The River’s The Thing: West Virginia Whitewater Rafting’s 56th Anniversary

This year marks the 56th anniversary of commercial whitewater rafting in West Virginia. What began as a dream among three brothers from Pennsylvania grew into a key component of West Virginia’s tourism industry. Fifty-six years on, West Virginia sees a steady influx of visitors looking to challenge some of the best whitewater in the United States. These days, the rafting outfitter experience goes well beyond whitewater rafting, but it’s the river’s natural beauty and mystique of the area that compels people from all over to make the trip to Southern West Virginia. When they get here, they find that, in addition to rafting and outdoor adventure, there’s so much to see and do.

Commercial Rafting Comes to the New River

In 1968, a rafting company called Wildwater Unlimited began operations in Thurmond. This marked the start of a thriving industry. At its peak, over 21 companies offered rafting trips, and more than 250,000 people enjoyed whitewater rafting on West Virginia’s rivers. Jon Dragan, along with his brothers Tom and Chris, and his future wife Melanie, got things rolling with a family loan. They bought a few pickup trucks and some used rafts, and in their first year, they guided 80 people down the New River.

The Early Days

Three years later, another rafting company called Mountain River Tours opened its doors, and several others followed in the mid-1970s. This industry appealed to the American idea of the rugged individualist and back-to-nature ethos taking hold in the country, similar to the character Jeremiah Johnson. Back then, whitewater rafting in West Virginia wasn’t about luxury. Comfortable lodging and amenities weren’t a priority – the experience of the rapids was the main focus.

This is further emphasized by Brian Campbell, who co-founded The Rivermen rafting company with his family. In an interview, he describes their early setup: “Our first campground was out at Concho which overlooks Thurmond,” said Campbell. “We didn’t have running water, we had a well and we took showers underneath a hose.”

Boom Goes The Industry

The completion of the New River Gorge Bridge in 1977 made reaching the area much simpler. The growing interest in the region as a tourist destination, largely thanks to the efforts of rafting companies and Senator Nick J. Rahall, led to the New River being designated as a National River by the National Park Service in 1978. The designation occurred “for the purpose of conserving and interpreting outstanding natural, scenic, and historic values and objects in and around the New River Gorge and preserving as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the New River in West Virginia for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

This opened the door for significant growth in West Virginia’s whitewater rafting industry throughout the 1980s and 1990s, primarily focused on the New and Gauley rivers. Over 20 companies operated on these rivers alone, each offering unique experiences and catering to a variety of preferences. These remarkable rivers attracted visitors from nearby states and even internationally.

The Rafting Industry Today

The rafting scene today is quite different from both its simple beginnings and the peak period of the 1990s. Many well-known outfitters are no longer independent businesses. Some merged into larger resort companies, while others closed. Currently, six main outfitters are operating on the New and Gauley rivers. These companies offer a range of experiences, from full-service resorts with all-inclusive packages like meals, lodging, ziplines and mountain biking, to smaller, more personal operations reminiscent of the early days.

Exciting News for the New River Gorge

On December 27, 2020, the New River Gorge National River received a significant upgrade, becoming the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. This new designation recognizes the park’s spectacular natural features and qualifies it alongside other esteemed national parks. Additionally, it allows for the park’s expansion, promising the preservation of even more natural and recreational treasures for future generations.

Ready for Your Whitewater Adventure?

Experience the excitement of West Virginia’s whitewater! Choose your adventure with one of our local outfitters.

As technology advances and new forms of entertainment emerge, the next 50 years of rafting in West Virginia could be more crucial than ever. While the industry has evolved, the core experience – the thrill of the rapids and the connection with nature – remains unchanged. No matter which outfitter you choose, you’re in for a great time. After all, just like in the early days, the true star of the show is still the river itself.