West Virginia’s New River Gorge is chock full of adventures to quicken your pulse and heighten your senses. We spent a week exploring New River Gorge and experienced three epic adventures along the way.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve might be the newest named national park but that does not mean it is undeveloped! Originally, Congress established the area as a National River in 1978. The area has flourished as a Mecca for outdoor adventures.
Indeed, the New River is great for whitewater rafting. The walls of the gorge are exceptionally tough sandstone, perfect for rock climbing. The trees in the area are mostly hardwoods, perfect for zip-lining. There is another river, the Gauley, which is home to some of the most vigorous whitewater this side of the Mississippi River, just up the road. And, lastly, there is a 3,030-foot bridge crossing the gorge you can walk on a catwalk underneath!
Special thanks to Adventures on the Gorge, who partnered with us on this article, for hosting us on both the white water rafting and the zip lining adventures.
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New River Gorge Adventure #1: Get Out on the River!
The New River has 53 miles of white water to explore, broken into two sections: the upper and lower. The upper section is relatively mild, with rapids going from Class I to Class III. The lower section is a liquid roller coaster, with several Class V rapids. Since white water rapids are classified from Class I (barely a ripple) to Class VI (nearly impossible and very dangerous), you can see that the lower section of the New River is ripe for some heart-pounding adventure!
You *can* raft these rapids on your own and many of the outfitters will rent watercraft to you. That said, unless you are quite skilled at navigating white water, you should probably take a guided trip for the lower section of the New River.
There are presently seven commercial guide companies licensed to raft the New River. We chose to partner with Adventures on the Gorge and we couldn’t be happier with our choice. From the first moment we arrived on their property, we were impressed with the facilities and the professionalism of their guides.
Rafting the Lower Section of the New River
When we arrived at Adventures on the Gorge, we checked in with our trip leader, Doug, who made sure we had signed our waivers (we hadn’t). Then we geared up with helmets, paddles and personal flotation devices (PFDs… also called life jackets).
Once we were geared up, we hopped on the bus for a ride upriver to our put-in. Along the way, Doug narrated the journey. He provided some background information on the park, the town and some of the farms we passed on our drive.
After some twists and turns to get down to the river, we met up with our guides, broke into boat crews and carried our boats down the ramp and into the New River. The river was a little brisk, temperature-wise, but we quickly got used to the cool but not cold temperature.
Our guide, Isabel, put us through the paces of how to paddle, gave us some practice and got us working together pretty well before we headed downriver. Our first rapid was an engaging class IV which was the perfect wake-up and got our hearts pumping.
A little further downriver, we got to a swimming rapid, meaning you could jump out of the boat and go down the river floating in your PFD. I, of course, jumped right in! I have rafted several times before and floated through rapids before… Honestly, these were a bit rougher than I expected. I definitely should have held my breath going through the first part. Still, it was cool and I had fun. Getting back into the raft, however, was tougher than I remembered! My age and extra pounds definitely made getting in more difficult.
Lunch… And Then Back on the River!
At about the midway point in the river, we stopped for lunch. Lunch consisted of make-your-own sandwiches (ham, turkey or peanut butter and jelly) with pasta salad, potato salad and some sort of apple cake. There was plenty to go around and it was hearty.
Shortly after getting back on the river following lunch, we came upon a rock we could jump off of. Like before, Bonnie stayed on the raft but I got out to jump off the rock. So much fun!
As we progressed further down the river, the gorge started to tighten and we got more and more class IV and V rapids. By this point, Isabel had us working together like a well-practiced team and we easily negotiated the rapids. That said, we watched as two of the rafts in our group were tossed willy-nilly by the rapids, sending most everyone into the river.
It was at this moment we saw how practiced the crew of Adventures on the Gorge is. The guides responded quickly and got everyone back in their rafts with minimal muss and fuss.
Enjoying the Scenery of the Gorge
In terms of scenery, you just can’t beat the gorgeous views of the gorge, especially as you float under the New River Gorge Bridge.
All too soon, the adventure was over. We reached our pullout and got the rafts loaded on their converted fire truck. Then we cracked open a beer from the cooler on the bus and celebrated our successful run of the river.
The bus hauled us up the windy road (seriously, there were sections of the road the bus could barely negotiate!) and back to Adventures on the Gorge. After dropping off our gear, we hit the changing rooms with hot showers to warm up and change out of wet gear.
But don’t leave yet! Be sure to head over to Chetty’s Pub to grab a beer with your guides and watch the video of your trip. The beer is cold and watching the video is a blast.
What to Bring for White Water Rafting
In terms of what to wear and bring for your rafting trip, wear comfortable gear you don’t mind getting wet. You will want some sort of shorts and a T-shirt which are synthetic and will dry quickly. If you burn easily, you might want a long-sleeve sun shirt. I did get a little bit of sunburn despite the overcast clouds.
In terms of footgear, I recommend something that secures well to your feet with good traction. Bonnie wore her old Vibram Five Fingers shoes and I wore an old pair of Keen sandals. Both did pretty well but I am definitely looking to get better water shoes in the future.
We both wore sunglasses with straps, which we were glad to have despite the clouds. Sunglasses are nice because they act like splash guards for your eyes.
You can bring extra water with you… just make sure the water bottle will clip to a carabiner. You can also bring sunscreen with you, which you can tuck into the corners of the raft. Just remember, anything you bring with you is subject to getting damaged or lost.
In your vehicle, you will want dry, warm clothes to change into after being on the river all day. And don’t worry about your car keys. Adventures on the Gorge had a bin to keep your car keys in while you were on the river.
Looking for Even More White Water Adventure? Look at the Gauley River
Just north of Fayetteville is the Gauley River National Recreation Area. This national park site encompasses a dam-controlled river that has some of the best and most difficult rapids east of the Mississippi River.
The Army Corps of Engineers only does dam releases for 22 days in the fall, making for six weekends of white water. During this time, you can raft the somewhat moderate Lower Gauley River or the very technical Upper Gauley River for the biggest and toughest white water around.
Adventures on the Gorge offers trips to raft the Gauley River on release days, including an epic overnight trip on the river. I am really excited about the idea of rafting this river. Bonnie? Not so much. She loved the Lower New River but that was about the limit of the white water she wants to do. So, it will probably be a guy’s trip for me!
New River Gorge Adventure #2: Fly Through the Air on a Zip Line!
A couple of days later, we returned to Adventures on the Gorge to do their Treetops Zipline Canopy Tour. A quick note: the campus for Adventures on the Gorge is divided in two by the road. The check-in for all-day rafting trips was on the west side of Chestnutburg Road. The half-day rafting and zip line check-in is on the east side of the road.
In every instance, Bonnie is both excited and terrified at the same time. Bonnie is afraid of heights. While she has enjoyed our past zip-lining experiences, there is always a measure of terror every time she steps off the platform.
This time, the terror was mitigated by the excellent “ground school” done by the guides.
Learning the Ropes of Zip Lining
Once we got checked in (we took care of the waivers at the same time as the ones for rafting) and fitted out for our harness, helmet and gloves, we walked down to the first zip line, which was just off the ground, perfect for a quick training course. The guides did an excellent job walking us through how everything worked. It made it a LOT more comfortable and enjoyable for Bonnie and the other guests.
After wrapping up ground school, we were off for a tour through the hardwood forest through the trees.
The process of flying from one platform to another is pretty simple: walk up to the cable, step up on the step stool, let the guide (ours was the excellent Maggie) hook you in, step off the stool and wait for the signal to walk off the platform and begin flying.
Seriously, that’s what it feels like! As you slide down the cable, you are breezing through the trees well above the forest floor. It is exhilarating!
Once you got close to the next platform, the other guide would let you know if you needed to brake to slow down. As you got on the platform, the guide would unhook you from the cable, keeping safety lines on you at all times. There were built-in redundancies to make sure everyone was safe and that made it a lot of fun.
Experiencing the Forest Canopy
Between some of the platforms were cable and plank bridges, which were cool and fun to negotiate. Along the way, the guides made a point to teach us about the forest, in particular the hemlock trees, which Adventures on the Gorge is making a point to treat on a three-year rotating basis for wooly adelgid, an insect that has decimated the population of hemlock trees in the United States.
At the end of the course, there is a rappel from the last platform. To be fair, it is less of a rappel, where you control your own decent, and more of an assisted decent, with the rope hooked into a pulley. Still, it was a cool way to end the excursion.
Afterward, we grabbed a beer from the cooler to celebrate completing the course before hopping aboard the bus which brought us back to the zip-lining check-in.
What made this trip different from other zip-lining trips we have done in the past is the obvious care the crew at Adventures on the Gorge took with us on the trip. Bonnie really appreciated this and enjoyed the trip immensely, as did I.
What to Bring/Wear for Zip Lining
In terms of what to wear, I suggest a good pair of hiking shorts/pants and a comfortable T-shirt. The harness you will wear can be a little tight, so wearing something comfortable underneath would be useful. I would not wear anything too constraining of your movement, like tight jeans.
You will need closed-toe shoes for this adventure. We wore our hiking shoes but sneakers would be fine.
We both wore sunglasses with straps to keep them on if they slipped off. Bonnie bought a waterproof phone bag with a tether to keep her phone in and looped it on her harness to keep it secure to her body. My Eddie Bauer Guide Pro shorts have excellent zippered pockets, so I kept my phone there to be able to take photos as we went.
Bonnie also clipped on one of our collapsible water bottles onto her harness and that worked great to have a little extra water on the tour. You will stop for a water break about halfway through but it was nice to have our own water.
New River Gorge Adventure #3: Walk Across the New River Gorge on a 24-Inch Catwalk
The New River Gorge Bridge spans 3,030 feet (more than half a mile!) and arches 876 feet above the New River. It is an imposing piece of engineering, second in this country only to the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.
Beneath the bridge is a catwalk, designed to allow inspections and maintenance of the structure. The catwalk is two feet wide with handrails and a cable safety system. And you can walk it!
Bridge Walk offers you the opportunity to take a two-three hour tour underneath the bridge, seeing both the bridge and the New River from a completely different perspective.
I will be honest, I was all about doing this adventure. Bonnie, however, was quite apprehensive about the heights. As I said before, Bonnie is terrified of heights. She was concerned about being able to do the Bridge Walk but was also concerned if she didn’t go, she would regret it. She chose to go and is mostly glad she did. Still, she was not as comfortable on the Bridge Walk as she was zip lining.
What to Expect on the Bridge Walk
When you arrive at the Bridge Walk, you sign your life away on the waiver and the guide will get you fitted out with a waist harness along with a strap for hooking into the cable safety system. While the harness is not nearly as robust as the one we wore for zip-lining, it is really just a backup. The catwalk has robust handrails on either side. It would take a lot to need the cable safety system.
You will take a brief ride over to the path down to the bridge. After passing through the (locked) gate, you will walk under the bridge to a platform and then hook into the safety system. Once you are in the safety system, that is your order of walking across the bridge. So, make sure you are as close or far away from the guide as you want.
Bear in mind the bridge above you is being used while you are on the walk. So, there will be road noise. You will feel vibrations from the road, especially when a large truck passes over. I got used to it pretty fast. Bonnie did not.
Walking the Catwalk
We ended up in a rather small group of four, which made our tour with our guide, Mattie, quite personal. Mattie did a great job explaining the basics of the engineering that went into the bridge and how the construction was accomplished. She also gave us a lot of history of the area and the park.
As you walk across the bridge, the views keep getting better. It is simply breathtaking. We got a later tour, so the gorge was bathed in late afternoon light, making for some great pictures. All told, we both really enjoyed this adventure. While Bonnie was a bit uncomfortable due to the heights, we both made it across just fine and had fun, too!
What to Bring/Wear on the Bridge Walk
We basically wore the same thing on the Bridge Walk as we did zip lining (we did them the same day). Bonnie did put on a long sleeve layer since it was later in the day and the breeze tends to blow through the gorge pretty constantly.
I did buy a cell phone tether when we got to the Bridge Walk office (like this one) to keep my cell phone attached to me when we crossed the bridge.
I wore a hat but had to turn it around backward due to the wind. Were I to do it again, I would skip the hat.
Where to Stay and Eat for New River Gorge Adventures
The town of Fayetteville, WV is home to several outfitting companies which offer a variety of different experiences and makes a perfect basecamp for exploring New River Gorge NP.
Here, you will find several campgrounds, although most do not have full hookups, vacation rentals, cabin rentals and a few hotels. You will also find some solid restaurants in the area.
We stayed at Rifrafters Campground, which we really enjoyed. Since we were staying for eight days, we wanted a campground with full hookups. Rifrafters did not disappoint. The sites were good, the facility was clean and we would certainly stay there again.
If you don’t need full hookups, check out Adventure on the Gorge’s RV campground. While there are limited spots and the sites are electric only, there is a water fill station and a dump station. There are also really nice bathhouses an easy walk from the campground. If we were only staying for a few days, we would certainly stay here.
If you are not camping, Adventures on the Gorge has plenty of cabins of various sizes for lodging and I would certainly look at that. Seriously, their facility is great. There are several restaurants, like Chetty’s Pub, a pool with a view of the bridge and plenty of places to just relax while you are there.
You will also find several good restaurants in Fayetteville. We had pizza at Pies and Pints, grabbed a beer at Freefolk Brewery, got lunch at Cathedral Cafe, and got breakfast at Tudor’s Biscuit World. We recommend all of these spots.
Final Thoughts on Finding Adventures at New River Gorge National Park
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve offers a ton of excellent experiences for folks seeking a bit of adventure beyond the normal hiking trails found in most national parks.
A lot of this has to do with New River Gorge’s origin as a national river (established in 1978). But white water rafting goes back to 1969 when one visionary, Paul Breuer, started paddling the New River. Eventually, he started a river outfitting company. Eventually, that company would become Adventures on the Gorge.
This tradition of outdoor recreation has made the New River Gorge a hotspot for outdoor enthusiasts and the change from a national river to a national park has not affected the area’s ability to host a variety of adventures.
We truly had a blast here. It is well worth your time to get to West Virginia to experience New River Gorge for yourself.
Again, a special thanks to Adventures on the Gorge for hosting us on both our white water rafting trip and our zip-lining excursion. As always, all opinions expressed are our own.
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