FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. — The New River Gorge Bridge is a monster.
I know because I played a very minor, very dubious and very unofficial role in the construction of the steel-arch bridge that stands 876 feet above the river in south-central West Virginia.
The bridge was constructed from 1974 to 1977, and for a portion of that time I worked days as a raft guide on the New River and floated under the bridge-in-progress. My co-workers and I made a few visits late at night. Ignoring “No Trespassing” signs and barricades, we would clamber out onto the steel beams, a chain-link fence 40 feet below our only safety net.
Thankfully, we survived our youth, and the statute of limitations has expired, I have been told.
Now there’s a new way to explore the New River Gorge bridge safely and 100 percent legally: Bridge Walk LLC.
The 3,030-foot catwalk runs 25 feet below the roadway, traversing the truss structure from one end to the other, offering out-of-this-world aerial views from underneath the bridge. It is not dangerous. It’s not high adventure. But it is different and interesting. All you need to do is walk and not be too nervous about heights.
Bridge Walk formed as a partnership between the National Park Service and the West Virginia Department of Transportation’s Division of Highways. The first walks were offered in late September 2010.
But it’s truly less of a walk than a shuffle along the 24-inch wide catwalk bounded by two railings. The floor is solid metal and is normally used by workers to inspect the bridge and make repairs. Visitors wear a harness connected to a lanyard or leash that goes up to a carabiner hooked to a transfastener, which runs along one of two parallel steel cables stretching above the catwalk and anchored overhead.
In other words, falling off is impossible.
The bridge takes sightseers as high as 851 feet above the swirling brown waters of the New River at Fayette Station Rapid. The bridge is about 250 feet above the ground at either end.
On a recent summer visit, we walked through a cloud, looked down on peregrine falcons and turkey vultures and, like most participants, gawked at the scenery. The gorge itself is stunning: a wooded canyon nearly 900 feet deep, part of New River Gorge National River that stretches 53 miles and covers 73,000 acres.
Rafts and kayaks floating through the rapids below look almost miniature.
Another surprising thing is that when you look up, the underside of the bridge reveals itself as a mechanical engineering beauty. Beams come together with a magical and impressive symmetry. It is a world of bolts and beams that create the seldom-seen infrastructure with striking geometry.
To start our walk, we all got radios with an earphone to be able to hear our guide and rode a bus to the underside of the bridge, near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center off U.S. Route 19.
That’s where we were affixed to the cable and began our stop-and-start stroll. Everyone was a little nervous at first. Some got more comfortable. A few remained skittish the whole way.
It took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes to cross to the south end, where we got unhooked and caught our bus back to the Bridge Walk headquarters.
That walk convinced all of us that it is a very big bridge. It is the third highest in the United States and the 13th highest in the world. It appears on the West Virginia quarter and on a postage stamp.
It is the longest single-arch bridge in the Americas and the third-longest single-arch bridge in the world. It is also the second-highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the U.S. and a national engineering landmark. The bridge cost $37 million when it was completed in 1977, weighs about 88 million pounds and carries about 16,500 vehicles per day.
Our guide’s advice was: If you feel nervous, don’t look down. Look out at eye level to the surrounding countryside. But that’s easier said than done with a bridge atop you.
We took lots of photographs. The cameras were all hooked to our gear with carabiners so that they couldn’t be dropped off the bridge.
Through Aug. 13, Bridge Walk proudly proclaimed it had led 1,845 tours across the bridge with 11,777 customers. Of that total, only 34 were unable or unwilling to complete the trek, a 99.7 percent success rate.