Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Tuesday, 26 April 2022: New River Gorge National Park
The day dawned rainy and cool, as the forecast cold front came through. Luckily, my plans did not hinge on dry weather, so the rain served only as an inconvenience. The forecast did call for the rain to move out around noon.
For most visitors, mention of the New River Gorge calls up an image of the US19 bridge over the gorge. This bridge - the largest single-arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, the third highest bridge in North America, third longest single-arch bridge in the worlds, and 13th highest in the world - opened in 1977, soaring over the gorge, 876' above the river. Prior to this, people crossing the river had to spend 45 minutes driving narrow, winding roads with hairpin turns down one side and up the other; the new bridge cut that to 45 seconds.
New River Gorge was promoted from National River to National Park on 27 December 2020, the country's newest National Park (for now, at least). The area attracts extreme sports enthusiasts - rock climbers, kayakers, rafters, mountain bikers. On a morning like this, a non-extreme scenic drive appealed to me.
From the Visitor Center at the bridge, I caught the old highway (now a mostly one-way road) and followed it down into the gorge. Several pullouts feature interpretive signs, revealing the area history.
The discovery of coal brought interest to the rugged area. When the railroads laid tracks through the gorge, boom towns sprung up. Trains still use the tracks, but when steam power lost out to diesel engines, coal mining died and the towns withered away.
The road crosses under the bridge three times as it winds around, offering eyes-up views of the bridge. At the river, it crosses on a low bridge, then up the forested south side. I stopped at the river access point, just below Fayette Station Rapids, and watched crews practice water rescues.
I had more time to spend, so I drove a half hour south to Thurmond. From the NPS park site:
In 1910, the C & O [Railroad] operation at Thurmond was first in revenue receipts, producing more freight tonnage than Cincinnati, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia, combined. Freight was not the only key to this town’s success. Seventy-five thousand passengers passed through Thurmond in 1910, delighting in all it had to offer.
At its peak, Thurmond had two hotels, two banks, restaurants, clothing stores, a jewelry store, movie theater, several dry-good stores, and many business offices... Having many coal barons among its patrons, Thurmond's banks were the richest in the state.
Now Thurmond has four permanent residents. A handful of buildings - a former bank, post office, and other sites still sit by the tracks. The old depot now houses a seasonal Visitor Center. Trains still come through, including Amtrak's Cardinal Line. Surprisingly, Thurmond still provide a whistle stop there. Nearby locals who want to travel east to DC or NYC, or wet to Chicago, can reserve a spot on the Cardinal. If no reservation exists, the train will barrel through.
Having passed the morning, I looked forward to this park's unique adventure - the Bridge Walk. For 364 days a year, the highway bridge is closed to all but vehicular traffic - pedestrians need not apply. (The one exception is Bridge Day on the third Saturday in October.) However, there is a catwalk 25' below the road surface, part of the bridge infrastructure - and a company (bridgewalk.com, naturally) runs guided tours on the catwalk across the gorge. How could I pass that up?
April is NOT their high season. In the summer they may take over a hundred people per day on the walk - on Bridge Day that swells to thousands. Today I was the only person on the afternoon tour. Mattie would be my private guide.
First things first. Mattie handed me a safety harness and hooked me into it. At her suggestion, I bought a leash for my cell phone - don't want to drop that while I take photos!
At the bridge, she directed me to the trail leading down. Once under the span, she hooked my harness onto the cable running the length of the catwalk. "Let me warn you before we start - one last chance to back out," she teased me. "You hear all those cars and trucks passing overhead? The traffic is constant. Well, those cars and trucks cause the catwalk to vibrate. That freaks some people out."
"Yeah, I can see the handrail wobbling as we stand here. That's okay, I'll get used to it."
"As long as you're sure. Some people don't want to say anything, don't want to back out, so they'll go anyway. I had a visitor once who, when finished, said she could identify every thread in the jacket of the person in front of her. She was so terrified, she locked her eyes straight ahead, wouldn't look around or down."
Mattie admitted to being scared when she first took the walk, but quickly adjusted. "They've been giving tours since 2012. Of course, the catwalk has been here as long as the bridge, but it took them awhile to see the opportunity for tours."
We started across, watching the ground fall away sharply. She kept up a patter, talking about the bridge. "Do you see those gear-looking things at the end of that beam? It allows the bridge to expand and contract. You probably figured the bridge could sway side-to-side, but that lets it sway front-to-back."
I looked around as we moved forward. Girders got in the way of pristine views, but I could still see far along the river's course. In the raving below, I noticed the river crews still practicing their rescues.
At the midpoint - with us perched 851' above the river below - Mattie asked if I were comfortable sitting down. "People like to get a picture of themselves dangling their feet off the walk. If you'd like me to take your picture..." Done.
She then pointed out a large beam below us. "It's hollow. If you got in it, you could work your way to the bottom of the bridge." After a moment, she pointed a bit of graffiti above us: a spray-painted 'MATT 1999' on the girder. "Back in the day, before the gated off the catwalk, the walk was THE place to come. Kids would walk out here, climb onto the beams, and party. They used to say that everyone in the area had spent time on the beams. This graffiti is one of the last vestiges of that, since they gated it off in 2002."
Further down the catwalk, she talked about Bridge Day. "The population in this area is around 6,000 - on Bridge Day, up to 80,000 show up. One part of the bridge is used for high lines [similar to zip lines], one for rappelers, one for BASE jumpers. If you wanted to BASE jump but never had before - only experienced base jumpers are allowed - you can do a tandem jump, hooked up to an expert. It'll only cost you $1400!"
Of course, some people aren't satisfied with 'boring' extreme sports. "Some people want a bigger thrill than a simple bridge jump. For an extra challenge, they'll get catapulted 20' high off the bridge. They then have to deal with tumbling through the air while getting ready to deploy their parachute."
As we neared the far side, she talked about building the bridge. "A crew of only fifty people built this - any more, they would have gotten in each other's way. They say only one person died during construction, or maybe nobody did. They one person who died wasn't actually working on the bridge, but he fell from the scaffolding on the ground. So he may not count."
In her final comments, Mattie mentioned that this walk is truly unique. "There are twelve higher bridges in the world, and they also have catwalks - but none of them let people walk across on tours!"