Thirty–nine years ago, what we locals now call “the old way” was still just the way. The prehistoric New River Gorge dissected Fayette County, West Virginia, forcing travelers of Route 19 to traverse a narrow and winding mountain road if they wanted to cross the gorge. Not only were the bends and landslides on the road treacherous – particularly in the winter, the drive was also hazardous due to the countless logging and coal trucks barreling up and down the mountains. Driving these roads thirty–nine years ago, 1976, America’s bicentennial, and the year before I was born was probably made even more dangerous due to drivers no longer looking at the road. Instead, they were looking up at the massive expanses of iron and concrete that were now filling the sky between the mountains. In less than a year, the New River Gorge Bridge would be finished, and the trip across the gorge – a trip that until then took nearly forty minutes – would take less than sixty seconds.
Growing up just a few miles from the Gorge, I, like most locals, often took this magnificent feat for granted. If I were traveling across the bridge, I’d typically look out across the expanse of mountains and down at the ancient New River below, but I didn’t put much thought into the bridge or how important it has been to this area of West Virginia. I attended several Bridge Days (we have a day in October each year where we close the bridge and allow pedestrians to walk the 3,030’ across the gorge and to parachute down to the river below) as a child and a few as an adult. As a schoolboy, I visited the New River Gorge Visitor Center and Overlook. But as an adult, I put little thought into visiting the overlook.
Just a few days ago, while trying to find something to do for an afternoon, I decided that it was time for my family and I to visit the overlook and to appreciate the magnitude of the bridge and the gorge below.
We arrived early and decided to start with the visitor center first. Inside, we found a variety of trinkets, books, and mementos available for those wishing to part with their cash. Just as we do with every other location we visit, we limited our purchases to a single magnet which will accompany the hundred or more other souvenir magnets on our refrigerator. After the money trap, the visitor center is a surprisingly nice place to visit. The Park Service has collected quite a few historic photos that capture the process of building the bridge, the history of us gorge–dwelling mountaineers, the coal and timber industry, and the natural wonders of the area. My favorite part of the visit was a collection of natural items found within the gorge. I watched as my children touched snake skin, a turtle’s shell, several types of wildlife tracks, and a variety of leaves. I have often complained that the skill I lack the most as a woodsman is tree and plant identification, but I am proud to say that I could identify nearly every leaf they had in the exhibit.
After leaving the visitor center, we walked to the first overlook, a site just a hundred or so yards from the building. The walk is easy, and the view is spectacular. From this viewpoint, you can look onto the bridge to watch the cars and tractor–trailers drive over the gorge and you can look down into the gorge itself. From this angle, you get a true appreciation of how high the bridge (and how low the gorge) actually is. The New River Gorge Bridge towers 876’ above the New River. To put that number in perspective, you could stand the Washington Monument, two Statues of Liberty, and three SmoothingIt.com bloggers under the bridge and still have nearly two feet above my head.
After the first overlook, we decided to traverse the walkway down to the second overlook. I found this adventure much more interesting. The wooden walkway carves around trees, cliffs, and massive stones down to a lower platform where visitors can look out and see the bridge from a side view. Following the boardwalk down 178 stairs is an easy and pleasant task, but the trip back up those 178 stairs is quite daunting. After my family and I stared off into the vastness of the gorge for a few minutes, I gathered the kids around me and explained, “there’s only two rules. First, you have to be courteous and respectful to the other visitors. Second…” I stepped toward the first stairway, “anyone who beats me to the top gets a dollar!” I bolted up the first stringer of stairs and looked back to see all four of the children running with all of their might. After the first twenty or thirty stairs, my legs fatigued, my lungs ached, and my throat grasped for air. I looked back to see that three of the four children had either given up or were far enough behind that I didn’t feel threatened by them, but my oldest daughter was trailing just behind me and had no intention of surrendering to her old man’s enthusiasm.
I reached the top and stumbled to a bench shaded from an oak tree’s branches. I felt miserable and fantastic in the same moment. The trip up the boardwalk is difficult, but enjoyable. And I didn’t have to pay out a single dollar bill!
We left the overlook in pursuit of other outdoor adventures, some of which I’ll probably detail here on SmoothingIt.com. We didn’t get an opportunity to drive the mountain pass below the bridge on this visit, but I’m sure that we will during our month–long adventure in the mountains. When we do, I’ll publish some pictures and a post about the adventure!
Overall, I consider the visitor center and overlook (or the Canyon Rim Visitor Center if you want to get technical) a great place to spend an afternoon. Adults and children alike will find it interesting, educational, and spectacular.
I recognize that the blogosphere has no geographic boundaries. I have followers from all over the United States and all over the world, but I’m curious whether any of you have had a chance to visit the New River Gorge Bridge. If so, I’d love to hear about it! If not, what are you waiting for?