50 Facts to Celebrate 50 Years of Whitewater Rafting in West Virginia

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the whitewater rafting industry in West Virginia. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, whitewater rafting has a way of getting in your veins and becoming a lifelong passion! Here are 50 facts to help you learn and celebrate this incredible industry we all know and love:

  1. West Virginia’s whitewater rafting industry became a major tourism driver for the state in 1968 when whitewater pioneer Jon Dragan and his brothers founded Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited.
  2. Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited was West Virginia’s first commercial rafting business.
  3. Jon Dragan and his brothers were responsible for naming many of your favorite rapids you go down today.
  4. The brothers named these iconic rapids after their character, geographical location or memorable event.
  5. When did the industry start booming? It wasn’t until 1971 that other companies began to show up on the New River area scene.
  6. Today, rafters can enjoy whitewater rafting on the New, Gauley, Cheat, Shenandoah, Big Sandy Creek, Tygart, Potomac, Meadow, Bluestone and Greenbrier rivers.
  7. West Virginia’s rivers are beautiful; they take you through narrow gorges, lush forest canopies and labyrinth-like boulder clusters for scenic beauty you’ve never seen before.
  8. Whitewater rafting is for anybody, even beginners! Thanks to the states diverse whitewater, trips can be mild to wild.
  9. The New River is the classic collection of whitewater runs that built West Virginia’s whitewater rafting industry.
  10. The New River runs through Appalachia’s own little version of the Grand Canyon, near the small and happening town of Fayetteville. The New River Gorge is 900 feet deep, with the world-class rock climbing of Endless Wall at the top, world-class whitewater rafting at the bottom, and a wild jungle of rhododendrons, ferns, and waterfalls in the middle.
  11. The New River is broken into two sections, the Upper and Lower.
  12. The Upper section is great for family rafting and duckying, with easy Class I and II rapids. It’s also is perfect for beginner kayakers to enjoy uninterrupted, rollercoaster-like wave trains.
  13. The New River’s season runs all the way from early spring through summer and fall, and each season provides a unique ride you’ll never forget!
  14. The Lower New is the quintessential West Virginia whitewater run, exciting for any level whitewater rafter. For kayaking, the Class IV rapids make it geared more toward intermediates.
  15. The Lower New River– which at high water is a rip-roaring Class V affair– mellows slightly as its water levels drop in July and August. Its lower water levels will expose more rocks, but with an experienced guide, you’ll have a great time.
  16. In the summer months on the Lower New River, you’ll only need a swimsuit and sunscreen; the water will be a perfect temperature for lots of splashes and swimming. But in the spring months when the air and water are a bit cooler, you’ll want to consider a water-resistant splash jacket that keeps cold water off, or even a wetsuit, which lets water through to be warmed by your body.
  17. The Upper New River above Thurmond is a great introduction to rafting, and there is plenty of flat water where you’ll have time to enjoy the scenery or look for bald eagles.
  18. Today, the New River area is full of amazing whitewater outfitters like ACE Adventure Resort, Adventures on the Gorge, New and Gauley River Adventures and River Expeditions who are just waiting to start your passion for whitewater rafting.
  19. Did you know the Gauley River is called the “Beast of the East”? Its known for having some of the best paddling in the world.
  20. For 22 perfect and predictable levels of whitewater, run the Gauley River during the famous”Gauley Season,” which happens during September and October. This happens when the Summersville Dam is drained every winter to allow for flood control and water storage the following spring.
  21. The Upper Gauley has five rapids that earn the whitewater rating of “Class V”, which are the upper level of what can be safely guided down. The Insignificant Rapid, Pillow Rock Rapid, Lost Paddle Rapid, Iron Ring and Sweet’s Falls all have their own exciting characteristics.
  22. The Lower Gauley also has its own iconic rapids such as The Mash Bros. with 3 gigantic waves one after the other or Pure Screaming Hell with its monster-sized hole.
  23. Gauley Fest is the largest paddling festival in the world. Experience Gauley Fest for yourself this year. It takes place every third weekend in September, and you’ll get to ride some of the wildest whitewater rafting in the east.
  24. Cold water gear is essential on the Upper Gauley, where the river emerges cold and clear out of the depths of Summersville Reservoir. The best water levels are during September and October releases, and the huge waves and falls are guaranteed to soak you. Don’t forget to bring polypropylene socks and sport shoes with no-slip soles!
  25. The Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in the Easter Panhandle are known for being more playful and wind past historic Harpers Ferry.
  26. Run the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers in the spring for exciting, adrenaline-pumping rides, while trips in the summer and fall offer more mild, family-friendly rides usually due to lower water levels.
  27. The Shenandoah and Potomac in the summer have low water for a smooth, easy family float.
  28. In the spring and fall, the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers are big-splashing Class III fun!
  29. Want to experience the rapids of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers? River Riders is the perfect outfitter to run the rivers and take in the lush beauty of the Eastern Panhandle.
  30. The Tygart River is the Mountain State’s newest river. Its steep drops include the most powerful drop in the Monongahela River basin that you can boat on.
  31. Even though the Tygart River is the state’s newest rafting river, that doesn’t mean its any less exciting!
  32. The Tygart Valley Falls run is perfect for intermediate boaters and great to ride in the spring, summer and fall. This run flows through Valley Falls State Park and is mostly in the Class III and sometimes IV range with its powerful bumps and drops.
  33. Take a trip with Tygart River Outfitters. They offer guided whitewater rafting trips on the Tygart River primarily in the spring but also in the summer as water conditions permit.
  34. The Cheat River snakes through a boulder-strewn canyon, across more than 30 rapids.
  35. From the calm flat water of the Upper Cheat to the heart-pounding rapids of the Cheat Canyon, world-class paddlers and dedicated conservationists alike have made the Cheat River watershed their home.
  36. Whitewater pioneers charted the Cheat Rivers thrashing rapids more than 60 years ago, and the river is still a destination for river rats who want a wild, scenic experience.
  37. Jim Ruthbelle, a Cheat River living legend, guided one of the very first commercial trips down the Cheat Canyon, a 7-mile stretch of class IV-V whitewater that has a reputation for being rougher than its Appalachian siblings of the New and Youghiogheny rivers.
  38. The most popular section of the Cheat River is the beginner- and intermediate-friendly Narrows, a 5-mile fun-fest that builds in difficulty from beginning to end. The Narrows never goes past Class III rapids, and, it (almost) always gives you room to deal with any challenges you may encounter along the way.
  39. The best section of the Cheat River is the Canyon, a Class-IV wonderland of boulders, chutes and, in high water, massive waves and swirling holes. Even advanced paddlers should be aware of Coliseum and Pete Morgan. These 2 back-to-back rapids stretch close to .25-mile, and will no doubt give you a wild ride.
  40. The Cheat Canyon’s season runs from early spring through mid-June, while the Cheat Narrows season lasts from spring to summer.
  41. Looking for a trip? The Cheat River area has several incredible outfitters like Cheat River Outfitters, Blackwater Outdoor Adventures, Wilderness Voyageurs and Laurel Highlands River Tours and Outdoor Center.
  42. This year, West Virginia is hosting the National Rafting Championships for the very first time. Head to the New and Gauley rivers Sept. 4-8 to check out all of the action!
  43. There are very few hard-and-fast rules in whitewater boating. Sometimes you swim to shore, other times you swim to the middle of the rapid. Sometimes you need to paddle like mad, other times you wait until the last minute to really “dig it in.” Always listen to your guide!
  44. Book a “duckie” trip, where you’ll be in control of your very own inflatable kayak. The guides for the trip will lead you through, and “run safety” at the rear. The cool thing about these duckie trips is that you can run sections of river that bigger rafts can’t get to, like the low-water middle Gauley, or the “dries” of the New River below Hawk’s Nest Dam.
  45. There are 2 types of swimming, so you’ll need to know whether to face downstream and use your legs to bounce off of rocks in shallow water or to actively swim away from obstacles. Your guide will let you know when to use each!
  46. The best way to practice all of this is to voluntarily swim through some mild rapids. Waves like “Swimmer’s Rapid” on the New are so safe that guides will let you jump out of the raft and just float on through them.
  47. Whitewater rafting is a great adventure to experience with your friends and family! Many outfitters offer more than just whitewater rafting — they offer an entire experience. These outfitters provide incredible dining opportunities, cozy lodging and other outdoor adventures, which makes for a trip that you’ll never forget!
  48. Whitewater rafting will become a new passion of yours. Once you arrive at any of the whitewater rafting outfitters around the Mountain State for your guided trip, you will see just how passionate your guide and others are about this incredible outdoor adventure.
  49. All of West Virginia’s whitewater rafting companies, from the biggest to the smallest, offer great deals and packages all season long. So, there is no excuse not to book a guided trip this year!
  50. West Virginia has the best whitewater! Every year, thousands of people from all over the world journey to the Mountain State to ride some of the best whitewater rapids in the east. This year be one of those people and experience the states diverse whitewater for yourself.

How do you plan on celebrating the 50th anniversary of the whitewater rafting industry in the state?

This post was last updated on March 2, 2022