Bridge Day 2011: New River Gorge Bridge

Thursday, October 20, 2011 |

It's time to take bridge walking to new heights, to the third highest bridge in North America, the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. One day each year, on the 3rd Saturday in October, what they call "Bridge Day", the bridge is closed to vehicles and a festival takes place, with the main entertainment being the BASE jumpers, yes, parachutists who jump off a platform in the middle of the bridge into the gorge below. No sidewalks on this bridge, so this is the only day of the year to be able to walk on out. Going to Bridge Day 2011 was definitely a great experience. I was perfectly happy though to just walk out to the middle and watch the jumpers, with plenty of adrenalin for me coming from being 876 feet above the river below, over three times higher than say the George Washington Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are quite breathtaking, and a great time of year for it with the leaves all around at full autumnal peak.

The New River Gorge Bridge is the 3rd highest in North America, topped only by Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado and the recently-completed the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge near the Hoover Dam between Arizona and Nevada. The New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, and the festival and BASE jumping started shortly thereafter. Fortunately, the bridge is mercifully short, at just over half a mile long. From the surface it looks just like a normal road, like a flat overpass for a four lane highway (2 lanes in each direction), but the great views off the side immediately remove any thoughts of being on a glorified overpass.

Why anyone would want to parachute off a perfectly good bridge is foreign to me, and a little disconcerting to see at first. But the 400 or so jumpers lined up for the opportunity. Unfortunately, one jumper was seriously injured when his chute did not fully deploy in time. But the jumping went on. Looking over the railing, we could see the jumpers trying to land in a small circle way below, just on the banks of the river, which if successful would net them $100. Most seemed to land in the drink, in the New River, where boats quickly pulled them out. There were also repellers going down from the bridge on long ropes.

Despite how disconcerted I expected to feel at such a height, I was pleasantly surprised on Bridge Day. The sides of the bridge were about chest level, just enough protection from a rogue wind gust, and the sides were almost completely solid. The bridge height also came on somewhat gradually, as the gorge widened out below, allowing some time for acclimation. Nonetheless, there were those jumpers who required renewed acclimation on my part.

We then took a bus down some little country roads to the bottom of the gorge, where we could see the bridge in all its glory, with the parachutists floating down. We also walked right through the area where the BASE jumpers were packing their parachutes for another jump, and we took the bus back up with those happy people.

I've been rating these bridge treks for scariness on a 1-10 scale for height, width, and length. But how to rate a bridge on height that blows my scale almost to the stratosphere, since every 20 to 25 feet has been worth about a point, with the idea being the highest bridges I could imagine going over, at about 250 feet, would be around a 10. But at some point, the added height starts to lose its power: can you really tell the difference between the 878 feet-high New River Bridge and a bridge that is say 50 feet lower? So, we'll arbitrarily give the New River Bridge a scariness rating of 15 for height, and combine that with a 3 rating for length, and a 3 for width (thanks to the high railings and solidity). That's a 21 total, certainly the scariest we've experienced yet. I'm hoping that future bridges will now seem like they are barely above the water below.