Hidden Gem Hikes within America’s Newest National Park
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve has plenty of iconic trails, but it’s also got some secret routes that you must explore.
While a few overlook trails dominate the New River Gorge Instagram feed, there are many lesser-known hidden gems perfect for a day on the trail. So if you prefer to forge off the beaten path, away from the crowds, you can still find the same stunning level of scenery in more secluded parts of the park.
Here’s where to find the rarer-shared views that are every bit as jaw-dropping as the most trafficked stops:
Sandstone Falls Overlook
As the largest waterfall on the New River, Sandstone Falls is a beautiful sight to see. The waterfall spans 1500 feet across with falls that drop from 10 to 25 feet. It is divided by islands that allow you to get up close and personal. Take one of these three trails to discover beauty like no other.
Sandstone Falls Boardwalk – Following this ¼-mile, handicap-accessible boardwalk will lead to both islands and observation decks, which offer stunning views of the falls and access to fishing areas.
Island Loop Trail – This easy, ½ mile trail loops around the largest island below the falls. On this trail, hikers can view the natural succession as the old fields, which were once farmed, grazed and timbered, transition back to the forest.
Big Branch Trail – This more difficult trail creates a two-mile loop and passes several waterfalls along the way. Also, on this trail, hikers will be treated to incredible views of the gorge as well as pass by beautiful and vibrant wildflowers.
Glade Creek: New River to Pinch Creek
Take this 12-mile out-and-back route for spectacular views, wildflowers and stunning water features. The Glade Creek Trail offers a very moderate elevation change, but it’s quite lengthy. It can also be a muddy trail, so bring sturdy, waterproof hiking boots. During these summer months, make time to stop at one of the swimming holes along the way, and try at least one rope swing. Bring a picnic lunch to sit by one of the waterfalls and spend some time enjoying the beauty of the trail. As you make your way down, take notice of the changing color of the sandstone. These various shades of brown certainly mimic the simplistic beauty of a watercolor painting.
You can see the waterfalls of Fern Creek from the New River Gorge Bridge when the leaves are off the trees, but you can rarely get a glimpse up close because of the tricky nature of the trails. The trailhead to Fern Creek is about 0.5-miles away from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, near a pullout on the right-hand side of the road, facing downhill. Keep an eye out for arrows scratched into the cliff, which will point you in the right direction for the first waterfall.
The general rule for staying on this path, like most paths in New River Gorge, is to hug the cliffs. There is a steep downhill at a 45-degree angle, but the reward is the breathtaking Middle Falls. Back on the slightly more beaten path, continue for another 0.2 miles and you’ll reach the natural stone amphitheater, with the High Drama waterfall crashing down in its center. It’s truly a sight to behold.
The Stairs (Hike to Kaymoor Bottom)
Don’t let this hike’s short 2-mile distance fool you: this trail will make you sweat. Within this short distance, you’ll go down 821 stairs—equaling about 900 feet—and then climb right back up. However, hiking this trail isn’t just a great way to get your steps in for the day. Like most of West Virginia, this trail is full of history— a lot of it, of course, at the bottom!
Below the coal tipple at the foot of the staircase, you can see full coal carts and train tracks from the now-closed Kaymoor Mine. Don’t expend too much energy playing explorer down here—and don’t walk on top or inside the ovens, because they are old and unstable— because you still have to trek back up those 800+ wooden steps.
Craig Branch Falls
Starting from the same area as the steps on the Kaymoor Miners Trail, move downhill on some rock steps and cross a creek toward the nearby cliffs. The trail can seem to trickle away at times, but as long as you stick by the cliffs, you won’t get lost. Climb over boulders and along a faint path to discover views of the Endless Wall and a number of waterfalls. The major reward on this trail, though, is at the end: Craig Branch Falls itself, the tallest waterfall in New River Gorge.
Red Ash Island
Red Ash “Island” is separated from the mainland by a narrow slough. This place has a tragic history, but despite its eerie past, Red Ash Island is a unique place to explore rarely-trekked trails and consider New River Gorge’s fascinating history. Walk among the striking old-growth sycamore and beech trees that stretch into the sky and relax on the sunny riverside beach, where whitewater rafters sometimes stop for a break.
This summer, venture off the beaten path to trek lesser-known trails. When you do, you’ll quickly discover rich beauty and unforgettable scenery not known to many.
This post was last updated on May 29, 2021