The “catwalk” (originally intended for bridge inspections) was opened a few years ago for tourists. The bridge itself is 876 feet above the river, and over 3000 feet long. From the catwalk, one can appreciate both the natural beauty of this whitewater river and wooded hillsides, as well as marvel at the civil engineering that allows a four-lane highway to pass unimpeded across the imposing gorge.
The headquarters for BridgeWalk is located at the first exit north of the bridge, adjacent to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center. There you sign the requisite paperwork and put on a safety harness. Then you take a short bus ride to the overlook above the bridge, before hiking a short distance down the hill, through a locked gate, and onto the catwalk underneath the bridge.
The catwalk itself is sturdy steel plating 24 inches wide, with strong handrails that were about waist high, as well as another bar about 6 inches above the floor on each side. In addition, the safety harness you wear is then clipped to an overhead cable. As you start, the maze of identical structural beams appears to stretch to infinity, just like looking into back-to-back mirrors. Although there is nothing to worry about, be aware that the traffic on the bridge above you (especially big trucks) can cause some minor vibrations that can be felt in the handrails.
Soon the ground slopes further and further away from you, as you walk towards the New River. Rafts and kayaks in a variety of colors can be seen floating down the river rapids. If you are lucky, a train might go by. Unlike most places in hilly, curvy West Virginia, this unique aerial vantage point is one of the few spots where a person might be able to see in one view an entire train from the engine to the end.
The tour guide provides lots of interesting information about the bridge and the history of the area. Near the midway point, our guide told us we could sit down and put our feet over the bottom bar if we wanted to get an interesting perspective. Some of my friends with whom I have shared the picture I took of my feet over the river tell me they got dizzy just looking at it!
As we approached the Fayetteville side of the bridge, we were able to see the young peregrine falcons that recently hatched, as well as the adult falcons. Indeed, one of the adults was perched on the handrail and waited until we got within 15 feet before finally flying away. These falcons are the fastest birds of all, and are capable of 200 MPH dives.
Once we reached the opposite end, we exited the bridge and had a short hike to where the shuttle bus picked us up to take us back to the BridgeWalk headquarters (http://www.bridgewalk.com/). It was an incredible way to experience the beauty of the New River Gorge.
[This story appeared in the August issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine.]