This article was produced in partnership with West Virginia Department of Tourism
The New River may be iconic, but it’s also a misnomer: It’s actually one of the oldest rivers on Earth. No one knows exactly when it started to trickle—estimates range from 10 to 360 million years ago—but over time, it’s carved a canyon through the Appalachian Mountains in southern West Virginia, creating New River Gorge.
Up to a thousand feet deep, lined by cliffs, covered in a lush forest, and protected by a series of parks—including the nation’s newest national park—the ancient river has created an outdoor playground unrivaled in the East, and one of the best warm-water rafting destinations in the country. But maybe most noteworthy of all is this region of West Virginia has the greatest density of whitewater paddling in the country.
“The rafting and kayaking brought me here,” says Haynes Mansfield, an avid paddler and marketing director at ACE Adventure Resort, a local rafting outfitter. “You can’t find the same variety and quality of paddling anywhere.”
Twenty years later, the paddling still excites him, but it’s everything else that keeps him here: over a thousand rock climbs, hundreds of miles of mountain biking and hiking trails, hunting and fishing, a growing local food and drink scene, and beautiful scenery.
Despite the diversity, whitewater rafting remains the main event in the New River Gorge region. The season extends from the beginning of April, when the rapids can be as powerful as the Grand Canyon, until September, when the wild Gauley River starts to flow. June until September is the sweet spot, says Chelsea Bricker, from Adventures on the Gorge, another raft outfitter and adventure resort.
“With warm water, summertime is the optimal time for families,” she says. “There are multiple river trips perfect for young kids and adventure seekers looking for a rush.”
“From mid-May the water is warm and the rapids aren’t as big,” she says. “It makes it really family-friendly.”
The mellowest option is the 12-mile Upper New River. Kids as young as six are welcome on the float through a remote part of New River Gorge National Park. The class II and III rapids provide plenty of splashy moments of excitement, interspersed with quiet water ideal for admiring the scenery; going for a swim; and spotting wildlife, including bald eagles, river otters, and deer.
It’s also possible to paddle this section in an inflatable kayak, either solo or in pairs. To step up the thrills and challenge, go for the Lower New River. This section is synonymous with big water rafting, says Mansfield, as it drops through the steepest part of the canyon, with 11 major rapids created by boulders as big as houses and waves that can stand a raft on its end.
Depending on the water level, the biggest challenge is often navigating the steep waves and holes of the three Keeney Rapids, which feature more demanding elements including Lollygag, a recirculating, frothing lateral wave.
It’s not all rafting, though. The guides usually pull over to tour the remains of a 19th-century ghost town, a relic of the coal mining heyday. And there’s usually the chance to cliff dive off Jump Rock or swim down one of the easier rapids.
The finale is Fayette Station. The last rapid is found 876 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge. Affectionately called the Rusty Rainbow, it’s one of the highest, longest, and most beautiful man-made bridges. The ultimate rafting followup, says Mansfield, is to see the river from the opposite perspective. Guided bridge walks cross the airy span on the bridge’s 24-inch catwalk.
That’s just the start of the non-rafting adventures and for those staying at ACE or Adventures on the Gorge, it’s not even necessary to leave the property.
“ACE is like summer camp for families,” says Mansfield. The 1,500-acre property sits right on the river and has its own spring-fed lake with a waterpark of slides, toys, and floating islands.
He recommends toasting the day’s adventure with a local cocktail at the ACE bar. At Adventures on the Gorge, the restaurant and pool are perched on the edge of the gorge with epic views over the river. All kinds of guided trips leave right from the property, including its famous zipline, Adrenaline.
At 3,150-feet, it’s one of the longest in North America, and zippers can hit 65 miles per hour. That’s not to say the New River Gorge is all about thrills, says Lisa Strader of Visit Southern West Virginia.
There are 100 miles of hiking trails just in the national park, with many more in the adjoining state and regional parks. Scenic backroads wind through the valleys to one-of-a kind roadside pit stops, like Mystery Hole, a zany attraction where the laws of gravity have a mind of their own.
The cliff-lined shores of Summersville Lake make a great day on the lake. Shop for local crafts, fine arts, and food at Tamarack—an artisan market. Or, explore the historic downtowns of Fayetteville, Beckley, or Hinton to sample microbreweries and eclectic shopping. Wherever you go, expect friendly people.
“There’s a small-town feel,” says Strader. It’s one of several things that surprise first-time visitors. “They have no idea how beautiful it is and just how much there is to do here.”
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