“We think this is just the beginning,” says West Virginia Tourism Secretary Chelsea Ruby of America’s newest NPS: New River Gorge National Park.
It’s an exciting time to be an Outsider. 2020 was a rough year for all of us, but one undeniable highlight came when West Virginia’s New River Gorge was officially declared as the newest U.S. National Park and Preserve. It’s the 63rd national park in America, and our 20th national preserve.
“We’re still in this post-pandemic travel world, but even in that we’re seeing monumental increases in visitations. We’re really excited about the future,” Ruby tells local WVNews Tuesday.
Finalized measurements for New River Gorge show the national park and preserve consists of 72,186 acres. The preserve itself is 64,495 acres. This sounds tremendous. Yet it’s rather small in comparison to our most visited national park (and this Outsider’s home-turf): the whopping 522,427 acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Which, even the Smokies dwindles in comparison to Yellowstone National Park’s gargantuan 2,221,766 acres.
Regardless, New River Gorge consists of four phenomenally beautiful areas: The Lower Gorge, Thurmond, Grandview, and Sandstone Falls. Within, Ruby says plans are “already in the works” to continue growth and development for the new national park.
“We’re working with the National Parks Service and local leaders to make it easier to navigate,” she continues. “We want folks to know where all the access points are, to know all the different trails and to know what to do. But we’re also looking at how we can get folks to stay longer in the area. And how we can get them to contribute more to the communities.”
New River Gorge Undergoing ‘Comprehensive Planning’ for Future of the National Park
In addition, Jina Belcher, the executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, tells WVNews that the national park is about to undergo huge changes to accommodate visitors.
“We are going through [the process] now to build out what a master strategy looks like for Fayette County specifically,” she says of the park’s homeland. “We feel like through this process and the comprehensive plan… We’re really going to be able to identify what the end-user experience is going to look like from the businesses’ perspective and the outdoor enthusiast and visitor experience perspective.”
New River Gorge will need it, too. Chief of Interpretation Eve West cites the visitation to the park rising 25% in 2021 over 2020.
“It’s hard to really delineate between what’s because of the designation and what’s because of COVID,” however, she states. “Parks are busier, nationwide, right now.”
But “People are coming here because they want their national park passport stamped,” West continues. “They want to become junior ranger at the newest park, they want take their picture in front of the sign.”
And that’s an excellent sign for America’s newest national park. Thousands more are expected for fall 2021, too. Around the middle of October, West says New River Gorge becomes a prime destination for fans of fall foliage.
“Because of the elevation change in the park, you can see the color changing starting at the top and moving down the gorge,” she lauds. “It’s a wonderful time of the year for a hike.”