The rail ride of a lifetime
There are a lot of ways to experience the 1000-foot deep New River Gorge. Glance from side to side as you drive over its arch bridge, which at 3,030 feet is the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the Americas. Take a tram down to the bottom of the gorge in Hawk’s Nest State Park. Take a hike out and gaze into the depths from viewpoints on Endless Wall, Beauty Mountain, or Long Point. Jump in a rubber raft and splash through 8 miles of spectacular rapids on the New River Gorge National River.
Or, go riding on the scenic New River Train.
Railroad tracks parallel the New River for most of its length in West Virginia, dating back to the booming days of coal when trains would take the black rock from narrow mountain gorges to barge-navigable Kanawha and Ohio rivers in Charleston and Huntington.
Book a ticket to see the New River as a passenger, just as travelers in the 1800s did.
Over 2 weekends every October, New River Train Excursions roll along the tracks. Board a vintage passenger train in Huntington, spend 4 hours chugging through the finest Appalachian scenery you’ve ever seen, then check out Hinton’s annual Railroad Days festival.
This unforgettable day-trip of a lifetime is equal parts history, scenery and fun.
Your trip will begin in Huntington, named for Collis P. Huntington, founder of the Central Pacific Railroad and one of the most powerful railroad magnates of the 1800s. There’s a lot to do in this city. You can walk along the Ohio River or even shop around at Heritage Station, a former railroad depot. But be quick; your train departs at 8:30 a.m., so you should board by 8!
Once you’re aboard the passenger coaches, the New River Train gradually travels upstream along the wide Ohio River, and eventually the Kanawha River near Charleston. From Charleston, you leave the urban industrial hustle ’n’ bustle, and the mountains close in around you as the train enters the upper Kanawha Valley.
Nature really starts to dominate above Kanawha Falls, a beautiful 20-foot cascade that spans the entire river. Just above the falls, you’ll take a right fork in the river to follow the train’s namesake: the New River. Past this point, the canyon walls rise up to form the New River Gorge, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of the East.”
You’ll pass endless jumbles of house-sized boulders along the New River “Dries” before reaching Hawk’s Nest Dam and its reservoir.
Above the reservoir, look up and you might see the New River Bridge, hundreds of feet above you. If you’ve booked your ticket for during Bridge Day, you might even see BASE jumpers parachuting off the bridge!
Past here, the scenery only gets better. The eerie ghost towns and some of America’s best water rafting will all be amidst a background of red and gold leaves and protruding sandstone cliffs.
Eventually, the New River Gorge will open up at your destination, Hinton. You’ll arrive at 1 p.m., just in time to catch the midday festivities of the Railroad Days festival. Grab a funnel cake, browse some of the unique arts and crafts, inhale the crisp autumn air, and enjoy the beauty of this small town during the peak of fall foliage season.
Don’t forget to stop by the Railroad Museum and learn about the legend of the steel-drivin’ man, John Henry.
By around 4 p.m. (depending on railroad schedules), it will be time to get back “all aboard” the New River Train.
After emerging from the narrow river canyons into the wide valleys, you’ll arrive back in Huntington around 8:30 p.m. with enough time to grab a bite to eat or a cold local craft beer at Heritage Station.
If you want to ride the New River Train, get tickets early! The coach and private cars both go quickly.
And get ready for a laid-back day through some of America’s best scenery, at one of the nicest times of year.
This post was last updated on July 27, 2020