With two pristine, scenic rivers boasting Class IV and Class V rapids, West Virginia is one of the best places in the world to chase whitewater. But if you’re a city mouse – or at least a non-river rat – it might be hard to understand your options. Do you pick the New River? The Gauley River? How many miles and which parts? Here’s what you need to know to make the call.
Before we get started, let’s talk about whitewater. Rapids are classified on a scale of I to VI, based both on how difficult to navigate they are and how dangerous they are. Like any rating system this is somewhat subjective; rapids also vary depending on water volume so they’re not always consistently as difficult (or as easy!) as the rating might suggest.
Class I means moving water and a few small ripples. Class VI is Niagara Falls. Class V rapids are the largest that can be navigated in a commercial raft – they require expert navigation and advance scouting. If you fall out of your raft on a Class V (or ‘go swimming,’ as whitewater guides euphemistically term it), there’s a serious risk of injury.
Get your feet wet: the New River
It might sound funny to suggest easing into West Virginia rafting with a river that contains Class IV rapids. But the New River has long stretches of relatively calm water that are perfect for peaceful floating and swimming – it’s a great compromise trip for groups who want to experience the thrill of whitewater rafting but also fit in some relaxing moments.
The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It winds through an ancient gorge that’s rich in coal, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, more than 50 mining towns lined the river’s banks. These now lie in ruins, mostly buried by the greenery that has reclaimed the gorge, although a few building and bridge foundations can be spotted by the keen-eyed rafter.
The Upper New is the quieter stretch. Even those with little whitewater experience can rent a ‘ducky’ (inflatable kayak) to navigate its few and far-between rapids. The Lower New is the most popular portion of the New River. It has bigger rapids and hence more thrills, but it still offers breaks between adrenaline rushes. On the Lower New, you can body-surf a Class I rapid, or swim to the shore, clamber up a jump rock and make a dizzying leap into the clear, cold water.
Spring is the highest water-flow season for the New River, so trips during this time are rougher; some of the Class IV rapids become Class IV+.
Level up on the Lower Gauley
One step up from the New River on the difficulty scale is the Lower Gauley. This approximately 15-mile stretch of river contains at least 25 named rapids, but they’re fairly well spaced and only three are Class V. In case you think that means you can relax, we’ll say that ‘Heaven Help You’ and ‘Pure Screaming Hell’ are aptly named. The latter, the final Class V on the Gauley, involves a long paddle through three big waves before dropping into the so-called ‘Hell Hole,’ a wash of water that just might swamp your boat. Navigate this successfully and you’ll want to celebrate with a group ‘paddle high-five’ – one of the best things about whitewater rafting is the sense of camaraderie you’ll have with the friends (or strangers turned friends) who have paddled alongside you.
The Lower Gauley also contains one of the most beautiful rock formations along the Gauley Canyon: Canyon Doors. These red sandstone cliffs are demarcated by gulches filled with green vegetation. Of course, you won’t be able to stop and take a photo: the Canyon Doors rapid, a Class III, roars along in front of them, and you’ll have to paddle hard in order to avoid being marooned on the smooth shelf rock.
The Upper Gauley, a serious thrill ride
The Upper Gauley is one of the wildest rides you can take in a raft in the world. The rapids come fast and furious – over the 10 miles of the Upper Gauley, the elevation drops more than 300 feet. Pair that with the pounding current and where the water isn’t white, it’s the bubbling pale green of blown glass. Lost Paddle, a Class V rapid, has four distinct sub-rapids over its quarter-mile length. You’ll want to be sure to keep a firm hand on your paddle’s t-grip while you move through them. ‘Going swimming’ has its hazards, but the fact is that most rafting injuries are caused by t-grips gone rogue, bruising lips and even taking out teeth. As one guide put it, the t-grip ‘looks like an orange but tastes like blood.’
One of the most dramatic spots on the Upper Gauley is Pillow Rock. The river narrows and drops some 30ft over the course of this Class V rapid, intensifying the water speed and necessitating split-second shifts and minute adjustments from whoever’s at the helm as well as some seriously coordinated paddling from the crew: if your guide tells you ‘forward four,’ you’d best paddle exactly four strokes, even if that fourth one has to be aimed directly into a wall of whitewater. This section of the Gauley can be accessed via a hike, so on weekends, you’ll find locals picnicking on the rocks, cheering (or heckling) the rafters and kayakers navigating the rapid.
Make it happen
While it’s possible to take an independent trip on both the New and the Gauley, guided tours are almost obligatory, especially on the Lower New and the Gauley. Class IV and V rapids are extremely difficult to navigate even with an expert at the helm. Most tour operators will not take children under 12 on the Lower New, or children under 15 on the Gauley.
Adventures on the Gorge leads guided trips on both the New and the Gauley, including overnight trips and the ‘Double Gauley,’ which takes you down the Upper Gauley twice in one day (not a booking for the faint of heart). Their expansive campus, with stunning views of the New River Gorge Bridge, also offers a variety of accommodations, from bunk beds to luxury cabins.
The best time to run any part of the Gauley is during ‘Gauley Season’ – the six weeks in September and October when the Summersville Dam releases the water from Summersville Lake, raising the waves to epic levels.