Gorge and Grave: Service at New River Gorge National River, West Virginia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14287A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Raft on some of America's best whitewater
  • Work with the National Park Service to develop and maintain trails and restore 100-year-old cemeteries
  • See the oldest river in North America and the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere


  • All meals (except one dinner)
  • All group gear
  • Full day rafting


DatesAug 3–9, 2014
StaffKen Rubin
Photo: National Park Service

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Trip Overview

The Trip

We are going to see the new and the old in a wild and wonderful state. The New River has been on its present path for over 65 million years and formed the Appalachian Plateau. It is the oldest river in North America.  Unlike most rivers, it flows northward. We will visit the New River Gorge National River, which encompasses 53 miles of the New River, and its narrow gorge, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains from Hinton, WV to the New River Bridge in Fayetteville, WV. Although people have lived along the New River since prehistoric times, the portion of the river within the national park was largely unsettled due to impassable rapids and steep gorge walls. In 1873, the railroad was completed through the gorge and access was provided to rich coal deposits and lumbering. Several boom towns (now ghost towns) thrived for the next 80 years until coal and native timber gave out. As coal diminished, people began to leave the area and the forest reclaimed many of the abandoned towns and mines. The New River Bridge is the longest steel arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. This bridge spans the gorge where we will be working.

We will develop a sense of place and pride as we work with the National Park Service in the Gorge. The spirit of miners, lumberjacks, and railroad men (the John Henry statue is a few miles upriver) will be with us as we toil in the Gorge for the new heritage of high adventure and tourism. In 2012, more than 1.1 million people visited the Gorge; not for resources, but recreation. No doubt we will work with the deepest reverence to restore cemeteries and honor those whose efforts made the Gorge a center of export for an industrial revolution. Their bones are felt in the mountains, stamina in the trees, and self-reliance in the streams. 

The Project

We will be working with the National Park Service to construct and rehabilitate trails and restore 100-year-old cemeteries. A number of these cemeteries have been neglected for years and are overgrown and in need of care.  We will be removing vegetation to open these special places under the Appalachian canopy.  We will reset toppled tombstones and learn the skills of cemetery preservation all while beginning to understand what brought families to this mountainous area and why most have left.

We will remain flexible as the Park Service may have other projects and priorities they will want us to address during our trip.  We should plan to drive about 30 miles a day to get to work or play sites. Some days may be shorter, others are longer.  We may be on "jeep" trails for up to an hour to reach remote sites. Historically settlers in this area established towns along the New River, but buried their dead on ridges high in the mountains to avoid flooding. It may take some jockeying with high-clearance vehicles to reach these places.


Day 1: We will meet at Burnwood Campground, across from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center at 5 p.m. for dinner. We will spend the evening getting to know all the group participants and reviewing the week's activities. Detailed instructions and maps will be sent prior to the trip. Our camp site is just a stone's throw from the New River Bridge.

Day 2: This will be our first day working with the Park Service. We will take our lead from their staff, possibly working on trail construction and/or restoration, or spending a the day doing cemetery restoration. We hope to have a Park Service staff person join us in the evening for a presentation of local interest.

Day 3: Partnering again with the Park Service, we will spend the day exploring the historic places. We will tour old mine sites, ghost towns, and museums as we learn about the people and what brought them to this special place.

Day 4: We will be back to work with the Park Service. If the schedule goes according to plan, this will be a day for restoring historic cemeteries. Keep in mind that our schedule may change based on Park Service priorities.

Day 5: This is our rafting day. We will spend the day paddling some of the best whitewater in the country and enjoying lunch on the river. We will work with a local outfitter and their professional guides to assure an exciting and safe trip. Dinner will be in one of the local restaurants. This meal is not included in the trip fees.

Day 6: This will be our final service work day and we will have a guest presentation after dinner.

Day 7: We will say our good-byes after breakfast and prepare for the journey home.



Getting There

We will be camping at a national park group site across from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center on Route 19 in Fayetteville, WV. The nearest airport is Charleston, WV, which is about two hours away. Some may find it advantageous to fly into Dulles. The drive is a bit longer, but airfare may be cheaper and schedules may be more accommodating. Some participants in the past have arrived by Amtrak train. The train arrives in Thurmond, WV, about 20 miles from the campground. Specific details will be sent to participants prior to the trip.

Accommodations and Food

Our base camp will be at Burnwood Campground, a national park campground. There are flush toilet facilities, water, and electricity at the site, but no showers. (Showers are available at the outfitter we use for our rafting trip about six miles from our camp.) We will set up a community kitchen at the campground shelter, which is a large shelter with plenty of picnic tables. Cooking, dishwashing, and related commissary duties will be shared by all trip participants with direction from the trip leaders. Breakfast and dinner will be at camp, and lunch will be on the trail. One day we will treat ourselves to dinner at a Fayetteville restaurant (not included in the trip fees).

Our campsite is within earshot of Route 19 as it crosses the New River. The reward is a spectacular view of the gorge and the New River Bridge.  The drawback is traffic noise that can be heard from the campground, but earplugs will minimize the sound to help insure a good night's sleep.

Trip Difficulty

The trip is suitable for those who like a challenge, both in work projects and whitewater rafting. Participants should have some camping experience and be in good physical condition to enjoy this trip.  We will work three days and have two free days to enjoy the area. Prior rafting experience is not a prerequisite. We will spend a full day rafting the lower New River in six- to eight-person rafts with a highly trained guide in each raft. Depending on water levels we will paddle class III-V rapids. Rapids with names like Pinball, Dudley's Dip, Railroad, and Bus Stop lend some insight as to what we can look forward to.

The work projects can be strenuous and involve some heavy trail work: constructing trail walls, removing vegetation, lifting headstones, and hauling brush.  We will be using hand tools only, such as Pulaskis, mattocks, pry bars, pruning saws, and rakes. The trip is suited for motivated workers in good physical condition. We may have to hike a couple miles to work sites, carrying our tools. Teamwork is essential and safety paramount. No one will be expected to perform beyond his or her physical capabilities.

Equipment and Clothing

The Park Service will provide tools for all our projects. Group cooking and clean up gear will also be provided. 

Participants should plan to bring:

  • Protection from the sun and insects
  • Work gloves and eye protection
  • Day pack, water bottles, and food storage boxes for packing lunch
  • Personal camping gear: tent, sleeping bag and pad
  • Rain gear
  • Camera, binoculars, waterproof camera (all optional)

A detailed equipment list will be sent to all participants. Please plan to bring a sense of humor, the desire for adventure, and some flexibility as we learn new skills, meet new people, and have lots of fun.




The New River Gorge was authorized by Congress in 1978. About 60,000 acres of public lands are now protected, along with 53 miles of river, with its diverse portfolio of plant species. We will practice Leave No Trace principles during our visit and leave all areas better than we found them.

The area is still recovering from intense resource extraction and may be vulnerable to future mining. The New River watershed starts in North Carolina and meanders through Virginia and West Virginia. Water quality is an issue mostly because of impacts outside the park like mining, logging, manufacturing, and agriculture. Invasive species, both plant and non-native fish, are a concern. 

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



Ken Rubin has spent much of his life in the outdoors enjoying a variety of activities. In his professional career he has worked as a naturalist, resident camp director, and youth worker. He has led youth trips backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Recently he became a Sierra Club leader as a way of sharing his love of nature with others. Ken is certified in Wilderness First Aid and CPR.

Assistant Leader:

Tom Long is a retired high school teacher who recently became active in the Sierra Club. He has been on several trips including exploration in the Florida Keys and service trips in South Carolina and North Carolina (on which he was assistant leader). He has also been on a "Sierra Club modeled" service trip at Port Isobel with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Tom is a Virginia Master Naturalist. He enjoys kayaking, hiking, geocaching, history, and historic home renovation.

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