A River Runs Roughshod

“All of our rocks are real,” says our trip leader as our group heads out on the bus, rolling and creaking through the narrow Appalachian roads. Through the anticipation, he’s trying to emphasize the point that unlike some sort of theme-park ride, the New River is not structurally engineered for our safety, which is why we have all been provided with class III life jackets and helmets. After all, this is why you go whitewater rafting—to experience something real. Something intensely real.

With the necessary disclaimer/safety information out of the way, we arrive at river’s edge and begin loading. Now afloat, it’s time to live a little.

“Sure. We could take the easiest, safest route through the river,” our raft guide yells from the back of the raft. “But that’s survival boating, not whitewater rafting,” he explains. “We wanna hit that shit at the bottom of Lower Keeney. That’s fun. That’s why we’re all gonna paddle hard. Right?”

We all nod because we have no choice. There’s a class IV rapid straight ahead. And we’re going to hit it in about 20 seconds.

Just a four-hour drive from Columbus, the New River Gorge in West Virginia is one of the country’s most exciting and largest natural playgrounds. Sitting in the middle of one of the most scenic and biodiverse forests in the United States, the New River has carved the longest, deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, providing some of the best hiking, rock climbing, camping, and fishing opportunities you’ll find anywhere, as well as world-class whitewater rafting.

Most rafting companies offer trips on both the New and Gauley Rivers and are happy to help you select an appropriate level of difficulty, based on your needs and experience. Some sections of the New River are suitable for beginners and families, while the lower section is more challenging.

The neighboring Gauley, nicknamed the “Beast of the East,” is consistently ranked in the top five whitewater rafting trips in the world, dropping 335 feet in less than 13 miles and barreling through multiple class V (expert) rapids with names like Pillow Rock and Pure Screaming Hell. The most extreme runs, known as “Gauley Season,” are fueled by timed releases from the Summerville Dam. Gauley Season 2015 runs on weekends from September 11 through October 18. (Plan now—these trips will book quickly.)

In the past few years, a number of smaller rafting companies have merged or partnered, sometimes making online searches confusing. Most outfitters rafting on the New River Gorge are clustered near the Fayetteville, West Virginia area and a few have ringside seats on the stunning gorge. Here are a few options to help you wade through:

ACE Adventure Resorts


Runs single, overnight, and multi-day rafting trips on the New and Gauley Rivers. Lodging includes deluxe cabins (with hot tub, kitchen, satellite TV), rustic cabins, camping, and RV options. Additional activities include zip lining, ATV tours, fishing, horseback riding, stand up paddle boarding, mountain biking, climbing and rappelling, kayaking, disc golf, paintball, a Bridge Catwalk Tour, and Adventure Lake and Beach. Can accommodate certain disabilities (blindness, paraplegia). Handles weddings. Dog-friendly (call first).

Rivermen/Class VI at Adventures on the Gorge


Runs single, overnight, and multi-day rafting trips on the New and Gauley Rivers. Lodging options include deluxe cabins, rustic cabins, mountain cabins, and vacation rental houses. Also partners with local motels, hotels, and cabins. Additional activities include climbing and rappelling, zip lining, ATV tours, hikes through the Gorge, mountain biking, paintball, fishing, and whitewater kayaking. Handles getaway packages, destination weddings, and special occasions.

Cantrell Ultimate Rafting


The only local, family-owned and operated outfitter. Runs half, single, and multi-day trips on the New and Gauley Rivers. Private rafts available up to eight people. Can accommodate several disabilities. Can customize trips for groups of at least 12. Lodging options include cabin rental, RV camping, and tent camping. Also offers guided hiking through the gorge.

We start paddling. The raft bends in half and fills with foam. We can barely hear our guide’s instructions over the roar of the rapids. I think he’s telling us to keep going, but I’m not sure. I’ve just been wavesmacked across the face.

About 30 seconds later we’re out, completely soaked and facing the opposite direction, but ready for the next hit. Yes, it’s all real—the rocks, the freezing cold water, and the adrenaline kick. The only true word of caution about rafting is that after you’ve tried it once, you just might want to do it again…and again.