The West Virginia. Cyclopedia
Rafting, or whitewater rafting, is one of the most popular outdoor leisure sports associated with West Virginia. Each year thousands of thrill-seekers book excursions with companies licensed to guide and outfit rafting trips on West Virginia rivers. Many West Virginia whitewater streams may be run by kayak, but only five maintain width and flow necessary to accommodate whitewater rafting trips. Two rivers, the New and Gauley, are ranked among the world's top rafting rivers, according to the West Virginia Division of Tourism.
West Virginia's whitewater rafting rivers are generally grouped in three areas -- the southern mountains, the northern mountains, and the eastern panhandle. The New and Gauley rivers, located in the southern mountains, are two of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the world. The Cheat and Tygart rivers, in the northern mountains, are runnable mainly during high water in spring. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, in the eastern panhandle, are popular partly as a result of their proximity to Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD. The Youghiogheny River, a popular whitewater river in Pennsylvania, rises in the north-central mountain of West Virginia but does not become a significant whitewater stream until it leaves the state.
The longest commercial-rafting river in the eastern U.S., the New River, in southern West Virginia, consistently ranks among the world's "10 Best" whitewater rafting streams, according to the state Division of Tourism. Located in the 53-mile long New River Gorge, its rafting area is divided into upper and lower courses. The upper run is longer and gentler and features fewer rapids. The lower run plows swiftly through a series of Class IV-V rapids and requires that first-time rafters pay close attention to their guide's instruction. Many rafting companies provide day-long or two-day trips that feature both runs in succession. (See also: Rapids of the New River Gorge.)
Among the world's most challenging commercial whitewater rivers, the Gauley River ranks among the "top five in the world for whitewater adventure," according to the WVDOT. Like the nearby New River, the Gauley is divided into upper and lower runs, though their level of difficulty is reversed: the lower segment of the Gauley is the least difficult (though more difficult than the upper run of the New River). The upper Gauley is highly technical and its rapids follow one-after-another with little clear water between them. The upper Gauley requires that rafters exercise skill and have achieved an expert level of rafting proficiency.
In northern West Virginia, three hours north of the New and Gauley whitewater-rafting rivers, the Cheat River is generally ranked third in popularity among West Virginia whitewater courses. However, the Cheat's 11-mile run provides more rapids than the New and Gauley, including many Class IV-V falls. The Cheat River drains the largest unrestricted watershed in the eastern U.S., and as a result its flow is unregulated by dams, such as those on the New and Gauley. Spring is the optimum season for rafting the Cheat.
Located in north-central mountains of West Virginia, the Tygart River is a popular rafting stream during spring high-water, though it may be kayaked throughout the year. The Tygart is sometimes run with the Cheat River in whitewater rafting vacation packages.
In the eastern pandle, the Potomac River is a popular whitewater rafting rivers in April and May and September when controlled releases from Jennings Randolph Lake swell the river. Just more than an hour's drive west of Washington, D.C., the Potomac is among the most accessible of whitewater rivers for millions of Americans.
The largest tributary of the Potomac River in West Virginia, twenty-two miles of the Shenandoah River feature Class I-III rapids. Raft trips are available April through November. Like the Potomac River, the Shenandoah is among the most accessible whitewater rafting rivers in the eastern U.S.