Just a couple miles away from the New River Gorge Visitors Center in West Virginia, the aptly named Endless Wall hiking trail offers vista after vista of the gorge, the famous arched bridge, and the rapid-churned New River far below. It’s a well-marked, mostly flat four-mile out-and-back that your grandmother could do in sneakers, but its rewards belie its accessibility. The trail begins amidst a surprisingly robust stand of hemlocks, some of the few left from the hemlock borer blight that has devastated so much of the Blue Ridge forests. These graceful conifers stand tall and limbless up to a high canopy where their piney needled tops sway in a breeze. At ground level, rhododendrons run riot across the stony ground, with nothing to block the view between them and the hemlock heads. Chris and I walked in an almost cathedral quiet, sunlight shafting in between the narrow columned trunks, just a tinkling stream and the caw of crows to mark the stillness.
Half a mile in, as we approached the “endless wall,” the hemlocks give way to the usual mixed deciduous forest of white oak, maple, and sycamore, their mustard, pumpkin, and occasional cranberry-colored leaves littering the path made a tunnel by over-branching rhododendrons (must be so fragrant here in springtime when they blossom!). I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural trick, of narrow passageways opening onto high-ceilinged rooms as we emerged from this tunnel onto our first vista, a rock outcropping directly at the edge of the ridge, with a magnificent view of the fgracefully arching rusty bridge that spans the gorge. Just far enough away not to hear the cars rushing along its arrow straight roadway, but not too high to miss the distant hushing churn of the river below. We stood as if on the edge of the world up there, and the steeply sloping hills, dappled in autumn colors, seemed like some rumpled shag rug, hawks and buzzards swirling below and then swooping past us to circle even higher in the sky.
Every hundred yards or so for as long as we wanted to walk, another spur trail offered another outcropping and yet another magnificent gorge view. One path goes to a climber’s ladder that disappears down a rock crack to a narrow ledge far below. We didn’t see any climbers on our walk, but what a series of challenges that miles-long wall of rock must offer! No kayakers on the river rapids either, as temps dipped down to freezing overnight, but it was easy to imagine our son Nick and his Passages Adventures crew blasting through the narrow white water channel there on that storied trip he took I think 3 years ago. The brisk air and the bracing vistas made me feel almost brave enough to consider taking up white water kayaking and rock climbing myself! Eventually we turned around, not even halfway through the hike, stopping on a broad flat rock and letting our legs hang over the edge, for lunch. Here’s my favorite picture from the hike: