Travel

This Is the One Day You Can (Legally) BASE Jump in a National Park

New River Gorge's Bridge Day is back, now with a shiny new NPS status.

Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Mathes/AFP/Getty Images

When West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge was completed in 1977, it was a remarkable feat: a 22,000 ton stretch of steel spanning the gaping 3030 foot wide gorge, 876 feet above the churning, ice cold New River. It cost $37 million dollars, created four lanes of traffic, and cut the local commute from 45 minutes down to just one, bypassing winding Appalachian mountain roads. After it was completed, it stepped into its place as the longest single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2013, after only 34 years, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its engineering significance. It even has its own stamp.

During construction, people would look at the span and marvel. Perhaps even wondering what the views were like from up way there, a mere couple hundred feet shy of the Eiffel Tower, or if the construction workers were bothered by the wind. But one intrepid guy named Burton Ervin looked at it and thought: “A man could jump off of that.”Ervin was a coal mining foreman, Korean War Army Vet, and self-described hillbilly. He was also a skydiver jonesing for a new challenge. He saw it in the New River Gorge Bridge, later telling the local news, “I wanted to try something that you may or may not be able to achieve.”

But he was no dummy. He did his research, flying above at different times of day to test the wind, swimming in the New River below to test the undercurrents. Then, two years after the bridge opened, in the dead of night on Friday, August 17, 1979, he strapped a parachute onto his white Elvis-style jumpsuit and leapt into the darkness. About 200 spectators gathered for the event, which concluded when he splashed down into the water.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The stunt was not only illegal, but ill-advised in many ways-there’s technically no footpath on the bridge to keep him out of the way of vehicles, for one-but all area daredevils saw was that it ended… well enough. They began jumping off the bridge themselves at all times of day. Ervin noticed the trend, and urged local officials in Fayetteville to create a day where it would be legal to jump off of the bridge during daylight hours, providing jumpers with a safe outlet while creating revenue for the city at the same time. (According to his retelling, he told the Chamber of Commerce, “You’re not gonna stop these people from jumping off the bridge. You could make money off of this!”)

Ervin helped establish the first New River Gorge Bridge Day in 1980. Two people parachuted from a plane down to the bridge, five parachuted down into the Gorge, and certificates were given to 5,500 people who were the first to walk the span of the bridge. And though it was Burton’s first and last time organizing the event-“I’m just trying to live a good hillbilly life and have a little bit of freedom,” he said-a tradition was born. Bridge Day is now the oldest and largest organized BASE jumping event in the world, with 100,000 spectators annually (BASE is an acronym referring to the fixed objects from which they jump: Buildings, Antennas, bridges or “Spans,” and cliffs or “Earth”). It’s held annually on the third Saturday of October, and after a two year pandemic-fueled hiatus, the festivities are back.

A lot has happened in these past two years, including New River Gorge becoming the country’s 63rd National Park in 2020. Which means that come October 15, it will be the only National Park that legally allows BASE jumping. Burton Ervin would be so proud.

NPS Photo/John Chapman
NPS Photo/John Chapman
NPS Photo/John Chapman

Luckily, the National Park designation-or, more specifically, the 1965 law that prohibits “aerial delivery” of people or goods into national parks-won’t spoil the Bridge Day fun. This year’s event will still evoke aspects of that first celebration, imbued with Burton’s daredevil spirit. For 10 hours, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, and for six of those, it becomes a plaything for the adventurous, their onlookers, and anyone who just loves a good vantage point for scoping out fall foliage.

For the NPS’s part, they’ll provide a special use permit that lets BASE jumpers land in the park, and offer support in the form of rescue boats for water landings. Interpreters will also roam around the Bridge. Behind the scenes, the NPS sits as a non-voting member on the Bridge Day Committee.

Bridge Day West Virginia
Bridge Day West Virginia
Bridge Day West Virginia

The day’s schedule includes a 5K, rappelling down the bridge (with experienced teams chosen ahead of time by lottery), guided Bridge Walks on the catwalk 25 feet under the roadway, and High Line riding for the adrenaline-seeking general public. Whitewater rafting trips provide a different perspective of the BASE jumpers from below, as do shuttle trips down to the bottom of the Gorge (you can also hike the nine mile round-trip trek).

Should you feel the call of BASE jumping-congrats! For you, there’s the option to go solo, strapped in tandem to a professional, or be flung off with a human catapult. And you wouldn’t be lonely: Participation has grown quite a bit since that first jump in 1980. In 2019, Bridge Day saw 300 jumpers from all over the world, participating in 790 jumps; the youngest BASE jumper for the event so far has been 19 years old, the oldest, 81. And it’s a creative bunch. There have been clown jumpers and flying pigs. There was a Bridge Day wedding in 1990 where they tied the knot then jumped (and, thankfully, did not get… knotted up). A few jumpers even donned Presidential masks and full suits. That’s commitment.

NPS
NPS
NPS

October 7 is the deadline to sign up to jump, and this one is especially good if you’re a beginner. Thanks to the bridge’s low height, rescue personnel in the water, accessible day-of training, and experienced staff on hand, the Bridge Day jump is one of the safest first BASE jumps you can make, and attracts about 100 newbies every year. (To solo jump, you must already have 50 skydives under your belt, but if not, there’s always the tandem option.)

For the rest of us who like to watch, festivities start at 9 am and end at 3 pm. If you want to get an early start, October 14 marks the Taste of Bridge Day at the Adventures on the Gorge resort, with 16 vendors serving everything from crab boils to pizza. So go ahead… gorge yourself.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. If she jumped she would probably dress like a bird or something.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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