walk under the New River Gorge Bridge in West
Virginia begins near the New River Gorge National
River Canyon Rim Visitor Center.
W.Va. ó The New River Gorge Bridge is a monster.
know because I played a very minor, very dubious and very
unofficial role in the construction of the steel-arch
bridge that stands 876 feet above the river in
south-central West Virginia.
bridge was constructed from 1974 to 1977. For a time, I
worked days as a raft guide on the New River and floated
under the bridge in progress. My co-workers and I made a
few visits late at night.
ignored No Trespassing signs and barricades, clambering
out onto the steel beams. Some went farther than others. A
chain-link fence 40 feet below was the only safety net;
that possibility sounded very painful. Other scenarios
were even more frightening.
survived our youth. The statute of limitations has
expired, I have been told.
thereís a new way to explore the New River Gorge bridge
safely and 100 percent legally: Bridge Walk LLC.
offers a 3,030-foot walk from one end of the bridge to the
other, on a catwalk 25 feet below the roadway, traversing
the truss structure.
right: you are beneath the top of the bridge. It offers
out-of-this-world aerial views from the bottom of the
is not dangerous. Itís not high adventure. But it is
different and interesting. All you need to do is walk and
not be nervous about heights.
Walk has created a partnership with the National Park
Service and the West Virginia Department of Transportationís
Division of Highways. It offered the first walks in late
itís less a walk than a shuffle along a catwalk that is
24 inches wide with two railings. The floor is solid
metal. You canít see through it. It is normally used by
workers to inspect the bridge and make repairs.
puts participants as far as 851 feet above the swirling
brown waters of the New River at Fayette Station Rapid.
You are about 250 feet above the ground at the two ends of
recent summer visit, we walked through a cloud, looked
down on peregrine falcons and turkey vultures and, like
most participants, simply gawked at the scenery.
gorge itself is stunning: a wooded canyon nearly 900 feet
deep, part of New River Gorge National River that
stretches 53 miles and covers 73,000 acres.
watched rafts and kayaks floating through rapids so far
down, they looked almost miniature.
the surprising thing is that the underside of the bridge
features a sort of mechanical engineering beauty, as beams
come together with a magical and impressive symmetry. It
is a world of bolts and beams that create the seldom-seen
infrastructure with striking geometry.
dominant color is red-brown. Thatís because the bridge
was built to quickly develop a layer of rust that protects
it from more severe rust problems.
is big. Walkers wear a harness connected to a lanyard or
leash. That goes up to a carabiner hooked to a
transfastener, which runs along one of two parallel steel
cables that stretch above the catwalk and are anchored
other words, falling off is impossible.
got radios with an earphone to hear our guide, Joel, 17, a
veteran bridge guide in his third year.
the north end of the bridge we exited our bus in the rain
on a Sunday afternoon and made our way to the underside of
the bridge, near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center off U.S.
where we were affixed to the cable and began our
stop-and-start stroll. Everyone was a little nervous at
first. Some got more comfortable. A few remained skittish
the whole way.
took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes to cross to the south
end, where we got unhooked and caught our bus back to the
Bridge Walk headquarters.
walk convinced all of us that it is a very big bridge. It
is the third highest in the United States and the 13th
highest in the world. It appears on the West Virginia
quarter and on a postage stamp.
is the longest single-arch bridge in the Americas and the
third longest single-arch bridge in the world. It is also
the second highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the U.S.
is a national engineering landmark. The bridge cost $37
million when it was completed in 1977, weighs about 88
million pounds, and carries about 16,500 vehicles per day.
the catwalk, we clearly heard the traffic above. The
catwalk seemed fairly stable, but sections of railing
could be seen vibrating from the traffic. It felt like a
mini-earthquake. That made the nervous ones in our group
vibrations were strange. Some were stronger than others
and more noticeable. Some areas had no vibrations that we
walkers felt more comfortable clinging to the railing or
at least grabbing it occasionally. But each time you
grabbed the rail, you ended up with a handful of rust
traffic noise is louder over trusses that reach the
ground, and seem to disappear near the trusses that are
anchored to the 1,700-foot arch.
guideís advice was: If you feel nervous, donít look
down. Look out at eye-level to the surrounding
countryside. But thatís easier said than done with a
bridge atop you.
took lots of photographs. The cameras were all hooked to
our gear with carabiners so that they couldnít be
dropped off the bridge.
guide Joel told stories. Pigeons roosting on a particular
beam had produced white streaks on the rust-colored steel.
But two peregrine falcons moved in and nested on the
bridge. They preyed on the pigeons for food and the pigeon
droppings are no longer a concern. Peregrine falcons also
nest on sandstone cliffs in the park.
also pointed out mechanical features on the bridge:
expansion joints and box beams. The bridge is expanding
and contracting, but there is no sensation of swaying.
explained that the catwalk at the center of the bridge is
4 1/2 feet higher than at both ends.
bridgeís midpoint is actually above the south bank of
the New River. The traffic noise was more pronounced
directed our attention to the Fayette Station Bridge above
the rapid below us. Prior to the construction of the big
bridge, it was the only way across the New River. It took
about 45 minutes to make the crossing, compared to the 45
seconds it takes today on U.S. Route 19.
Aug. 13, Bridge Walk proudly proclaimed it had led 1,845
tours across the bridge with 11,777 customers. Of that
total, only 34 were unable or unwilling to complete the
trek, a 99.7 percent success rate.
is open year-round; there are no tours on Thanksgiving or
Christmas. Trips may be canceled by deep snow or high
are $69 plus tax. Participants must be at least 10 years
old and 48 inches tall and have a waist of 52 inches or
information, contact Bridge Walk 304-574-1300,