This story started out as a quest for visually stunning fall foliage within driving distance of Baltimore. I’m a photojournalist, so any decent view has my interests piqued. One of West Virginia’s taglines is “Wild and Wonderful,” so I figured starting there was a good choice. I already knew it was wonderful, but I ended up learning how wild it really is.
In August 1979, United States Army veteran Burton Ervin jumped from the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville at 10:20 p.m. with over 200 people watching. Now, every year on the third Saturday of October — or Bridge Day, as the locals call it — adrenaline junkies come from all around the world to jump off the same 3,030-foot-long and 876-foot-high bridge. Some aim for a landing target instead of the river below and others, well, they hope they just land.
New River Gorge is the Western Hemisphere’s longest single-span arch bridge and the fifth longest in the world. Bridge Day is the only time people are legally allowed to BASE (building, antenna, span, earth) jump off it. Participants line up on platforms and jump into the trees below, letting out little “woo hoos!” on their way. Many pulled their chutes as soon as they jumped, while others waited until the water got bigger and bigger to pull theirs. (I’m told that’s where the rush really comes in.)
Located about a six-hour drive from Baltimore City, Fayetteville is a bit of a hike but enjoyable if you make the journey during the fall when the leaves are beyond beautiful and the colors — and people — are popping. It was voted one of America’s coolest small towns and also named “Best Adventure Town” by WV Living, the latter of which designation it certainly lived up to when I visited.
When not watching people throw themselves from high places, I enjoyed what Fayetteville itself had to offer. It’s very reminiscent of Berlin, a small town near Ocean City. There were several local shops, restaurants, plenty of outdoor activities and a sweet little coffee shop called Range Finder Coffee. I can only gather that I, a photographer, must have been in the exact right place at the right moment to stumble into a coffee shop that was vintage camera-themed and enjoy a honey sea-salt latte (about $6).
Though Bridge Day makes Fayetteville come to life with so many out-of-town people flooding the tiny city, the town is still jumping even after the BASE jumping is finished for the day. Parties start ramping up afterward as live music, food and vendors dot the landscape. The laid-back and chill environment was a stark juxtaposition to the earlier daredevil acts.
Tips for your trip
If you’re coming from far away, plan your trip early! People come from all over to see and participate in Bridge Day, so the town gets filled quickly. While this year’s numbers aren’t available yet, last year’s event had 350 jumpers from 39 states and four countries who made 737 jumps to the delight of over 140,000 spectators.
So book that lodging as soon as possible. Even though I found out about Bridge Day roughly six weeks before its annual date, it was very difficult for me to find a hotel room within a 20-minute radius. I would have much rather spent time with lunar moths and butterflies in a cozy cabin than pay more than $250 total for two nights with the roaches in a hotel off the highway.
The organization of Bridge Day itself is phenomenal; they’ve had four decades to perfect it. At least 10 shuttle stops (a ride is $5 cash) are on both sides of the New River Gorge Bridge, so no matter where you are staying or coming from you will have easy access to them. There are even color-coded wristbands so you know which shuttle to get on when the day is over. The bridge itself is shut down to traffic for the whole day, so vendors with food, drinks and crafts line the way to where the BASE jumping happens. I had no issues navigating my way to or from the bridge and back to my car.
If you’re planning to do more than spectate, though, you’ll have a lot more to prepare. To jump off the bridge, you must have made 50 prior parachute jumps, skydives and/or BASE jumps. It’s not for the faint of heart. Three people have died over the years during the event, and one ended up paralyzed. The most recent fatality was in 2006, when the jumper did not deploy his parachute in time. But Bridge Day helpers are prepared to do their part, too. Experienced staff members check every jumper’s gear for safety, and every year they catch issues that could have resulted in death.
Unafraid and still thinking about it? Find out more information on qualifications here. Otherwise, enjoy the awe-making views both human- and nature-made.