The New River slashes through southern West Virginia, cutting the deepest and longest river gorge in Appalachia. This spectacular sight draws visitors from around the world to the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River, a part of the National Park Service. Running from Fayetteville, West Virginia, in the north to Hinton, West Virginia, in the south, the NRGNR stretches 53 miles from end to end. Nestled in the steep slopes of the gorge are hundreds of rugged waterfalls that are fertile ground for challenging hikes and striking photos.
In the Appalachian Mountains, weather can change quickly. Summer thunderstorms can pop up, and winters can be snowy. During the summer, temperatures are moderate, averaging in the 50s for lows and the 70s for highs. Precipitation is fairly evenly spread throughout the year, with July being the wettest month.
Of the hundreds of waterfalls in the New River Gorge, I have five favorites. Cathedral Falls is located on U.S. Highway 60 at a roadside rest stop one mile east of Gauley Bridge. Descending 60 feet in a series of three dramatic drops, Cathedral Falls is as photogenic as they come. Sitting at the end of the Fisherman’s Trail, Turkey Creek Falls, pictured here, is just six miles down the road at Hawks Nest State Park and is best photographed after some heavy summer rains. Setups are limited to a bridge that crosses Turkey Creek right at the base of the falls. Sitting so close to the falls, a wide-angle lens is essential.
Flanked by 60-foot-high sandstone cliffs, Fern Creek Falls near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center epitomizes a New River Gorge waterfall—rough and rocky. During average runoff, the falls are confined to a deep, vertical cleft in the cliff, but at high water, part of the waterfall shoots over the cliff edge and plunges 50 feet into a pool below.
Wolf Creek Falls, located by the Kaymoor trailhead on Fayette Station Road, is rough and rugged, too. The falls are below the road and a little downstream from the trailhead parking. A bushwhacked trail to the falls is steep and rocky, and choked with rhododendron. The trail opens up half-way down, with spectacular views of the falls to your right.
No tour of the New River Gorge waterfalls would be complete without a stop at Sandstone Falls, which is nine miles north of Hinton. Worldwide, Sandstone Falls ranks 19th by width and 33rd by volume. The falls are easily explored by a quarter-mile, handicapped-accessible boardwalk that leads to observation decks, but for the finest views, take a bushwhacked trail to the right near the end of the boardwalk. It leads to an island with panoramic views of the falls.
Waterfall prime time in the gorge extends from March through May. At this time, the streams are full from spring thaw and rains. Moreover, by May, the forest canopy has leafed out, gracing the landscape in lush greens. Summer works well if you can catch the streams after a few days of rain. Due to high contrasts, waterfalls are best photographed under overcast skies.
Neutral-density and polarizing filters are crucial for waterfall shoots. Use an ND filter like the HOYA PROND4 to reduce the light entering your lens, allowing for longer shutter speeds to blur the falls. A circular polarizer eliminates glare on the foliage and water. Contact: HOYA (Kenko Tokina USA), kenkotokinausa.com.