When my first child was born, I thought for certain that my days of rock climbing at a respectable level were over. And boy, was I right. By the time my second was born, I was 25 pounds heavier, and gravity looked upon me with all the disdain of a train full of vegans passing a dairy farm. My dignity is still hidden away in the darkest corner of my closet, right underneath my old rope and trad rack.
But parenthood is its own form of adventure, and I must shuffle forward along my chosen path. Thankfully, that path is well paved with the love, giggles, and adoration of my spawn. Enough so, in fact, that I find myself constantly wanting to shower them with hugs, tickles and—you’ve got to love the irony—adventures.
Here’s a smattering of one-day New River Gorge adventures you can shower upon your brood, too, in order from least skill, athleticism, or money required to most. Each activity is an adventure in and of itself for both the young and young at heart.
Watch Trains Roll in at Thurmond
Once a boomtown, now a ghost town, Thurmond is almost perfectly preserved and stands near the top of any list of must-visit cultural and historical sites in the region. With a population of five people as of the 2010 census, it is in fact one of the smallest incorporated towns in America. Indeed, Thurmond has no shortage of curiosity-piquing facts about it—but it is hands down the barrier-free viewing access to speeding coal trains that will take your family’s collective breath away. Lounge on the steps of the old bank as freight cars roar past a mere 20 thrilling feet away. Obvious safety concerns aside, bring some pennies to flatten, and be sure to explore behind the buildings as well, for added gawking. Superbonus: easy access to a bridge over the New River makes it perfect for dropping rocks into the water, an activity that could conceivably occupy my kids forever, if I let it.
Hike Endless Wall
In a 2014 USA Today internet poll, readers voted the Endless Wall Loop Trail the best National Park day hike in America. I think we all know that’s probably not literally true, but it is stunning and at least in the same league as anything you can imagine out west. Park at the Fern Creek trailhead and hike to the rim of the New River Gorge. Follow the trail left for about a half-mile to find Diamond Point Overlook, which juts out into space with reckless abandon. Be careful of the edges—there are no railings, and a fall would not be survivable. For added adventure, take the climbers’ access ladders, then hike upstream a half mile until you hit another ladder system to the top. Hit Diamond Point on your way back. But unlike Thurmond, don’t drop rocks here—there’s a good chance rock climbers will be scaling the cliffs directly below. Round trip, this hike is a little less than three miles, and mostly flat.
Explore the Meadow River Rail Trail
The region that tourists and outdoor enthusiasts affectionately refer to as the “New River Gorge” actually encompasses three major river gorges within a 20-mile radius of each other. Twenty minutes north of the New by horseless carriage you’ll find the Gauley River Gorge, which includes Summersville Lake. But it’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Meadow River Gorge that locals most often cite as their favorite. If West Virginia is the hidden recreational jewel of the East Coast, and the New is the hidden jewel of West Virginia, then the Meadow is the hidden jewel of the hidden jewel of the hidden jewel. Access it by parking on the southbound shoulder at the north end of the Route 19 Bridge. Hop the guard rail and find a wide trail that plummets to the bottom of this stunning, remote gorge. Hike, bike, fish, swim (when the flow is not a raging rapid), and explore all day long. Or, find stroller-friendly access to the upstream reaches of the Meadow River Rail Trail at the Russellville Bridge on Route 41.
Mountain Bike the Arrowhead Trails
In 2011, more than 1,000 Boy Scouts descended upon the New River Gorge for a 30,000 volunteer-hour frenzy of McCloud-pulling, Pulaski-swinging trail work. After the dust settled, they left us with the most sublime sections of singletrack in the region. These painstakingly constructed beginner and intermediate stacked loops wind their way over and under the rim of the Gorge at Kaymoor Top. With kids, start on the easy loop of the 1.1-mile Clovis Trail. Graduate to Adena. Then, if the crew is up to it, wrap up the day on the slightly more technical and much longer 6.3-mile Dalton Trail. Altogether, they make up 14 miles of gentle elevation gain and loss that will leave your kids satisfied and sweaty.
Climb & Rappel at the Bridge Buttress
Once solely the realm of society’s fringe element, rock climbing has become almost as mainstream as Aerosmith. (Do kids still listen to Aerosmith?) Nevertheless, it still requires an abundance of skill and specialized equipment to pull off safely. If you’re wondering whether or not you have those, the answer is no, you do not. Pull your dignity out of the closet and hire a guide, so you and your children can safely enjoy scaling to dizzying heights in clear view of the New River Gorge Bridge. Check with Water Stone Outdoors for info on rock climbing and rappelling guides. And be forewarned—afterward, you may just feel every ounce of that dad bod.
Jay Young was once an elite outdoor adventurer, but has succumbed to the relentless effects of fatherhood and gravity. He now shuffles around his dad bod and camera as media manager at Adventures on the Gorge.