there is more to it than the blue-and-yellow rafts that ply the white water below the bridge, carrying 100,000 people a year down Class 4 rapids that qualify as the park’s most traveled “trail.”

There is the rest of the New, beyond the bridge.

The river begins at a spring in Blowing Rock, N.C., and winds north for 320 miles until it intersects with the Gauley. For 53 miles in West Virginia, it is in a national park encompassing 70,000 acres between Fayetteville and Hinton.

The park was created in part to preserve the legacy of coal-mining towns such as Kaymoor and Thurmond, though its valleys are free of the smoke that once belched from coke ovens and freight trains. It now offers recreation in many forms, from climbing and biking to fishing, birding, swimming and hunting.

Each of the four visitors centers has something different to offer.

Twelve miles south of Fayetteville, travelers turn off U.S. Route 19 into the village of Glen Jean, then onto a narrow road that winds for seven miles through a community of tin-roofed homes that give way to orange lilies exploding from the greenery. A few miles in, a mountain waterfall roars over a stream filled with boulders and lined with moss-covered trees.

Eventually, the road forces a choice: Left or right. History or nature.

Running parallel to the railroad tracks is a one-lane path that emerges from the trees and crosses a narrow rusting bridge into Thurmond, a boomtown turned ghost town.

In the early 1900s, Thurmond’s banks were among the wealthiest in the state and 15 passenger trains a day passed through on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. But the Great Depression triggered shutdowns and bank failures, and rail travel began to shift from the steam engines that served the C&O; to diesel locomotives that made jobs in the rail yard obsolete.

The proliferation of cars and roads cut deeper into train travel, and when the coal industry began to give out, there was little reason left to travel to Thurmond. Today, it’s a monument to a lost way of life.

A few miles away, at the opposite end of the fork, is the Dun Glen recreational area, a little-known stretch of the New with a wide, sandy beach.

Melissa Wilson, 32, of Thayer, is camping with husband Chris and three daughters, relishing the peace broken only by a train that passes four times a day.

“A lot of people ought to enjoy this,” she says. “It’s something else.”

“A lot of people just don’t know it’s there,” says her husband. “They just think that road out there is a road to nowhere.”

In a way, it is nowhere — but that’s what makes it so appealing, Mrs. Wilson says. And there is plenty to do.

“You can fish or swim or just sit here under the trees and camp. Where else do you get this kind of peace?” she says.

Still, there is more.

About 25 miles south of Glen Jean, just off Interstate 64, County Route 9 winds for five miles between rolling pastures and well-kept homes.

At the end is Grandview, a well-manicured section of the park with playgrounds and pavilions. The longest trail is three miles, and the walkway leading to the main overlook is level sandstone, somehow suggesting there is not much to see. Emerge from tree line, though, and it’s clear there is.

The Grandview Overlook is higher than the perch at Canyon Rim, about 1,400 feet above the New, with views that spread for miles and include the town of Quinnimont, where the first coal left the gorge in 1873. The only sounds are of the birds above and the rapids below.

Another 20 miles lead to the southernmost visitors center, Sandstone. The building has a light-colored roof to reflect sunlight, is insulated with recycled cellulose and has a geothermal heating system. Its highlight, though, is an intricate terrazzo tile floor map of the New River watershed — dark green for parkland, white for public land, gray for state parks and forests, and blue for the river.

Few tourists make it this far south, and Sandstone spokesman David Caldwell says many locals don’t realize it’s part of the park.

A few miles from here, the New drops over a rock shelf in a sheet of water some 1,500 feet wide. The National Park Service has built picnic areas, hiking trails and a boardwalk, making it one of the safest and most accessible spots on the river.

“There’s just as much nature here as in the other end of the park,” Mr. Caldwell says, “but here, you go slow enough to see it.”

• • •

For more information on New River Gorge National River, go to www.nps.gov/neri/home.htm or phone 304/465-0508. The bridge is on U.S. Route 19 near Fayetteville. Free admission. Open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The park has camping but no lodge. For hotels, motels, inns and cabins in nearby towns, go to www.visitfayettevillewv.com or phone 304/574-1500, or the New River Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.newrivercvb.com or 800/927-0263.

Bridge Day will be Oct. 21, when about 200,000 spectators will stand on the New River Gorge Bridge and watch about 450 BASE jumpers parachute over six hours from the single-arch span; go to www.bridgeday.info or www.officialbridgeday.com.

For white-water rafting on the New, Gauley and three other West Virginia rivers, go to www.visitwv.com/whitewaterlinks.cfm or call 304/465-5617.

The Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society runs fall foliage sightseeing trains through the gorge on the old C&O; rail line, from Huntington to Hinton; www.newrivertrain.com/nrt.shtml or 866/639-7487.

Tamarack, the state’s arts and crafts showcase, offers regional cuisine, live music and six resident artisans who work in observation studios with textiles, glass, metal, wood, pottery and jewelry. Free admission and parking; www.tamarackwv.com or 888/262-7225.

The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine offers tours by ex-miners of an old coal mine, April to November. Adults, $15; seniors, $13; children 4-12, $10; www.beckleymine.com or 304/256-1747.

National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” host Noah Adams, a Kentucky native, explored the New River in 1997, chronicling its route, history and characters in the paperback “Far Appalachia” (Delta).

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