1968-2018: A Look Back at the History of West Virginia Rafting

Whitewater rafting has been a staple of West Virginia and one of its most popular tourism attractions for many years, but did you know that it all started with college kids seeking summer adventure in the 1960s?

Jon, Chris, Tom, and Melanie Dragan began rafting the New River during their summer breaks and are widely recognized as the pioneers for West Virginia rafting! With little knowledge of the New River and its unpredictable rapids, the Dragans boarded two custom-made rubber rafts and set out to learn the intricacies and secrets the river held. At that point, there were no laws governing rafting in West Virginia, and very little was known about the river. Most of the names given to the rapids today are thanks to the early trips made by the Dragans!

As years passed, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources began governing whitewater rafting, and the Dragans helped to implement many of the policies that are still in place today. By the early 1970s, West Virginia was forced to cap the number of licenses at 25 in order to prevent overcrowding. Rafting continued to grow, and in the mid-1990s, there were over 200,000 customers a year!

Today, rafters flock to West Virginia to experience some of the best whitewater rafting in the world. While the Dragans began with the New River, rafters today can also experience the Gauley, Cheat, Shenandoah, Tygart, Meadow, Bluestone, Greenbrier, and Potomac rivers. Equipment has improved drastically from the days of seemingly do-it-yourself rafts. There are several companies such as ACE Adventure Resort, Adventures on the Gorge, and River Expeditions that offer tours of the Gauley River and New River. Every year, whitewater enthusiasts flock to the Gauley for the biggest seasonal whitewater event in the country! The Gauley River, or as some call it “The Beast of the East,” is one of the most popular whitewater rivers in the world. Every fall, the Summersville Dam is opened for a few short weeks, giving rafters the experience of a lifetime!

If you’re looking for more of a casual river experience, have no fear! Several companies in the area offer rafting packages that are kid and family friendly. Children as young as six years old are invited to enjoy river running on the Upper New River. This portion of the river offers beginner rapids and more of a relaxed experience than the Lower New River or Gauley River!

Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline-packed river expedition or a casual float downstream, West Virginia has the experience for you! Discover your adventure on the rapids, just as the Dragan family did 50 years ago.

Where will your next West Virginia whitewater adventure be?

This post was last updated on March 17, 2022