August 2009 Issue
Picture-perfect scenery combined with challenging formations makes West Virginia an ideal destination for rock climbing, mountain biking and white-water rafting.
Getting a good foothold is key when you’re attempting to scale a mini-mountain in West Virginia. So much depends on the weather, which is why autumn is usually a great time to try your luck climbing the formations off the New River Gorge.
Fall is also the perfect time for adrenaline junkies to hit the nearby Upper Gauley and navigate its relentless class V rapids — 97 challenging twists and turns in all. Twenty-two controlled releases that start during the normally dry late summer/early autumn period turn the Upper Gauley into a formidable force.
Those who aren’t river rats benefit from the lack of precipitation. Rock climbing, biking and hiking are topnotch experiences along the New River Gorge throughout the year, but autumn is a particularly good time to step into nature in West Virginia.
The crisp and clear weather is exceptional for outdoor activities. It’s hard to beat a partly sunny 68-degree day with low humidity, when the landscape glows with endless fall colors that extend as far as the eye can see.
Dry rock helps with footholds, and it’s also beneficial when it comes to trying to latch on to formations, which jut out of the walls. While placing your feet into the nooks and crannies, you need to grab on to a piece of sandstone to propel yourself upward. It helps if you have some upper-body strength and some kick to your legs, but it’s not required.
After learning the basic climbing and rappelling techniques, my 10-year-old daughter Jillian and her 7-year-old brother Eddie had few issues scaling an 80-foot formation just off of the picturesque New River Gorge Bridge. My speed improved during other climbs once I developed more trust in our knowledgeable guide Kyle, and I learned to take off the tight and pointy climbing shoes while I waited my turn.
Still, I felt compelled to ask Kyle, “These ropes are really secure enough to hold on to me, even after I enjoyed that gourmet buffet a little too much last night?”
Kyle, who works for Class VI River Runners, told me that he could support 5,000 pounds courtesy of his gear. “Daddy doesn’t weigh that much,”
Eddie was quick to point out. Once I believed that I wouldn’t come tumbling to earth in a heap, I moved up the wall in quicker fashion and I actually started to enjoy the experience immensely.
Instead of focusing on taking one step after another, I took breaks and looked out at the gorge, admiring the hawks soaring above and the river running below.
There’s a great deal of camaraderie as you make your way up toward the peak. We weren’t only cheering ourselves on; a group of Boy Scouts on their way to earning a merit badge stopped and encouraged my children to go as high as they could.
Once we reached the peak, it was time for some rappelling. Climbing can be hard work but rappelling is typically a total blast, as long as you stick your rear-end out, spread your legs and push off the surface — otherwise you might dangle and bounce off the rocks.
But we didn’t have any abrasions or contusions to report. It was exhilarating doing exactly what we felt like we shouldn’t do — go backward off a cliff. “This is so much more fun than rock climbing indoors,” Jillian noted.
Indeed. Forget simulation, the real thing rocks, so to speak.
And, unlike with artificial walls, you’ll never hit the same formation twice, unless you want to do just that. There are more than 2,500 routes along the gorge, varying from easy to seemingly impossible.
It’s difficult to get bored, but if you feel compelled to try something different, try biking and hiking in the New River Gorge woods. In fact, Mountain Biking Magazine recently rated West Virginia as one of the top five mountain biking destinations in America.
There are winding trails from the top of the mountain that make their way down toward the river. The rugged, rolling terrain is scenic and varied. It ranges from technical single track for experts to easy, straight paths for the casual cyclist.
Late autumn is one of the best times to travel the New River bike paths. The foliage is lush during the summer, but you can’t see what lurks past the leaves. During the fall, the bike trail’s breathtaking vistas are evident, roaring rapids are both heard and seen, and the remnants of the old coal-mining era are visible.
Winter is also a fabulous time to bike through the area, since the canyons are naked and exposed.
Another benefit of winding your way along the trails during a chillier time of year is that you can witness the animals — usually hidden during spring and summer — in their habitat.
Find deer and red fox by the riverside while bald eagles, peregrine falcons and red-shouldered hawks soar over trees.
A simple stroll through the woods can be as satisfying as a bike excursion. During a long walk, my children picked up stones, learned how to skip rocks off the river and found coal as we walked along the train tracks at Thurmond, a once prosperous city, which is now a ghost town with a population of seven.
“I can give these pieces of coal to Milo for Christmas,” Eddie said, referring to his four-year old brother. “It’ll almost be like he was here.”
That’s some gift. A real present for Milo would be a trip to the New River Gorge.