New River Gorge National River
While many prominent national parks reach into West Virginia, from the Appalachian Trail to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to the Chesapeake Bay, the New River Gorge National River, which spreads over 70,000 acres entirely within the state, is home to the state’s most jaw-dropping vistas.
If you have only a day to explore, Dave Bieri, acting chief of interpretation and visitor services, recommends that your first stop be the Canyon Rim Center next to the New River Gorge Bridge. From here there are options for both a short canyon rim walk or a scenic drive — better in vans than full-size buses — that goes to the bottom of the bridge and back up the other side.
On the southern end of the park, Grandview, simultaneously home to the highest elevation in the park and the deepest part of the gorge, is easily reached by bus and includes both picnic areas and a ridge hiking trail that is “really easy going with fantastic views without expending too much energy,” according to Bieri.
From here, groups can switch gears from millennia-old beauty to a look at the short-lived impact of humans on the gorge at Thurmond, once one of the biggest towns on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway and now a ghost town with only six permanent residents, where you can freely wander the old main street, the coal-mining operation and the train station.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
No visit to New Orleans is complete without a stop in the French Quarter, but it is also the beginning of a trail of six connected natural and historical sites that make up Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, a set of locations that tell the story of the people and events that have intermingled to create the cultural melange that is Louisiana today.
In addition to the French Quarter, two other locations, the Barataria Preserve, a 23,000-acre wetland where you can see bayous and alligators from elevated boardwalks, and the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, the site of the 1812 Bath of New Orleans, are in the New Orleans Area. The remaining three, which focus on the history and culture of the Acadians, the French settlers who would become known as Cajuns, lie further afield in Lafayette, the prairies of Eunice and the wetlands of Thibodaux.
Each site has its own visitor center with programming and exhibits, but it is recommended that groups start with a ranger tour of the French Quarter riverfront boardwalk for a general history of the delta and the people who shaped it. Many of the park’s visitor centers are closed on Sundays or key weekdays, however; so it’s best to be in contact with the park service early in the planning to secure guided tours on your desired dates.