5 Best Whitewater Rafting Rivers in West Virginia

Written by Anietra Hamper
Jul 5, 2019

Whitewater rafting has been central to outdoor recreation in West Virginia for more than 50 years, making it one of the top states to experience the thrill of the rapids. Rafting enthusiasts flock to West Virginia because everyone, from beginners to experts, can find whitewater rapids that offer just the right adrenaline rush. From float trips on the Lower New River to non-stop, heart-pumping Class IV and Class V rapids on the Upper Gauley River, this is whitewater rafting at its best.

The New River is geologically one of the oldest rivers in the world. Drop-pools intermix calmer water with intense rapids in different sections of the river. The upper part of the river consists of long pools and lighter rapids (up to Class III). The lower portion of the river has aggressive rapids in many areas, challenging even the most advanced rafter.

One of the reasons outdoor enthusiasts return to West Virginia for their whitewater fix is because with such diversity in the stretches of rivers, it is easy to step-up the adventure as your skills improve and your courage grows.

While the New River gets most of the attention for whitewater rafting in West Virginia, the Shenandoah River has unique characteristics that also appeal to rafting enthusiasts and to those who are just testing the waters. Whitewater rafting is so celebrated in West Virginia that in 2018, the Governor officially designated Gauley Season as the fifth "season" in the state. Plan your adventures with our list of the best whitewater rafting rivers in West Virginia.

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1. Upper New River

Upper New River
Upper New River

The Upper New River is the place to start if you have never been whitewater rafting or if you have a family and want to safely introduce children to the activity. This section of the river is characterized by calm water, and you will only encounter Class I and Class II rapids.

Many guided trips on the Upper New River are float trips that allow you to enjoy the scenery through the New River Gorge and not worry about fighting to stay in the raft through rough rapids. The Upper New River sits in a wide valley, which means shallower and slower water. This enables you to learn and practice rafting techniques, so you know what to do should you choose to try a more aggressive trip the next time.

2. Lower New River

New River Gorge Bridge
New River Gorge Bridge

The Lower New River is one of the most popular stretches for whitewater rafting because it has a comfortable mix of long, calm pools of water and also Class IV rapids. Many intermediate rafters like this stretch of river because you get the thrill of intense rapids with time to recover.

The Lower New River is deeper, with rapids created by steep drops between large boulders. The intensity of the rapids depends on the season. Springtime is the most adventurous, when snowmelt and spring rain bolster the river's volume, creating monster waves. From April through mid-June, you'll find intense trips that finish off with an eight-mile Class V rapid.

A trip along the Lower New River takes you beneath the 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge. Late fall is an especially picturesque time to visit. Every October, rafting trips are scheduled around the annual Bridge Day, when BASE jumpers are permitted to leap from the bridge to the landing below.

3. Upper Gauley

Kayaker in whitewater
Kayaker in whitewater

There's a reason the Upper Gauley is ranked as one of the top five rivers to raft in the world. It is heart-pumping extreme whitewater rafting at its best. The river provides non-stop action, with consistent Class IV and Class V rapids that drop you more than 335 feet in a 13-mile stretch. This trip is for experienced rafters only.

While the exhilaration is unmatched, it is an aggressive and exhausting trip that requires precision and skill to endure the intense 60-plus rapids. You will experience the "Big 5" on this river, which is a series of steep, consistent, voluminous Class V rapids, in between large boulders, that will take your breath away.

The ultimate adrenaline rush on the Upper Gauley is in the fall during what is referred to as "Gauley Season." This is when water is released from Summersville Dam, creating the most intense whitewater of the year. If you go in late October, plan on a wet suit and water shoes. It will be the most adrenaline-filled experience of your life, and possibly the coldest.

4. Lower Gauley

Lower Gauley
Lower Gauley

The Lower Gauley is not as consistently intense as the Upper Gauley but it offers an extreme adventure with Class III to Class V rapids. Though there are 70 rapids, you get the best mix of adrenaline and relaxation on this stretch of water. In between the sections of rapids, this 17-mile stretch of river has calmer pools, so you can float and swim for part of the trip. The Lower Gauley, while considered extreme, is best for intermediate rafters, who want to kick things up a notch and for those who want some time to turn their heads and enjoy the scenery.

True adventure seekers can combine the Upper Gauley and Lower Gauley into one trip. The most popular time for this trip is in the fall.

5. Shenandoah River

Shenandoah River
Shenandoah River

The Shenandoah River does not get as much attention for whitewater rafting as the New River, but it is worth consideration if you are looking for a new whitewater adventure. It's near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac River. The result is a 6.5-mile whitewater adventure that takes you through the Blue Ridge Mountains and past the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Whitewater rafting on the Shenandoah River is suitable for beginners and family trips, as you will find calmer water with Class I to Class III rapids. This trip is slower paced and a shorter time commitment. You can do this trip in approximately three hours.

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imageWest Virginia Adventures: If are spending more time in the state and wondering how to spend your time, see our list of the top attractions in West Virginia. You might want to plan a few more days to enjoy some of the other types of outdoor adventures in this scenic playground. Options range from hiking, trout fishing, and skiing to city adventures in places like the capital of Charleston with activities that can fill an entire week.

imageWhere to Stay in West Virginia: Lodging is easy to find throughout West Virginia depending on your desired experience and budget. Private cabins and camping near some of the parks offer a rustic adventure, or you can find mainstream hotels in the towns. There is also a range of resorts throughout the state that offer packages, which include lodging and activities. To narrow down your choices see our article: Top-Rated Resorts in West Virginia.

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