The New River, Part I: Alleghany and Ashe County, North Carolina

August 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

This is the first of a short series of articles that will examine the New River, the largest river which flows through Southwest Virginia, and the source of great outdoor opportunities in the region including paddling and fishing.

Canoeing the New River in the North Carolina "High Country" - Click to Enlarge

Purportedly the second oldest river in the world (only the Nile in Africa is older), the New River predates the Appalachian Mountains (themselves some of the oldest mountain ranges in the world).  Geologists explain that this river existed before the tectonic shift that caused the uplift of the Appalachia range.  The river more or less continued its present-day path during the tectonic shift, cutting through the mountains as they were created.

The New begins high in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. The New actually starts as two rivers, the North Fork and South Fork of the New. These two forks join in Ashe County before flowing north and west through Virginia into West Virginia. The mighty New ends when it confluences with the Gauley River to form the Kanawah River, which flows into the Ohio River at the West Virginia/Ohio state line.

In the 2001 bestseller Far Appalachia, author and radio host Noah Adams travelled the length of the New River from North Carolina to West Virginia, recounting the scenery, his interactions with local residents along the way, and his autobiographical musings about his own family’s heritage in the region.  In the book, Adams notes that there are two views as to the source point, or the true beginning, of the New.  On the South Fork, it is somewhere near Blowing Rock; on the North Fork, it is somewhere on the upper part of Snake Mountain, one of the highest peaks in northwestern North Carolina.  (As an aside, Blood, Sweat and Gears, the well-known challenge century road bike race that starts and ends in Valle Crucis, NC every June, traverses the high road over Snake Mountain.  I can attest it is very difficult climb on a road bike.) 

My son Karl and I did our own “section” paddle trips and travels to different parts of the New River Blueway, or paddle trail, over the course of this summer.  For non-hiking readers, a “section” hike is the partial completion of a long trail, like the Appalachian Trail, in “sections”.  Most hikers on the AT, for example, are section hikers, not thru hikers.  We applied this concept to the New River, taking on several distinct sections of the river to observe and experience the river along its course.  This article is the trip report about the first section.  In June we travelled from Abingdon to Ashe and Allegheny County to paddle a 13-mile stretch of the South Fork of the New (above the confluence).  This section of the New is part of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina.  An excellent map of the New River Paddle Trail in North Carolina is here.

This section of the New is also recognized as a National Scenic and Wild River.  National Wild and Scenic Rivers

possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values, [and] shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

This section of the river is also part of the North Carolina New River State Park (there is also a New River State Park in Virginia, but that is for the next article). We elected to paddle the section from Wagoner Road to Route 221. The trip is about a five or six-hour paddle, not including stops.  Here was our route:

Wagoner Road to Route 221

In North Carolina the New River is still a moderately sized river.  Both the North Fork and the South Fork are navigable.  There are apparently some trout in the upper reaches of the New River, most notably high on the North Fork section.  However, where we were paddling the river was already somewhat warm (compared to trout waters).  The section of the New from the confluence to the Virginia state line is supposed to be a fairly good smallmouth fishery.  We were above that section.  We fished the 13-mile stretch of the South Fork intermittently with light spinning tackle, and did not catch anything.

Yes, That's Really Rhododendron on the River! - Click to Enlarge

The flora up in the North Carolina High Country is a bit different from down in the New River Valley in Virginia.  For example, there were rhododendron on the banks of the river and stands of pine trees mixed in with the hardwoods.

Make no mistake, although moderately sized, this is still a powerful river.  There are numerous boulders and riffles that I imagine cause current changes to a much greater extent when the river is at a higher cubic feet per second (CFU).  We ran the river in low water, however it is probably quite a different river during the springtime.  On this section of the New, where it is designated a National Scenic and Wild River, there are relatively few homes or other signs of development.  You go through whole sections of river where the trees come right down to the water, and there are no homes visible up river or down river.

Geese and Goslings

 On this paddling trip, we saw geese, beaver or otter, osprey, and ducks.  There were also hunting blinds set up in some of the open fields along the river.  The water along the 13-mile stretch we paddled was mostly flat or moderate Class I rapids.  There were a few submerged rock shelves over which we had to paddle, and we almost bottomed out in a place or two.

Overall, this is a nice paddle trip.  It may be a bit long for some folks.  There are shorter alternatives along this route, and both up river and down river from the section that we completed.  The New River State Park has several access points.

One thing we did not do, that should be done if you are in the area, is have breakfast or lunch at Shatley Springs Inn, an old inn and restaurant that is a true old-timey place renowned for its family style dining with delicious North Carolina country food. 

Breakfast at Shatley Springs and/or a canoe trip down the New would be an excellent day trip down from a camping trip in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area in Virginia. We have in fact done this in the past. 

Cumulus Clouds Over the New River

Directions

It takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive from Abingdon to the Route 221 Bridge crossing (where the New River State Park is located, and where we rented our canoe).  From Abingdon, drive to Damascus, then up Route 58 past the Beartree Lake area.  Up on the mountain, Route 58 makes a sharp right-hand turn.  You can continue on Route 58 through Whitetop, or instead stay straight on Route 603, aka Konnarock Road.  Either one will eventually take you to Route 16/Route 58 south.  I prefer going via Route 603 over to Route 16, as it is a straighter road.

At Route 16/58 head south to Mouth of Wilson.  Drive through Mouth of Wilson.  Here Route 16/58 split.  To get to the New River State Park at the Route 221, bear left and stay on Route 58.  After about 1 mile there is a junction with Route 93.  Turn right on Route 93.  This turns into Route 113 at the NC state line.

Drive on Route 113 for about 8 miles, until it junctions with Route 221.  (At this intersection is a BBQ restaurant called Motleys.)

Make a right on Route 221.  Route 221 is a very twisty road, taking you through the small community of Scottsville, NC (just a few homes and churches) and after about 5 miles on Route 221 you will see the signs for the New River State Park.  A nother mile or so and you will cross the New River.  Immediately on the right there is an old General Store with inadequate parking right on Route 221.  Behind this store is New River Outfitters.

Note:  There are plenty of other outfitters in the area.  National Geographic makes an excellent map of the entire New River watershed, it is Map 773, New River Blueway, and it contains names of most of the outfitters in NC, VA, and WV with their locations identified clearly on the map. 

Note:  This area of North Carolina is very rural, and the roads are very twisty.  Getting around is not intuitive until you know the roads.  Carry a good map, use a GPS, etc.  In addition, this makes getting to and from the canoe/kayak drop off points difficult.  This is another reason using an outfitter in this area is good idea.

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