West Virginia: Outdoor Playground Of The East

Southeastern West Virginia is becomingthe Eastern destination of choice for outdoor activities. Often referred to as the New River/Greenbrier Valley area, in reference to two of the most prominent natural features, the region is seemingly blessed with more than its fair share of mountainous beauty and outdoor activities for enthusiasts at every skill level.

Topping the list is the outstanding whitewater rafting. The New River offers an introduction to this thrilling sport. This ancient river, actually the world’s second oldest behind the Nile, flows through a gorge cut across the Allegheny Plateau. The massive volume of water flowing through the gorge produces huge waves and excellent rapids that top out in the Class V range. Two sections of the river are rafted, the Upper and the Lower.

Upper New River Fun

Fayette Station Rapids, Class V, New River.

The Upper New River provides family fun for most all ages. This fairly tame section has rapids that rarely approach the Class III range. “Rubber Duckies” are the order of the day for summer family outings on the Upper New. (Duckies are inflatable, sit-on-top watercraft that are a cross between a kayak and a rubber raft, available in one or two-person sizes.)

The Lower New River is a different matter. Offering one of the East’s finest whitewater runs, here one finds standing waves and technical rapids that challenge experienced whitewater fans. Rapids in this stretch are primarily in the Class III to Class V range. The ride is both exhilarating and a bit scary, especially the first time down the river. Skilled guides thrill clients as they negotiate the river with ease. The river drops 240 feet in this 14-mile-long stretch. Near the end of the rafting trip visitors will pass under the New River Gorge Bridge, the world’s longest single-span arch bridge and our nation’s second highest, standing 876 feet above the river. Each year well over 100,000 people raft the New River.

Top-Rated Whitewater Action
The Gauley, another area river, adds an entirely different dimension to whitewater action. Each September and October, during the annual drawdown of the Summersville Dam, the Gauley attracts hard-core whitewater zealots. The Gauley is one of the top-rated whitewater rivers in the world, with many back-to-back rapids that are Class V+. The Upper section of this river is for experienced rafters only — and they return year after year to once again feel their blood coursing through their veins as only the Gauley can make them feel.

Whitewater action isn’t all ther is to offer the outdoor enthusiasts; there’s rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, and even llama trekking. Many rafting companies offer package deals including any number of these other activities.

The heart of the action is in the area of the New River Gorge National River, a 53-mile-long free-flowing stretch of river from Hinton to Fayetteville. The region was set aside in 1978 and is managed by the National Park Service. A visit to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, overlooking the New River Gorge, serves as an orientation to the area.

There are several miles of hiking and mountain biking trails within the gorge. The biking trails run from flat and family-oriented to some challenging single-track, for experienced riders only.

Cyclist along the Greenbrier River Rail Trail, West Virginia.

“It was OK, except for the rocks… and the roots… and the mud… and the hills,” expressed one inexperienced rider who found more than she bargained for on a single- track trail.

Challenging, Scenic Trails
Those are the items that make it challenging. She did forget to mention the fact that at times the narrow trail borders a sheer canyon wall with a drop of several hundred feet. There are periodic openings in the vegetation offering excellent panoramic views of the river and gorge.

Rock climbers will be happy to know there is a 10-mile stretch of cliffs in the gorge with well over 1,000 climbing routes. The Nuttall Sandstone, which forms the gorge’s rock walls, is a very hard conglomeratic rock that resists erosion. The many horizontal and vertical fissures in the rock provides excellent hand and foot holds for climbing.

Do you like your outdoor activities a little less “cutting-edge?” Do you like your adventure a little on the padded side? Check out the offerings in Greenbrier County. The county offers many soft adventure activities, from canoe trips to cave exploration.

The Greenbrier River Trail is a 78-mile long Rails-to-Trails project that presents excellent family outing options including hiking, biking, and horseback riding. For those who don’t know, the Rails-to-Trail program takes abandoned rail lines and converts them to non-motorized multi-use trails.

The trail runs from Caldwell, in Greenbrier County, to Cass, in Pocahontas County, crossing 35 bridges along the way. It is one of the nation’s longest stretches of rail-trail. The trail follows along the banks of the mild Greenbrier River, the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern U.S. (166.96 miles according to the US Army Corps of Engineers). A wide, level gravel-covered trail makes for excellent family bicycling.

Several area businesses offer bicycle rentals. The trail features a relaxed cycling atmosphere through some of the state’s most beautiful scenery. The trail links two state forests, Greenbrier and Seneca. It also links two of the state’s more popular state parks, Watoga and Cass.

Canoe The Greenbrier River
Following a lazy valley course surrounded by mountains, the Greenbrier River offers excellent canoeing opportunities. The most one may encounter is a set of Class II rapids, a chance to practice technique on very mild whitewater, nothing more. Since the river is free flowing, the water level is dependent upon rainfall and does get a little low in the summer. Several area outfitters offer canoe rentals and guided tours.

Another interesting diversion is the recently reopened Organ Cave. It takes its name from one of its calcite formations, which resembles a pipe organ. The cave’s year-round temperature of 55 degrees makes it especially attractive on hot days (or even on a cold winter day).

The cave’s 44 miles of mapped trails place it among the world’s largest. The cave is important for several reasons, among them are its history, its biology and its paleontology. The first recorded discovery of the cave was in 1704, but Native Americans knew of its existence long before then. Thomas Jefferson spent some time exploring the cave and in 1791 his workmen removed the remains of a large three-toed sloth. The imprint of the sloth can still be seen in the cave. The remains of a complicated-tooth horse and a saber-toothed tiger were also found in the cave. Today it is home to eight species of bats, two of which are endangered, the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat.

With caving, canoeing, rafting, rock climbing, cycling and other activities available, it is easy to see why Southeastern West Virginia is fast catching on as an outdoor enthusiast’s choice destination.

Making The Trip
Located near Interstate-64, within a few hours’ drive from many population centers, the region is a natural getaway. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources regulations requires that all rafting companies meet specific First Aid and safety standards. Rafting trip guides carry First Aid kits, river rescue equipment, and emergency signaling devices. Lifejackets must be worn by rafting guests at all times and safety helmets are required in heavy whitewater (guides will inform guests when safety helmets may be removed). The minimum age for rafters on the Upper New River is 7, on the Lower New River it is 14; and on the Upper Gauley, the age minimum is generally 16. Many rafting companies also offer float-fishing trips down the New River. The state record smallmouth bass and walleye were both caught on this river.

For more information, contact:

New River Convention & Visitors Bureau
310 Oyler Ave.
Oak Hill, WV 25901
800-927-0263

New River Gorge National River
P.O. Box 246
Glen Jean, WV 25846-0246
304-465-0508

Southern WV CVB
P.O. Box 1799
Beckley, WV 25802-1799

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