If you aren’t in the habit of regularly throwing yourself out of airplanes or high structures, you may not have heard of Bridge Day, a festival held every October in West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River. The festival is most well-known for the colorful parade of BASE jumpers leaping from the top of the New River Gorge’s 876-foot-high bridge. But Bridge Day is more than simply an event for BASE jumpers. It’s also a great event for hikers, rafters, kayakers, mountain bikers, and is a great gathering for spectators of everything from extreme sports to extreme fall scenery.
Bridge Day celebrates the New River Gorge bridge, which was completed in 1979. At over 3,000 feet long, it is one of the largest bridges in North America, and spans the entirety of the New River canyon. For one day every year, one lane of the bridge closes to motor vehicles, allowing festival participants to walk across the length of the bridge. The view from the top is stunning, especially in mid-October, which is often peak season for fall foliage. A variety of vendors set up stands on the bridge, selling everything from fair food to local handicrafts. The event bills itself as the world’s largest extreme sports event, and also the best venue in the world to easily view BASE jumping live. They’re not kidding about this one – during Bridge Day, one jumper leaps from the bridge approximately every thirty seconds.
Bridge Day works to make extreme altitude experiences attainable – and safe – for novices. Novice BASE jumpers are welcome and encouraged to participate – however, prospective jumpers need to have logged a minimum of 200 skydives, and register in advance of the event. Jumpers are also required to submit to either fingerprinting or a background check, as well a pay a $75 fee. Novice jumpers may also participate by registering for a tandem jump – no previous skydives required – though this comes with a hefty price tag of $1,075. Rappelling teams also get in on the fun – ascending and descending from the bridge using fixed lines. Applications from teams of experienced rappellers must be made prior to June. Adrenaline enthusiasts can also sign up for a high line ride, which requires no special skills or equipment – just a head for heights. High line riders will glide for 600-700 feet while dropping 300 vertical feet – tickets are available for $165, and participants need to register prior to the event.
For hikers, the bridge closure makes it possible to walk a loop – across the bridge, down into the gorge via the Fayette Station road (alternately taking in the fall foliage, and getting views of the BASE jumpers wafting their way 900 feet down to the river below) and then across the much smaller Fayette Station bridge at the bottom of the gorge. From there, intrepid hikers can continue hiking back up to the top of the canyon. In previous seasons, it was often possible to snag a ride up to the top of the gorge by catching a ride on the shuttle buses used to ferry the BASE jumpers to the top of the gorge after their jump (most BASE jumpers jump multiple times, many getting back in line as soon as they have re-packed their gear from the previous jump). Starting last year, seats on these buses are now being sold to spectators, meaning seats for hikers may not be as easy to come by. Either plan on the thigh workout that comes with hiking the entire loop (9 miles up and down), or go ahead and pay $25 to reserve yourself a seat on the shuttle bus. The New River, which is a unit of the National Park Service, also has some fantastic hiking options nearby, many of which remain on the rim, thus taking best advantage of the views and avoiding the torturous climb back up from the river. Local favorites include the Long Point trail or the Endless Wall. Stop in at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center for maps and other suggested routes.
Mountain bikers can also pedal into the gorge, though you’ll be in for a serious workout pedaling back up. Be aware that bicycles are not allowed on the bridge itself during the festival, so you’ll want to come up and down on the same side (I recommend the north side, as that section of Fayette Station Road is both shorter and more scenic than the south side).
Water sports more your thing? The New River is famous for being home to some of the best whitewater runs in the eastern United States, and during Bridge Day, the river is dotted with rafts and kayaks, most taking the opportunity to eddy out at the bottom of the bridge to watch the BASE jumpers parachuting in from above. In addition to the New River, the nearby Gauley and Cheat Rivers also offer world-class whitewater during the fall. A number of local outfitters run guided river trips ranging from two hours to two days. Some also rent equipment, such as kayaks or mountain bikes (book early if you’re planning on paddling on or near Bridge Day).
This year, Bridge Day will happen on Saturday, October 15, 2016. If you go, plan on parking off-site and taking one of the shuttles to the bridge itself – a shuttle pass is only $2; they depart from a variety of locations on the north and south sides of the bridge. Admittance to the festival itself is free. Due to security concerns, backpacks and large handbags may not be brought onto the bridge; large coolers or folding chairs are also not allowed, and your personal bags may be searched upon entering.
For more information on attending, visit http://www.officialbridgeday.com.
For information on lodging, and other suggestions for attractions in the area, check out visitfayettevillewv.com, or newrivergorgecvb.com
For guided rafting on the New and other nearby rivers, as well as many other local adventure activities, check out adventuresonthegorge.com.
For hiking options in and around the New River Gorge, go to http://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/hiking.htm