White Water Rafting in WV: A New River Gorge Family Adventure

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In the years leading up to my daughter leaving home for college, I became increasingly conscious of time.

The 18 summers we have with our kids seemed to pass all too quickly, leaving us precious few moments to establish strong bonds we hope will last a lifetime.

So the timing of our trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, which started off with whitewater rafting on the New River Gorge, seemed significant.

White water rafting in WV is the perfect family activity for teens, and the picturesque New River Gorge National River is the perfect place to do it.

Rafting the New River (which is actually one of the oldest rivers in America) is challenging enough to feel like an exciting adventure, but accessible enough that my daughter never felt truly endangered.

There are Class I-III rapids on the Upper New River section, with more rollicking waves on the advanced Class IV+ rapids of the Lower New River. And the scenery along the way, from abandoned mining towns to 1400-foot canyon walls, is truly spectacular.

So here’s a look at our experience white water rafting WV, and how it proved to be one of the greatest bonding experiences in our 18 years of outdoor adventure.

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New River Gorge National River History

Located in southern West Virginia between the towns of Hinton and Fayetteville, the New River Gorge is the longest and deepest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

The gorge is home to countless geological features commonly seen in the Appalachian Plateau, from 1,000-foot cliffs of sandstone and shale to house-sized boulders and ancient plant and invertebrate fossils.

The New River Gorge National River is also the heart of an important forest that is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna.

These include around 63 species of mammals (several of which are rare and endangered), 48 species of amphibians, breeding populations of numerous migratory birds, and at least 1,342 species of plants.

Encompassing some 72,808 acres, the New River Gorge National River was established as a unit of the US National Park System by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

And in 2019, a bill was introduced in Congress by Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) to redesignate it as New River Gorge National Park & Preserve.

READ MORE: Things to Do in Southern West Virginia

Father & Daughter Rafting Trip in New River Gorge, West Virginia
Father & Daughter Rafting Trip in New River Gorge, West Virginia

The Importance of Family Travel

We’ve been taking annual father-daughter trips ever since my daughter’s mom and I divorced in 2004. We started close to home, with low-key vacations in Sanibel Island, Florida and the Atlantic coast of Georgia.

By the time she turned seven I’d already taken her abroad to swim with reef sharks in the Bahamas and snorkel shipwrecks in Aruba.

In recent years we’ve been fortunate to cruise the Galapagos Islands and go on incredible safaris in South Africa and Kenya.

Naturally, these adventures abroad brought us increasingly closer together. But they also helped my shy, quiet daughter conquer her fears and blossom into a stronger, braver, more adaptable human being.

They challenged her preconceptions and pushed her far outside of her comfort zone. They expanded her cultural horizons, exposing her to a very different side of the world from the privileged one that she and her friends live in.

As she began dating, driving, and dreaming about her impending adulthood, these daddy-daughter outings gradually became more important than ever.

Our West Virginia white water rafting trip with Adventures on the Gorge was arguably our most exciting and exhausting expedition to date.

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Visiting the New River Gorge

The New River Gorge National River encompasses nearly 73,000 acres of stunning natural beauty.

But while the New River stretches around 360 miles, the park only includes the 53 miles that cut through deep canyons in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia.

As you’ll learn at the National River’s Visitor Center, the four seams of coal found within the New River Gorge played a vital role in American history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, smokeless New River coal once fed US factories, iron furnaces, power plants, and trains.

Henry Ford had an early auto manufacturing plant in nearby Nuttallburg, and you can still see remnants of coke ovens, coal carts, and abandoned buildings along the railroad tracks today.

Today the gorge is one of the most popular rock climbing areas on the East Coast, with more than 1,400 different established climbing routes. Ranging from 30 to 120 feet, with most routes in the advanced range (5.10-5.12), the area features loads of crack and face routes.

Fishing, ziplining, and spelunking are also popular pasttimes here. But rafting the New River Gorge is definitely the area’s main draw, making it the most popular destination for white water rafting in West Virginia.

READ MORE: The 10 Best North Georgia State Parks to Visit

Cunard Put-in, New River Gorge, West Virginia
Cunard Put-in, New River Gorge, West Virginia

Rafting the Upper New River

There was plenty of nervous anticipation in the air as we met up with our new friend John Zeydel, his 15-year-old son Chance, and our Adventures on the Gorge guides for our first West Virginia rafting experience.

The morning mist shrouding the New River Gorge peeled back to reveal ominous skies. Having never experienced whitewater before, my daughter seemed quiet and anxious.

As we strapped ourselves into our life jackets and helmets and put our raft into the water, a steady drizzle added to the river’s already impressive flow.

Our rafting guide, Ike, told us that the river was running at 3 feet (which refers to the water’s velocity rather its height).

In his eyes, this is the perfect level for rafting New River Gorge. It’s intense enough to keep things interesting, but not enough to be considered remotely dangerous.

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Rafting New River Gorge Selfie
White water rafting the New River Gorge

The first half of the 6-hour journey was tame, allowing the newbies among us time to get comfortable with the basic whitewater rafting commands.

Ike would call “Forward two!” or “Reverse one!” and everyone would paddle in sync, getting a feel for what it was like to row in unison.

My daughter, who’s done plenty of kayaking and standup paddle boarding, took to it immediately.

Sitting in the raft’s front left seat, she really helped to set the pace for our side.

READ MORE: The Top 15 North Georgia Waterfalls

Surprise Rapid on Lower New River
Surprise Rapid on Lower New River, WV

The New River’s Class III rapids (with names such as Upper Railroad and Ender Waves) provided a tantalizing taste of the more intense action ahead.

The whitewater bounced us around like a Pinball (the name of another rapid), cooled us down, and whetted our appetite for the Class IV and V rapids we knew were coming.

Everyone was smiling, our confidence building gradually.

We got our first taste of true excitement on the aptly-named “Surprise.” This rapid sneaks up on you, drops you several feet into a churning cauldron of waves, and forces you to muscle through by paddling with all your might.

The feeling of white water rafting on the New River was indescribably exhilarating, and the look of pride and accomplishment on my daughter’s face was priceless.

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Fayette Station Rapid on Lower New River, WV

Rafting the Lower New River

By the time we stopped for lunch, the storm clouds had cleared away to reveal stunning blue skies and breathtaking Blue Ridge mountain scenery as far as the eye could see.

Combined with the infusion of protein, water, and sugar into our systems, the change in weather left us ready and raring to take on the more challenging second half of our all-day adventure.

Where rafting the New River Gorge’s first 3 miles was enjoyable for its low-key, relaxing vibe, the second 3 brought on a seemingly endless succession of Class III-V rapids.

The higher the water velocity, the more fiercely the whitewater whips at you. We could feel our New River Gorge rafting adventure getting more intense by the minute.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Western North Carolina Waterfalls for Hiking

Fayette Station Rapid on Lower New River, WV
Fayette Station Rapid on Lower New River, WV

Moving behind my daughter into the second seat, I felt the impact of every crashing wave much more deeply.

As you’ll see in the GoPro video above, some of the rapids slammed into us with serious hydraulic force. By necessity, our rowing became much harder, and much faster.

Noteworthy rapids you’ll encounter when whitewater rafting New River Gorge include the back-to-back Class IV hazards of the Upper and Middle Keeney, as well as the intimidating (and aptly-named) Greyhound Bus Stopper.

But the one I’ll likely remember forever is the Double Z, a zig-zagging series of cross-river cuts, churning holes, and “bumpy-bumpies” that left us dazed, confused, and delighted.

Along the way, knees were jammed and scraped, rowers were tossed into the middle of the boat, and at one point my daughter briefly lost her paddle during a crashing bump.

But everyone stayed in the boat (except when we were allowed to swim down gentler rapids), which we considered a major win!

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Fayette Station Rapid on Lower New River, WV
Fayette Station Rapid on Lower New River, WV

Epilogue

Our New River Gorge white water rafting adventure honestly kicked our asses and left us bone-tired. But it was also an incredible memory my daughter and I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The experience inspired us, reminding us that teamwork can help conquer even the toughest obstacles.

And it showed me just how much my daughter had grown and matured over the last few years, growing bolder and more confident in facing down the things that frighten her.

Over our next few days with Adventures on the Gorge, we faced our fears again and again.

From the TreeTops zipline tour and TimberTrek obstacle course to the BridgeWalk (which takes you on a narrow, 3,000-foot-long catwalk across the New River Gorge Bridge, 820 feet above the river), we constantly challenged both our bodies and minds.

In the end, I realized that my little girl really was growing up and preparing herself for a life where dad won’t always be right behind her in the boat when she falls.

I saw her stronger, braver, and tougher than she’d ever been before, her face filled with grit and determination. I’ve never been prouder, and never been more thankful that we still have a few more summers left…  –text, still photos, and video by Bret Love; action shots courtesy of Adventures On The Gorge

Our trip was hosted by Adventures On The Gorge, but our opinions remain our own. We will never compromise on the integrity of our connection with our readers. 

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Bret grew up camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina with his parents, and the couple both spent childhood summers on the water with their grandparents. After becoming empty nesters, they yearned for a pristine place where they could escape the hustle and bustle of the city, commune with nature and family, and embrace a sustainable lifestyle that leaves time to appreciate the simpler things in life. Join them and their team as they explore the region, offering expert insights on Blue Ridge travel as they search for the perfect mountain home.