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Bob Downing, MCT
Sandstone Falls on New River north of Hinton, W.Va., drops 10 to 25 feet. The falls are 1,500 feet wide.

HINTON, W.Va. — The southern half of the New River Gorge is like comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

It gets no respect.

Everyone loves the northern part of the gorge near Fayetteville with its whitewater rafting, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, historic sites and spectacular Almost Heaven scenery. It's also where you will find the impressive U.S. 19 bridge over the New River.

The New River Gorge National River was created in 1978. It covers 70,000 acres and stretches 53 miles along the stream that starts in North Carolina and forms the Kanawha River at Gauley Bridge.

But the southern part of the gorge south of the old rail and coal town of Thurmond has its own attractions: especially Grandview, Sandstone Falls and the old rail town of Hinton.

There is also a green or environmentally friendly visitor center north of Hinton: the Sandstone Visitor Center at Sandstone.

Grandview offers, well, really grand views of the gorge.

The views of the New River Gorge are impressive from the three main overlooks at Grandview.

You are atop the gorge and cliffs: about 1,400 feet above the New River.

From the main lookout, you can view seven miles of the gorge, complete with still-active rail lines at the bottom of the canyon.

In fact, you are so high that are looking down on circling turkey and black vultures that are circling below.

In the early spring, the leaves have not yet emerged that increases into-the-gorge visibility.

You can look down to the old town of Quinnimont where the first coal was shipped from the New River Gorge in 1873 and its rail yard.

The North Overlook offers a view of the old Harrah farm and the horseshoe-shaped bend in the New River.

The Turkey Spur Overlook is the northern-most viewing spot at Grandview. It is accessible by vehicles. It is a two-mile drive. There are 150 steps to climb to the top overlook.

The Grandview overlooks are the highest along the New River in the federal park.

Grandview becamepart of the federal national river in 1990 after more than 50 years as one of West Virginia's most popular day-use state parks.

In 1939, the West Virginia Conservation Commission purchased the initial 50 acres for the park from the Admiralty Coal Co. Work on the park began in 1940 by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps.

The 892-acre area is east of Beckley off state Route 9 and about five miles north of Interstate 64. Use Exit 129.

Grandview is also widely known for its colorful-when-blooming rhododendrons.

There is a small visitors center that is open from noon to 5 p.m. daily from June through August, five short hiking trails stretching six miles along the rim, three overlooks, picnic areas and ranger-led walks and talks.

The Little Laurel Trail is two miles one-way and drops into the gorge near Prince. It follows an old road for two miles and goes past an old coal mine at Royal.

The Grandview Rim Trail runs 1.6 miles one way along the canyon's rim. It is the longest trail. It is a moderate hike with several short steep sections near Turkey Spur Overlook.

The half-mile Tunnel Trail offers rocky sandstone outcroppings. It short and offers the most shade.

The Castle Rock Trail is short (0.6 miles) and strenuous with rock walls and exposed coal seams.

At Grandview, you are very close to trailheads that provide access to Glade Creek, a shady trout stream that flows into the New River. A 5.6-mile abandoned rail line runs along the stream with its numerous swimming holes and samll cascades. Check with the National Park Service for updates on trailhead access.

Grandview is also home to Theatre West Virginia that stages outdoor dramas from June through August. Call 800-666-9142 for more information.

The shows include "Honey in the Rock" and "Hatfields & McCoys," plus musicals "The Jungle Book" and "All Shook Up."

They are staged from mid-June to late August.

Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for senior citizens and $9 for children unhder 12. There are also discounts for being American Automobile Association members.

For theater information, write to Theatre West Virginia, P.O. Box 1205, Beckley, WV 25802,304-256-6800 or 800-666-9142, www.theatrewestvirginia.com.

For Grandview information, call 304-763-3715 or 304-763-3145.

You will find the very impressive Sandstone Falls to the southeast near Hinton.

It is the largest waterfall within the federally designated national river and one of the most-photographed falls in the state of West Virginia.

The north-flowing stream drops 10 to 25 feet at Sandstone Falls. The river is about 1,500 feet wide and divided by a series of islands.

At low water, Sandstone Falls is a series of small waterfall, separated by islands and rocky outcroppings.

At high water, the New River thunders over the cascades and sends a watery spray into the air.

The average flow is about 8,000 cubic feet per second. The highest recorded stream volume was 246,000 cubic feet per second on Aug. 15, 1940.

I visited Sandstone Falls in April at very high water.

It looked and sounded like Niagara Falls. The water was thundering over the drop. It was pretty awesome — even from a distance.

You can only view Sandstone Falls in sections. It's not all visible at once. Sandstone Falls are 8.5 miles north of Hinton.

You can get up an up-high look at the falls from 600 feet above the river on state Route 20. That overlook is 3 miles south of Interstate 64 and 8.5 miles north of Hinton.

To get an up-close look at the falls, you have to travel through Hinton and then head north on River Road (state Route 26). It runs north on the west side of the New River from state Route 20. It is a one-lane road most of the way.

At the falls, you will find an accessible boardwalk that crosses two bridges and leads to observation decks and islands below the falls.

You are a bit closer to the cascades on the west bank. The falls on the east side of the river are a little farther away.

There is a half-mile loop trail that circles the largest island below the falls.

The land around Sandstone Falls was once timbered, farmed and grazed. A grist mill and a ferry operated below the falls.

Today an unusual ecosystem thrives below the falls: an Appalachian riverside flat-rock community.

Floods have periodically swept over the hard, horizontal sandstone. That has carried away soil and vegetation. Only plants that withstand such conditions survive on the rocks.

Sandstone Falls is a popular fishing spot for smallmouth bass and catfish.

It has also been the site of a number of drownings over the years.

The New River is one of the oldest in the world, going back 65 million years to the ancient Teays River. The stream falls 750 feet in 50 miles but its southern section near Hinton is rather placid and calm. There are a few small rapids but it's ideal for beginners.

It was named an American Heritage River in 1998. It is one of 14 streams to be so designated.

Nearby is Brooks Falls offers river ledges and a watery hole. It sits next to the road as you head from Hinton to Sandstone Falls.

From that trailhead, you can access the Big Branch Trail, a streuous, 2-mile loop known for its small waterfalls, wildflowers and old farmsteads.

The National Park Service opened the Sandstone Visitor Center in 2003 in the hamlet of Sandstone.

The facility focuses on the New River watershed, its natural and cultural history and its activities over the years including timbering and coal mining.

It offers educational exhibits on the park, its resources and its heritage.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except a few holidays.

For information, call 304-466-0417.

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Nearby Hinton, once a major rail town on the New River, has its own historic district that is on the National Register of Historic Places. A walking tour of the downtown area is available.

For park information, contact New River Gorge National River, P.O. Box 246, Glen Jean, WV 25846, 304-465-0508, www.nps.gov/neri.

For tourist information, contact the Southern West Virginia Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1799, Beckley, WV 25802, 800-VISIT WV, www.visitwv.com.

Also the Summers County Chamber of Commerce, 238 Main St., Hinton, WV 25951, 304-466-5332, www.summerscountychamberofcommerce.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.