Discover America Radio
West Virginia

Rafting the New and the Gauley Rivers

Tackle the rapids in the ‘Grand Canyon of the East’


In the 19th century, the New River Gorge region of south-central West Virginia produced more coal than anywhere else in the world, its land honeycombed with mine shafts drilled down into the apparently limitless seams. Today, mining’s share of the state economy has shrunken considerably, and the New River and nearby Gauley River have become instead two of the top white-water rafting destinations in the country, if not the world.

The New (which, according to some geologists, is the world’s second oldest river, after the Nile) offers a range of rafting experiences along its 53 scenic miles, curving between 1,000-foot forested slopes and passing abandoned mining towns. The 15-mile stretch of the upper river offers easy to moderate rapids that require little manoeuvring skill, making it a favourite of families and beginners. (Opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, fishing and rock climbing don’t hurt, either.) The lower river, on the other hand, drops 250 feet in 16 miles, with big waves on more than two dozen rapids ranging from Class II to Class VI. This is the stretch some call the ‘Grand Canyon of the East’, with its high walls and huge volume of water, especially in spring. Towards the end of the run, rafters can see the enormous New River Gorge Bridge, at its wildest when hundreds of enthusiasts don parachutes and jump from it on Bridge Day.

North of the New, near Summersville, the Gauley River is one of the country’s most challenging runs. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 40-storey, 2,280-foot-wide earth-and-rock dam in the river’s upper reaches, creating Summersville Lake. In summer, the lake is kept full to an elevation of 1,652 feet above sea level, maximising opportunities for boating, fishing, waterskiing and even scuba diving. In September and early October, though, millions of gallons of excess lake water are released, turning the Gauley into a roaring beast with more than 60 steep Class IV and V rapids that have earned names like ‘Heaven Help You’ and ‘Pure Screaming Hell’. The Upper Gauley is the more difficult section, flowing through a narrow canyon with drops averaging 32 feet per mile. On the Lower Gauley, tough rapids are followed by calm pools, giving you a chance to catch your breath and soak up the beauty of the rough, wooded Appalachian terrain.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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