You know it’s springtime in West Virginia when the robins start singing and the tourists start screaming — happily, while riding giant rubber rafts down the New and Gauley rivers.
“These are two of the most intense whitewater runs in the country, and they are just a five-hour drive from D.C.,” says Skip Heater, owner of New & Gauley River Adventures.
While both rivers offer world-class whitewater, they have very different personalities, says Jo-Beth Stamm, a river guide with Adventures on the Gorge. The Gauley, she says, is your leather-clad bad boy — wild and a little bit dangerous. The New River is the nice young man you’d bring home to Mama — reliable, wholesome fun.
“Which one you go on will depend on the conditions and what kind of challenge you’re up for,” Stamm says, adding that the Gauley is better for experienced paddlers, while the New River can be appropriate for first-timers. But for either river, you’ll need to be in relatively good shape, and not afraid of taking a dip in cold water.
“We try to keep you in the raft, but you will definitely get wet,” Stamm says.
Steep, twisty and narrow, the Gauley River is one of the most intense stretches of whitewater in the world, packed with Class V (extremely difficult) rapids that have been given evocative names like Heaven Help You and Pure Screaming Hell.
Probably the most intense section of the river is the deceptively named Pillow Rock — a section that begins with a 30-foot drop, after which you’ll paddle directly toward a house-size boulder, says PJ Stevenson, the marketing director of Adventures on the Gorge. Then you launch into another stomach-churning drop.
“It’s 10 seconds of pure whitewater chaos,” she says.
That is, assuming the Gauley is gushing when you’re in town. In the springtime, the flow of the river varies from a trickle to a torrent, depending on how much water the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing from the Summersville reservoir. The engineers announce their plans for the day every morning, and rafting companies can make some predictions based on rainfall, Stevenson says.
“With the Gauley, you never really know what you’re going to get,” she says.
You can always count on the New River for a heart-pumping ride in the spring, says Haynes Mansfield, marketing director of ACE Adventure Resort. That’s because the New River is a broad, free-flowing river that reliably swells when the snow melts, turning it into “a giant roller coaster,” he says.
“You get these massive standing waves that have the same curling structure as an ocean wave,” Mansfield says. His favorite section of the river is a three-wave series known as Whale Rock. “You travel up the face of the wave, break through the foam pile and come through the other side right into another wave,” Mansfield says.
Unlike the Gauley, the New River does offer calm, flat sections where you can take in the beauty and the history of the area, he says. In the spring, before the trees have fully unfurled their leaves, you can make out the foundations of old mining towns and soak in the delicate beauty of wildflower-dappled fields.
Both the New and the Gauley are great spring flings, Stamm says, but if she had to pick one, she’d go with the New River because it’s fun, reliable and handsome as hell.
“The New River Gorge is so lush and green and just unbelievably gorgeous,” she says. “There’s no better place to experience the spring.”
Planning on making a splash?
Several companies offer spring whitewater rafting trips and lodging in West Virginia. Here are a few options:
ACE Adventure Resort, 1 Concho Road, Oak Hill, W.Va. Whitewater trips from $79
Adventures on the Gorge, 219 Chestnutburg Road, Lansing, W.Va. Whitewater trips from $99
New & Gauley River Adventures, 185 Lansing-Edmond Road, Lansing, W.Va. Whitewater trips from $69