This story was originally published in The Guardian on May 12, 2021.
The New River has spent millions of years carving a bucolic gorge in West Virginia. It is now home to one of the most biodiverse forests on the continent. And while humans have tracked prey along its jagged cliffs for thousands of years, now most people come to the gorge to find adventure.
Its sandstone cliffs make for world-class rock climbing. The whitewater rapids in the river below provide some of the wildest rafting on the east coast. Trails carve around the gorge’s hillsides, delivering hikers and bikers to some of West Virginia’s most scenic vistas.
This natural playground was something of a loosely kept secret for many years. But now, the secret is fully out. On 27 December 2020, the river became the New River Gorge national park and preserve, the United States’ newest national park. It is to the delight of many – but not all.
Locals are worried the area is not ready for the national spotlight. They say there simply aren’t enough amenities in the park or its surrounding communities to support the flood of visitors that will come, and the park does not have the money to fix these problems.
“There’s been so little thought put into this, it’s just kind of bizarre,” said Gene Kistler, co-owner of the outfitter Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, West Virginia.