Take a hike to see fall’s true colors in the New River GorgeSeptember 29, 2017
An East Coast autumn is like a tapestry, textured and vibrant. There are snappy yellow sycamores; fiery red maples; and coppery oaks, among many others. It’s a kaleidoscopic shift that never gets old.
Dreaming of a colorful weekend? Consider a trip to the New River Gorge. It’s one of the most ecologically diverse regions in America. Plant species thrive here by the hundreds, sheltered in ancient canyons and crannies. Such variety creates a glorious change of scenery every autumn.
The show gets better, too. Dozens of state park trails get you up close and personal to those jeweled tones. Some even throw in a waterfall or two! Long or short, rigorous or easy, the New River Gorge has technicolor escapes for everybody.
Here are our favorite fall hikes.
Long Point Trail
This popular Fayetteville jaunt is a New River Gorge highlight. Within minutes of embarking on the 3.2-mile (total) route, you enter a lush forest. The fairly level trail winds past groves of hardwood trees and rhododendrons. You won’t be too winded to appreciate those fall colors, either.
The best part comes at the end. As Long Point Trail tapers to a close, it becomes twisty and playful. Tricky boulder “steps” add complexity to your route, but keep going—it’s worth the effort. After ducking through laurel tunnels, you’ll finally step onto a sandstone promontory. The clear platform offers unimpeded views of the New River Gorge Bridge, river, and surrounding mountains. It’s a dramatic surprise to say the least!
Babcock State Park
Woodsy and romantic, this lovely retreat in Clifftop is worth visiting any time of year. But in autumn, Babcock State Park hits its prime. Brilliant trees— from flaming reds, oranges, and yellows to evergreens—frame the fabled gristmill, which you’ll spot immediately after parking. Glade Creek enhances the scenery. Lively and swift, it pours over boulders and forms a wide waterfall. The sight never fails to draw your gaze. And you haven’t even begun hiking yet!
If you can pull yourself away from the gristmill, try the Lake View Trail. The 1-mile path loops around Boley Lake, Babcock’s 18-acre impoundment. Thick forests surround the shoreline and cast colors deep into the water. Aside from an uphill spur at the beginning, it’s a lovely walk that requires little effort. You can also double your pleasure and go boating. Babcock’s marina has canoes, rowboats, and paddleboats for rent. Add a picnic lunch, and your autumn afternoon is golden.
Ready to hike? Hop on Grandview Rim Trail. The 3.2-mile (round trip) path follows the clifftops, providing outstanding long-distance views of the New River. Fall colors are especially attractive. The cobalt water sharply contrasts with the mountains, which are mottled by forests. As far as walking goes, the trail has some steep sections. It’s moderate but not too demanding. Aim for the Main Overlook, Grandview’s crown jewel, if your time is limited.
Bluestone National Scenic River
This wild river valley goes off the beaten path. Compared to other parks within the New River Gorge, it’s remote. At least, that’s the perception. Tucked deep in Summers County, the Bluestone region is accessible via aerial tram. Simply park at Pipestem Resort State Park and ride down the mountain—easy! Most folks miss the opportunity and explore other trails instead. For that reason, the Bluestone is a wonderful outdoorsman’s retreat.
It’s also ideal for fall immersion. The 1,000-foot-deep canyon has pristine hardwood forests and a rich microclimate, resulting in splendid autumn scenery. Oaks, maples, dogwoods, beeches, and birches fill the valley. Their colors are magnified by the Bluestone River, which mirrors those leaves for miles.
Ready to get hiking? Provided you have enough time, the 10-mile Bluestone Turnpike Trail shouldn’t be missed. It follows an old wagon trail that settlers used more than a century ago. Not much has changed since then. The tranquil canyon does have a few hidden surprises, though; keep your eyes peeled, and you might find farmstead ruins.
The Bluestone Turnpike Trail is more long than challenging. Pack a lunch, bring water, and wear sturdy shoes. Most hikers need 5 hours to complete the entire route. Rangers occasionally lead hikes on the turnpike trail, too. This is a great option if you’re reluctant to walk alone.
The New River Gorge’s largest cascade is always photogenic. At 1,500 feet across, Sandstone Falls dominates the valley like a National Geographic spread. You can hear its thunder for miles.
Autumn only enhances the waterfall’s beauty. A .25-mile boardwalk plants you in the middle of the action, too. It’s flat, easy, and rewarding. For more of a workout, try the Gwinn Ridge Trail. It’s a 3-mile loop that skirts through ridgetop forests (and color!).
Big Branch Trail is another option. Though demanding and rigorous, the 2-mile loop crosses several streams and cascades, including Sandstone Falls—a bonus from any angle. Keep a lookout for homestead ruins as well!
More room to roam
These trails are just the beginning. Southern West Virginia’s 9 counties have thousands of hikes that are just coming into season.
Top ATV hangouts
- Hatfield-McCoy Trails: journey along more than 600 miles of off-road terrain— the largest of its kind! Trails are well marked and varied. Look forward to incredible wilderness scenery, history, and adventure.
- Bramwell: this ATV-friendly town has oodles of charm. Dating back to Victorian times, it features a dazzling array of coal baron mansions. Bramwell is a stone’s throw from the Pocahontas Trailhead, a major Hatfield-McCoy route.
- Burning Rock Adventure Park: located near Sophia, this attraction crawls with 10,000 acres of ATV terrain. It’s not far from the New River Gorge, either. Combine both for an all-day wilderness escape!
Seen from a river, autumn foliage is especially glorious. Reflections give you double the color!
- New River: float along the mild “Upper” section for a calm, occasionally playful, outing. Want spunk with your scenery? Go for the wild “Lower” instead!
- Gauley River: the “Beast of the East” boils with Class V rapids— some of the best in the world. Autumn colors make the Gauley even more glorious (provided you’re up for seat-of-your-pants drama).
- Greenbrier River: this long, mild river is ideal for canoeing, kayaking, and tubing. Crave peace and quiet? Find it here, plus horizons of remote scenery.
What’s your ideal escape? Whether you prefer a simple walk or a backpacking trip, you’ll find wild, wonderful fall trails by the dozen. Pick your favorite, snap some photos, and share your journey with us.