Southern West Virginia is known worldwide for its whitewater rivers and rafting. There are 4 unique sections of river you can run, with trips suitable for everyone from kids and families to thrillseekers.
Every amazing adventure takes you through a series of whitewater rapids, each with its own challenges.
Here’s our guide to some of the most interesting rapids along the rivers in Southern West Virginia— not just the most exciting, but also the most underrated, and those with unique history, stories and local lore you may have missed your last rafting trip.
Let’s start with some whitewater rapids 101:
How will you ride the rapids? Here’s where to get the gear & find experienced guides:
Keep an eye out for the eddys, too. These are calm pools of water, usually downstream of an obstacle. If you fall out, your guide will tell you to swim to these safe spots to await pickup.
There’s also a such thing as Class VI, but those rapids are too dangerous to run. Some classifications can change depending on how high the water is.
Now that you know the ropes, let’s explore some of the rapids you can paddle through on each river section.
The New River may be one of the world’s oldest, digging into the sandstone cliffsides to create “The Grand Canyon of the East.” It is the tamer of the Southern West Virginia whitewater rivers, and the Upper New is the calmest stretch. Full of history, scenery and small rolling rapids, it’s a great ride for young kids. In fact, they can paddle their own boat with an inflatable kayak called a duckie.
This is the quintessential West Virginia whitewater rafting run. It’s still fit for families, but it swells with much bigger waves than its upstream sibling. Prepare to be splashed, and maybe even for a short swim!
Seldom Seen is a rare treat for river runners. It only comes out at a certain water level. If the water rises or dips by a mere half a foot, Seldom Seen will disappear into the depths. But on the odd occasion it is rolling, it’s rolling hard.
“Once on Seldom Seen, I got knocked outside the boat, but grabbed the strap as I was falling out,” said Courtney Crabtree, a former Songer guide. “I was in between a rock and the rapid, and when I kicked off, I felt my pants drop off.”
Luckily, she didn’t lose them, and managed to catch it around her ankles. She was wearing a bathing suit underneath, and didn’t let the river’s prank get the best of her.
“I stood up and gave a bow,” she said.
The video showed up on the blooper reel for the year (and is probably still out there!)
Most of the time, Ender Waves is an easy, straightforward ride. But when the water levels are just right, it can be, as Jay Young put it, playfully, “utterly violent” ...for a ‘warmup’ rapid, anyway.
“At about 5 or 5-and-a-half feet, it becomes a wall of water,” he said. And when it’s at that level, it’s a force to be reckoned with— and even if you reckon right, you may end up in for a swim, like Jay once discovered.
“One time, I was guiding a small boat, and I swear, we hit it as hard and as a fast as it was possible to hit it,” he said. “We literally couldn’t have run that rapid any better than we did, and it turned the raft sideways like a piece of paper.”
But, hey, you can’t go whitewater rafting without expecting to get a little wet. (Plan to get a lot wet, just in case.)
There are actually a few swimmer’s rapids on both the Upper and Lower New, which are safe enough to jump out of the boat and float through. Your guide will give you instructions about how to swim through safely.
This stretch of river may be calm and serene, but the rich history along its banks is intriguing.
On river-left, you can discover what little is left of the abandoned coal town of Red Ash— just a few odd coke ovens. But the more mysterious ruins are separated by a stream on Red Ash Island: a dotted landscape of both formal stone and rugged, unetched gravestones from tragedies past. The island was a quarantine zone during a smallpox epidemic, and the resting place of workers from multiple mine disasters there. You can learn more about it during annual Hidden History Weekend hikes.
On the river-right you can find the remnants of Beury, the site of the first coal mine in the New River. Coal baron Joseph Beury built a lavish 23-room mansion along the banks, with a pool, stables, greenhouse and orchestras often performing on the lawn. After the mines closed and everyone moved from town, only the home’s servant, Melcina Fields, stayed behind. She was the last resident along the New River Gorge, living the mansion until its collapse, when she moved into the remnants of the old company store.
“You look like the missing link,” she once told a traveler, according to an Associated Press article in 1975. Melcina was something of a legend around town, and known as the “fierce hermit of the New River Gorge.” She would take the 3-and-a-half-mile trek to nearby Thurmond by foot every so often for supplies. The grocery store owner claimed Melcina would sometimes carry 100 pounds back home.
Despite her reputation as a loner, Melcina was very much a part of the community. The early river guides used to say they’d bring her Pringles in exchange for her stories of the old town. Thurmond residents built her a hut after the mansion was destroyed, but she preferred the old store. When she was too old to keep walking to Thurmond, rail conductors and raft guides brought her what she needed until she passed away in 1982. No one else has lived there along the river beyond Thurmond since.
There are several ‘jump rocks’ along the New River, but the Upper New’s is one of the most fun. If there’s time, your guide will pull the boat over to this behemoth boulder, and you can leap from the top of it into the water below. Don’t worry; it always looks taller from the top than it really is! If you’re brave enough, try a trick like the jumper in this video.
“So big it could bring a bus to a dead stop.” The local folklore claims it actually once did, but there’s no proof the theory was ever tested.
At the right water levels, this is a glorious hole to surf— meaning after you’ve run all the way through the rapid, you paddle right back upstream to it, and stick your boat directly into the hydraulic. The recirculating water will grab hold of the whole boat and keep it there, tossing it playfully in the force of the water. It’s a fun ride! Compete with your fellow boaters to see who can stay caught in the surf the longest.
Just after you swoop under the iconic New River Gorge Bridge 876 feet above you, the last rapid of the day surges you forward for one final hoorah. Fayette Station is the quintessential wave train, churning you right down the middle of the river to the takeout point. It’s the New River’s cheerful congratulations on a trip well-paddled.
With the famed Endless Wall trail (named the nation’s #1 National Park hiking trail by USA Today) tracing the ridgeline far above you, it’s easy to see how this rock-strewn rapid was probably formed: falling debris from the steeply enclosed canyon walls. The route around all these lettered boulders is just as zig-zagged as the name “Double Z” implies.
You may catch a glimpse of the old coal tipple that towers over the ghost town of Nuttallburg on the right as you pass.
“When people ask me why it’s called surprise, I just say ‘Wait until it’s over, and you can tell me why you think it’s called surprise,” said Skip Heater, owner of New & Gauley River Adventures.
What looks like a rippling little wave train as you paddle in has a hidden whammy at the end: a large hole, that in some water levels packs enough power to stand a boat upright.
“You can’t see it from the top. The bottom of the river seems to drop out,” Skip said. “It’s an exciting way to begin the day because after that, people start to wonder what the other rapids will be like if that’s just a class 3,” Skip said.
“Once we saw Whale Rock, it was ON,” said Kevin Whelan, one of the area’s whitewater pioneers. “It’s what’s going to make or break your day— probably make it! The water is big. It gets people wet, and they dig it.”
Whale Rock marks the mouth of the “Keeney Brothers,” 3 wild rapids that give you your first bold taste of big water on the New River. At higher water levels, the action pounds together so fast it creates one massive super-rapid.
“The Keeney’s have the largest drop on the New River,” said Skip Heater, owner of New & Gauley River Adventures. “In a short period, you run through the upper, middle and lower. You go down the first and think, ‘this is great!’ And then you go right down the second.”
When the water gets low, the Keeney’s can unveil a secret: a perfect “mystery move.” The calm wall by the eddy creates little whirlpools that can pull boaters and swimmers deep into the water and spin them around, before spitting them out upstream. Your guide may let you know if the water levels are safe, but be warned— you may be underwater for 15 seconds or more, so stay calm, take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.
After your whitewater trip, you can take a scenic drive down the New River Gorge’s most rugged and remote vehicle-accessible road, all the way to the abandoned town of Keeney’s Creek, which is right along the banks of the Keeney rapids. A popular hiking trail meanders alongside the New River from there.
Stop off along the banks here where Dowdy Creek meets the New River to discover the secret that makes this rapid so notable. Just steps from the river, tucked back about 150 feet or so— just far enough back you can’t see it from the river— you’ll find Dowdy Creek Falls, one of the most scenic waterfalls in the New River Gorge.
This legendary section of river is one of the top whitewater runs in the world— challenging and remote with huge, one-of-a-kind rapids. This “Best of the East” is only flowing a few days a year in the fall, so you have to catch it in September or October. If you’ve never rafted before, you’ll probably want to take a practice run on the Lower New before taking on the Upper Gauley.
As any raft guide will tell you, the Lower Gauley doesn’t get enough respect, only because it’s overshadowed by the legendary status of the Upper section. But it’s every bit as world-class, with plenty of challenging waves and big hits, not to mention the same pristine, remote scenery that has earned the Gauley River area the prestigious distinction of a National Park.
The rapid is named after one of the Gauley’s whitewater pioneers, Kevin Whelan.
“It’s the last rapid on the Lower Gauley, and it’s basically a pretty easy rapid,” he admitted. “I’d gone through there my first year through a wicked thunderstorm, and couldn’t see. I had a group of 8 college girls in the boat. I hit a rock, and the raft went completely underwater as we climbed onto the rock.”
In his defense, the boats back then were a lot different. If water flooded into the boat, it didn’t filter out the bottom like it does in today’s more modern rafts. You had to use a bucket to shovel the water out manually. Add that to the fact that they were heavier, and it’s easy to see how a little water could flood the boat. Today, it would have popped back up, maybe not dipped at all. But alas, Kevin’s folly wasn’t made with a modern raft, so the story became much more memorable!
Kevin’s crew was the last of 5 boats on the river that trip, and no one noticed he didn’t make it out until they’d gotten out of the river. So he and his crew had to wait around on the rock for rescue.
“It wasn’t the worst wipe out I’ve had, but it was very dramatic,” he said. “The girls with me were totally freaked.”
And thus his wipeout was forever immortalized as “Kevin’s Folly.”
“I feel really privileged” he said of the distinction. “It’s really humbling… probably for the wrong reasons.”
Dubbed “The best 10 seconds in whitewater,” this rapid actually slides you right across a massive boulder. It’s names for the ‘pillow’ of flowing water that cushions you as you sweep directly over the rugged rock.
So, you made it through the Gates of Hell… what did you think was coming next?
The rocks lurking under the surface make this choppy rapid more formidable than it looks, but the real scorcher is at the bottom. You’ll have to really paddle hard to hammer through the Hell Hole.
Another of the famed “Big 5” rapids on the Upper Gauley, this rapid is made up of 2 separate 8-foot drops, which can vary drastically depending on the water level. It used to be classified as a Class VI, and boaters would pull out of the water and walk around it. But there is a safe line through! Your guide can steer your team right where you need to go. Just make sure to paddle!
Iron Ring is named for a massive iron ring that was lodged into the boulders by a local logging operation. It’s no longer there; it was stolen in the 80s.
Once you see a foot bridge dangling in disrepair, grip that paddle a little tighter. You’re almost to the flume.
You know what a log flume is, right? It’s a similar rush. This is the first big hit of the Gauley, and it’s a thrill. Just stay away from the house-like boulder, and it’ll be a swift, powerful push through, and then you can surf the massive hole below! (You may just have to wait in line; this epic hydraulic lures everyone in for a try!)
It’s easy to see why Sweet’s Falls is considered a “Big 5”— the 14-foot waterfall plummets rafts into the depths, and if you don’t hit it juuust right, you end up stuck in a box-like formation of rocks below. You can escape the easy way or the hard way. The hard way is a shot at redemption for getting stuck, but the “easy route” makes you a mockery.
The whole dramatic scene plays out like an action-packed performance— audience and all.
“It’s like a Roman Colosseum,” said Jay Young of Adventures on the Gorge, noting that people line up on shore to watch the waterfall action. “The people watching aren’t just rafters, they’re people who have hiked in.” Everyone gathers to catch the action— and a gaffe or two, of course.
So Jay has obliged, many times over. One run in particular stands out in his mind, though. He was too far left, and ended up being bounced out of the raft, and felt something on his back. It was another raft, full-on running him over.
“The crowd was roaring its approval,” he said. “I tried to climb on, but I started to go under. I told myself: ‘screw it. you’re going whether you want to or not. Might as well have a full breath.’ So I took a deep breath and dove. I could see the sun streaming into the water over Postage [rock]. The silhouette of that rock with the rays of sun going through the water was beautiful.”
The further you float down the Gauley, the more remote it becomes. Before you reach the Mash rapids, you can enjoy a mostly calm stretch of scenery for about 2 miles.
The land here is nearly untouched, aside from the one mostly quiet train track winding alongside the waterway. An old rail trestle hints at a past, more vibrant life for this region, marked by coal and lumber commerce. But whatever other signs of that civilization’s existence have been swept up by the wilderness. The Mother Nature, the Mountain Mama, has reclaimed this place as her own. You boaters are just the visiting passersby.
The calmness here is truly a thing of wonder. Sit back and take it in while you can, because the Mashes are looming on the horizon, ready to shake some adrenaline back into this journey.
Ready to get back in action? If not, Upper Mash’s garden of rocks should jolt you back onto the game. And the Lower is the real test! Pass, and you get to pound through one of the biggest waves on the entire Gauley River.
The pearly gates await you in this rapid. Well, the big rocky gates, at least. Two large boulders, sometimes called the “Gates of Heaven,” guard this rapid’s passage. Your goal is to paddle through.
Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s a reason that some people instead refer to these as the “Gates of Hell.”
“Canyon Doors is the prettiest on the entire Gauley,” said Skip Heater, owner of New & Gauley River Adventures.
It’s renowned beauty has inspired many local artists, and you can find works around town depicting its gorgeous cliffside outcroppings.
Courtney Crabtree, a former guide for Songer, remembered, “Last time I went down the Gauley, at one point I just stopped and thought ‘Wow, I forgot how beautiful it really is.’ ”
There are plenty of legends about how this squirrely, technical rapid got its name. The truth has grown into its own living legend, growing ever taller as it gets shared across the gorge. Only Bud Franz knows the real story.
Don’t let the name fool you— Insignificant is anything but.
This rapid is the first of the famed “Big 5” class 5 rapids on the Upper Gauley, each challenging and unique. When the first river scouters ran Upper Gauley, they reported that there was “nothing significant” before reaching Pillow Rock.
Well, they sure as heck missed this one! In fall water levels, Insignificant is roaring. It can be hard to see all the obstacles lying in wait along this rapid: big holes, deceiving ledges and rocks.
“Lost Paddle is the wildest on the river,” said Skip Heater, owner of New & Gauley River Adventures. “You really have to make sure everyone has their act together. If you mess up at the top, there’s no forgiveness downstream.
Lost Paddle is formidable for many reasons, not the least of which that it stretches nearly a quarter-mile long, with continuous choppy waves and 3 or 4 major drops, depending on water levels.
This powerful rapid will yank you through huge waves. After one of the biggest hits at Hawaii 5-0 wave, you’ll immediately tumble down 9-foot drop. Eventually, you’ll hit Tumblehome, the final fall. It’s a technical one, but if you slip down the right slot, it’s a bouncing bunch of fun— and a fitting finale to that long, wild run!
“The consequences can be spiritual,” he said. “If you fall in, you’re in for a long swim.”