It’s a manmade wonder that makes the Mountain State proud – a massive steel arch bridge that stretches across a natural wonder. The mere existence of the New River Gorge Bridge opened the mountains to the outside world. Its construction defies belief. It’s amazing, but you can only walk across it one day a year.
Except… that’s not true. You can walk across the New River Gorge Bridge almost any time, assuming you’re willing to do something that’s a little scary. You see, there’s a catwalk underneath the road’s surface — a narrow steel plank that runs the length of the bridge. And if you’re willing to pay for a guided tour, and you can control your fear of heights, you can walk across that catwalk, and get an eye-opening view of the steel bones that hold this wonder together.
The New River Gorge Bridge is located along US 19, just north of Fayetteville, West Virginia. The headquarters for Bridge Walk, the tour company, is located near the North Rim Visitor Center.
A walk across the New River Gorge Bridge’s catwalk begins in a gift shop. This is the check-in station where you meet your guide and get equipped for the walk.
I had called the previous night and made a reservation. It’s a good idea to do so because the guides can take just a limited number of people across the bridge every day. On this day, though, a crowd wasn’t a problem. I was happy to find out that I’d be the only one crossing the bridge in my group — just me and my guide.
Walking across a catwalk, some 851 feet above the rapids of the New River, is not necessarily a safe thing to do. That’s why everyone is required to wear a harness that hooks into an overhead safety cable. You put the harness on before you leave the front porch, and you don’t take it off until you return.
New River Gorge Bridge – The Bridge Walk
The first stop of the tour is the overlook, located behind the North Rim Visitor Center. From this spot, you’ll get some perspective on what you’re about to do, and probably chat with some tourists who have a few questions about the bridge walk.
The entryway to the catwalk is located just below the viewpoint.
Anyone who wanders down here will find a locked gate. My guide, however, had the key.
And then, you’re doing it! My guide started out in front, but soon let me take the lead. The entire catwalk stretched out in front of me — 3,030 feet from end to end.
Perhaps you’re wondering, what kind of views can you enjoy with a concrete slab right above your head? It’s true, the view up is not all that great, but the view down more than makes up for it. From the catwalk, you can look straight down at the gorge, the river, and the structure that’s holding you up.
The tether that connects you to the safety cable is long enough to allow you to sit down on the catwalk, and dangle your feet over the edge. Here, you can see one end of the arch, directly below my feet.
Look to the left, and you can see the old Fayette Station Bridge. This used to be the only way to cross the New River in the area. You’d have to make a long, winding drive down a one-lane road to the bottom of the gorge, then back up the other side. You can still drive across this bridge, and it’s worth the trip for the stunning views of the big bridge.
I observed a few interesting things while on the catwalk. For one, it’s not quiet. Your head is just a few feet below the cars and semi-trucks passing overhead. There’s an almost constant roar from the traffic, and when a big truck goes overhead, you’ll hear it and feel it. The New River Gorge Bridge vibrates quite a bit — definitely more than I expected. The noise and vibrations are greatest around the expansion joints, where a small crack in the road surface allows the bridge to flex with the weather.
The concrete slab isn’t the only part of the bridge that needs to expand. The whole bridge needs to move — and that’s why the entire structure sits on gears like this one. If the bridge gets longer or shorter, these gears can shift slightly to accommodate it.
Along the way, you might notice a metal door in the middle of the catwalk. My guide opened the door and let me look down the ladder. This passageway provides access to the structure of the bridge, necessary for inspections and repairs. It’s a little bit scary to walk along the catwalk, but the thought of climbing down and into the hollow steel legs of the bridge is panic-inducing.
Near the middle of the bridge, you’ll be able to look straight down at the river below — about 851 feet below you, and 876 feet below the road surface.
Looking north, up the gorge, you should be able to see the bridge’s shadow on a sunny day.
And it’s never a bad idea to take another break, and hang your feet over the edge.
Continue down the catwalk, and it seems like no time at all before you’re at the end. From the far end of the catwalk, you exit the bridge and hike over to a parking area. A shuttle from Bridge Walk will meet you, and take you back to the starting point.
Here’s a look at the drive into the New River Gorge on Fayette Station Road:
The Bottom Line
Hiking the catwalk underneath the New River Gorge Bridge is a great way to appreciate the gorge and the remarkable structure that spans it.