A&A Visit New River Gorge & Shenandoah National Parks | Travel Review
End of Week #99
Outlanders River Camp, Luray VA > Boondocker's Welcome host, Woodbine MD
Miles traveled since last week's post = 118 miles
Total miles traveled to date = 13,850 with trailer
It's #NationalParkWeek! I will be honest, I did not even know that when I planned this post, but look at how nicely that works out. We had the pleasure of exploring two gorgeous National Parks last week, in the Virginia's - in what I would call wonderfully wild land. These two parks might be lesser known, compared to some of the favorites out west, but that doesn't mean they aren't as beautiful and full of rich history too!
A&A Visit New River Gorge & Shenandoah National Parks
New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
Where did we stay
Little Beaver State Park - Located in the town of Beaver, WV, about 30 miles south from the New River Gorge Bridge, is a cute, quiet state park called Little Beaver. It sits on Little Beaver Lake, which is also a small dam, and has miles of hiking (& biking) trails to explore right in the park. Our site here was large, and the park was fairly empty during our 3-night stay. We had water and a 30-amp electric hookup, and were situated slightly uneven in our site, but were able to level it out with blocks.
I feel this was a better choice than the commercialized RV resorts a bit north of here, and it was a lot less costly as well. In total, there are seven West Virginia State Parks near the New River Gorge, so there are plenty of options to choose from if you do not like the commercialized RV resort route. However several of them did not yet open and/or did not have availability.
History & Environment
Say hello to our newest National Park, number 63, added to the National Park System as of January, 2020! Although the designation of the park itself is very new, the New River is in fact very old... like one of the oldest rivers in the world kind of old. It is older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves, and they are the oldest mountains in the USA. Here at the New River Gorge, the river cuts through the Appalachian Plateau, and some of the exposed rocks are as old as 330 million years!
This area is really a tale of where three rivers meet - the New River, the Bluestone River, and the Gauley River - all of which are famous for sport fishing and whitewater rafting. Years ago, this area was fueled by coal miles, and railroads, which eventually helped open up this remote countryside to an industry. For centuries, many parts of the New River were completely inaccessible to people, which heavily isolated parts of West Virginia and made it impossible to ship coal to the outside world. Congress set to change that in 1978 when it established the preservation of this free-flowing waterway, and now every year there are millions of new visitors that come here for recreational activities and to explore the endless beauty.
Within the park itself, the New River's elevation drops 750 feet within just 50 miles, creating one of the nations premier whitewater stretches. The forests of the New River Gorge are also home to some 1,400 plant species and a variety of animals - including endangered Virginia big-eared and Indiana bats.
What to do
There are 70,000 acres of protected land within the New River Gorge - creating an endless array of things to do for outdoor enthusiasts alike. There are 53 miles of whitewater, wild beauty here, that have served the needs of southern Appalachian people for many years. No matter what you are into, there is something to meet your needs in the New River Gorge, including boating, fishing, hunting, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, paddling, scenic driving, camping, and more!
Here are some of the activities we did while staying in the New River Gorge Area:
Located on the north end of the park, next to the New River Gorge Bridge itself, is the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. We stopped here to pick up maps of the park, scenic drives information, and hiking trails. From this location you can take up close and personal photos of the Bridge - a true icon for the New River, and a bridge that changed the way accessibility and transportation happened in this region of West Virginia.
The Bridge itself was completed in 1977, and is one of the most photographed places in all of West Virginia. Every year on the third Saturday in October, the bridge becomes the host to "Bridge Day", a day filled with activities, festivities, BASE jumping, and pedestrian walks across the bridge.
Encircling the heart of the New River National Gorge and the park itself, is a recommended scenic drive that can take you about 100 miles through all of the best hikes, viewpoints, and scenery in West Virginia. While we did not complete the entire circle drive, we did cover the entire western half pretty well, and really enjoyed both the Canyon Rim Overlook and the Grandview Overlook. If we would have had more time we would have continued on to Sandstone Falls, which are the largest falls on the New River - spanning about 1,500 feet across.
If you are into hiking, there are hundreds of miles of trails to pick from, including trails that lead to old coal towns, waterfalls, geological formations, or just views of the Gorge. We squeezed a short hike, and a tad bit longer one into our scenic drive around the western half of the park.
Canyon Rim Boardwalk - (0.2 miles roundtrip) I would hardly call this a hike, as it is more like a strenuous climb down, and then back up, several sets of staircases - but as it did stir up a bit of a sweat in me, I'm adding it to this list. From this lookout at the end of the stairs is where we saw magnificent up close views of the New River Gorge Bridge.
Long Point Trail - (2.9 miles roundtrip) This trail traverses field and forest on a nicely groomed trail, until it reached a rock outcrop that turns into a sheer cliff viewing directly at the New River and the Bridge. The views were simply spectacular, and we even spotted a waterfall in the far distance of the side of one of the cliffs. Stunning!
To view a full list of all the different hiking trail options, click this link.
There are a handful of licensed outfitters that run river trips from spring until fall, which you can also find more information out from a visitors center in the park if you are interested. Otherwise the best way to choose the right location, and the right outfitter is to do some heavy google research and read a lot of reviews!
Walk under the bridge
If you are up for an extreme heights adventure, you can check out the bridge walk opportunity to walk right on and underneath the New River Gorge Bridge. We came across this haphazardly, as we were walking a trail and saw advertisement for it. I believe you are strapped to a rope the entire walk, and it appeared you walk the entire length of the bridge, if you are brave enough!
Located just about 10-15 minutes away from Little Beaver State Park, is a nearby larger town called Beckley. There are many shops, grocery stores, and restaurants here to check out or fill up on supplies. We went to Kroger foods here and it made me realize how this is one of my more preferred grocery chain options.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Where did we stay
Outlanders River Camp - Located in Luray, VA, on the east side of Shenandoah National Park, is a beautiful campground along the Shenandoah River. Originally, we were not even supposed to stay here, as I had a Boondocker's Welcome host booked on the west side of the park, however at the last minute I decided to change plans. The town of Luray was calling my name, and I read really good reviews about this campground. I'm glad I made the switch, as it turned out to be one of the most beautiful places we have camped in awhile! Mountains were located on all sides of us, and everything was so lush and green this time of year. We were situated right out of downtown Luray and only about 20 minutes from an entrance to the National Park.
We had a back in site, with full hook-ups, including a 50 amp - which basically equates to complete luxury in the RV world. The park was fairly empty when we arrived, but filled up for the weekend. There were walking trails situated on the outside perimeter of the park, and down along the river, where more primitive tent sites were also located. They even had a camp store and a jogging trail too! I would definitely stay here again...
In general - the Shenandoah Valley that we were situated in, is some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The colors of spring blooming all around us, mixed with the mountains and the forests made it feel so enchanting.
History & Environment
It's hard to even know where to start here, as there is SO MUCH to report on in this area... from the Civil War, to slavery, to the oldest cave formations, and other mountainous natural beauty - there is a lot to unpack here.
Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935, before skyscrapers and air travel were common. This designation in that time gave millions of people the opportunity to travel and explore beautiful lands that they didn't otherwise have the options to explore. From the very beginning years, National Park planners tried to capitalize on the new popularity of motor cars, and called for the "greatest single feature" to be a sky-line drive on top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, through the entire park. In fact, construction for the Skyline Drive was started before Congress even established this area as an official National Park. Today this Skyline Drive is the portal to all of your experiences in Shenandoah, where you can access countless hiking trails and overlooks.
This National Park was formed from over 1,000 privately owned tracts of land, basically a patchwork of forests, fields, home sites and orchards. Over 40% of the park itself is also designated as Wilderness, to give it the highest level of protection possible.
Long before the park was even established, people still came to the Blue Ridge Mountains for recreation, and as a place to escape to. President Herbert Hoover built a Rapidan Camp in this area, as a retreat to escape the stress of work and summer's heat - as it is conveniently located under 100 miles from Washington D.C..
What to do
This is another one of those locations prime for outdoor enthusiasts, with miles upon miles of opportunity to hike, fish, bike ride, canoe, or anything else you can think of. When we first arrived here I started to make a list and realized I had way too many things on it compared to how much time we had to spend here - I really had to narrow things down for us!
Here are some of the activities we did while staying in the Shenandoah Valley area:
The Skyline Drive, scenic roadway through the park, follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. At the southern end of it's route, it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway continuing south another 469 miles to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Honestly, this could be one of the most beautiful scenic drive combinations in the whole country! It is also extremely well labeled and includes a multitude of extraordinary overlooks.
With miles and miles of trails to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start when you are hiking in Shenandoah. You can break your choices down based on what you are most interested in, such as: waterfalls, views, long hikes, short hikes, or the Appalachian Trail. I chose to look for a combination of waterfalls, short hikes, and views and came up with 3 little hikes right off the Skyline drive, that we were able to complete in just one day!
Dark Hollow Falls - (1.6 miles roundtrip) This short hike takes you to a large waterfall that you are able to explore at multiple levels. The trail starts by descending, and it's a bit steep, so coming back up was a bit exhausting. It was also very damn and muddy from all the recent rainfall, but the views of the falls did not disappoint!
Hawksbill Summit - (2.2 miles roundtrip) One of the more popular hikes in the park, as it is actually the highest point in the entire park, sitting at an elevation of 4,050 feet. There are actually 3 different routes you can take to get to the top, and we took the middle distance route, that had a steep incline as well, but it was a little more spread out than at Dark Hollow Falls.
Stony Mountain - (0.9 miles roundtrip) This hike is another one that can be combined with other trails and routes, or if you are just looking for the shortest version with a view you can do what we did and just hike to the lookout point. It was beautiful up there, the second highest peak in the park.
There are at least 5 different commercialized options of cave explorations to choose from, all located on the east side of the mountains. I am sure they all offer a much different kind of experience, varying in size, price and location. We choose to explore the Luray Caverns, located right in the town of Luray - as they are showcased as the largest and oldest caves in all the east, and they came highly rated by the internet and folks on social media.
The Luray Caverns had a nice intricate paved walkway through around 15 different caverns, some with ceilings 10 stories high. They also had a formation called the "Redwood" that dated back over 7 million years ago! And how could I forget - they also had the worlds largest instrument, an organ stalactite that was featured on Guinness Book of World Records. Wow!
Including in your admission to Luray Caves, is a heritage museum of the Shenandoah Valley. This is where I learned a lot of the history of Luray and the entire region. The history here is heavy, rich, horrible, and sometimes beautiful too - as it involves years takeover from the Natives, years of slavery, years of American war, and years of re-establishment.
At the Shenandoah Heritage Village you can take a walk through time, exploring their historic museum and recreated buildings. Your journey begins with a farming community and continues on through the Hamburg Regular School - the area's first school for African American children, and the county's first Delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, and at the Elk Run Dunkard Church you can read actual signatures of Union and Confederate soldiers.
Also included in your admission to Luray Caves, is a Car and Carriage Museum, that we honestly did not have high expectations for and it completely blew us away. They also had a fudge stand at the entrance, which I greatly enjoyed! Inside the museum they took you through a wonderful tour through history and cars, from old horse and buggy, to early 1900 Chevy, Ford, Buicks and Dodge - all the way to a 1925 Rolls Royce. Honestly, we spent a lot of time perusing through these vintage items, and imagining what it was like to use them!
Downtown Luray, VA
Singing Tower - Located across the street from the Luray Caverns, is the "Singing Tower", officially known as the Belle Brown Northcott Memorial tower. It is 117 feet tall, and contains a carillon of 47 bells. Regularly scheduled recitals are held in the spring, summer and fall.
Hawksbill Brewery - We could tell right away this was a local hangout, as there were multiple cars waiting in the parking lot for them to open up at 4 PM (including us, ha). They had a nice selection of tap beers, no food - strict brewery.
As we continue to kick off #NationalParkWeek, in case you missed last week's post on the Great Smoky Mountains, you can find it here!
Next week we will be honoring a BIG milestone in our RV travels... as this upcoming Friday we hit 100 WEEKS living in our travel trailer! (Plus, Saturday marks 700 days.) We still aren't quite to the two year marker just yet, but that doesn't mean that we can't celebrate other accomplishments along the way.
I have recently become affiliated with Amazon, through the set up of my own storefront page. Here I am able to list and link all of the items I have purchased through Amazon and would recommend for various needs. I have lists set up for fulltime RVing, camping in general, traveling with cats, health and wellness, and even curly hair! Plus, as an added bonus, I will make a small commission on any items purchased through my link.
If you want to check out more of my storefront page, here is the link: Spark Fire Swan's Amazon
I will continue to add items as time goes on, as we are always finding something new on there that becomes quite useful to our lifestyle or for our feline friends. As a rule of thumb, I only ever link things we have actually purchased, kept, and use on a frequent basis!