New River Gorge Bridge, WV

New Park Delivers One of the World’s Top Travel Experiences

America’s newest national park offers one of the world’s top travel experiences. The rugged park is one of only five United States destinations to earn a spot on National Geographic’s “Best of the World” Top 20 Travel Experiences for 2024. What is the adventure, and where is the park?

What’s Old is New

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in southern West Virginia, established on December 27, 2020, is renowned for its wilderness and swift-moving whitewater river that continues to carve canyons through the Appalachian Mountains. 

Although the newest national park in the U.S., the 70,000-acre park harbors one of the world’s oldest rivers. While its exact age is unknown, scientists say the New River is anything but new, estimated between 10 and 360 million years old based on geological evidence.

The Secret Is Out

Top travel experiences in the United States - whitewater rafting in West Virginia
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Photo credit: sepavone via Deposit Photos

According to National Park Service visitation statistics, more than 1.5 million people visited the park in each of its first two years. While the destination received an attendance boost after obtaining the national park designation, the beautiful and adventurous region was not exactly a secret. New River Gorge consistently received between 1.0 and 1.2 million visitors annually from 1993 to 2020.

Customized River Adventures

Visitors flock to the region for various reasons. Still, whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley Rivers is the travel experience that puts the East Coast park on the coveted National Geographic list. The park offers adventures for thrill-seekers and tamer excursions for novices or families with young children. 

In spring, the rushing rapids of the Lower New River challenge thrill-seekers, while families with children as young as six can enjoy the milder waters on the Upper New River beginning in late May.

New River drops over 750 feet in a 50-mile raftable section before merging with the Gauley River. Fall rafting season attracts hardcore thrill-seekers when the Gauley River transforms into a wild, raging whitewater behemoth with nine Class V rapids within a 26-mile stretch. 

Class V rapids are the upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft, with long, turbulent rapids challenging even the most experienced rafters.

Insight from an Expert

Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), one of the world’s first resorts dedicated to outdoor adventures, offers the most rafting experiences in the region. Roger Wilson, CEO of AOTG and a lifelong region resident, says, “The New River Gorge is a destination that you and your family will want to return to again and again. Although the destination has long been well-known and popular among U.S. adventurers, it gained worldwide recognition when it was named a national park in December 2020. It has been a thrill and a privilege for those of us who live and work here to introduce our beautiful corner of heaven to people from around the world in the last few years.”

Wilson’s comments about families wanting to return will likely resonate with many U.S. travelers. With 15 of the top 20 travel experiences on National Geographic’s list in other countries, those adventures will require additional planning and funding. Even two of the five U.S. experiences yield limited opportunities. 


Bear-watching in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve is akin to traveling to a foreign country for many in the contiguous U.S. Visitors typically arrive in Alaska by a cruise or flight and must arrange for a boat or floatplane to access the park.

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is an easily accessible destination for many U.S. travelers, within a day’s drive for nearly half of the country’s residents. It is particularly convenient for mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and Midwest adventure seekers.

Travelers outside driving distance can fly into West Virginia International Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, about 70 miles northwest of the park. 

Replay Value

Observing the total solar eclipse in Niagara Falls, New York, another U.S. experience to make the National Geographic list, is reasonably accessible for many Americans. However, travelers can only experience the event for a few fleeting moments on April 8. Further, the weather must cooperate for the rare celestial event to be visible.

With the New and Gauley Rivers rafting season typically running from April through October, travelers can schedule adventures during three seasons. Rafting excursions span from a few hours to a few days. Visitors can easily raft a different river section on a subsequent visit.

Beyond thrilling whitewater rafting trips, the national park is renowned for outdoor adventures like rock climbing, mountain biking, and ziplining. Hiking trails offer various encounters, including old-growth forests, waterfalls, and historic sites. For something slower-paced, guests can explore the region’s history, which includes abandoned mining towns. The area also features a robust arts and food scene.

New Park Plus Old River Equals Top Travel Experience

top travel experiences - whitewater rafting in WV
Rafters navigate the rapids. Photo credit: vilevi via Deposit Photos

With most of National Geographic’s Top 20 Travel Experiences for 2024 in other countries, U.S. travelers have limited opportunities for the recommended adventures on American soil. New River Gorge, the country’s newest national park centered around one of the world’s oldest rivers, offers one of the most accessible experiences. The rushing whitewater that has carved deep canyons for millions of years takes rafters on a thrilling ride, providing memories of a lifetime.

This article originally appeared on Media Decision.

Featured image credit: appalachianview via Deposit Photos

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Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!