White Water Rafting West Virginia | The Ultimate Guide To West Virginia River Rafting

White Water Rafting West Virginia

Why Go West? You don’t have to go to Colorado, Montana, or Idaho to find big water or exhilarating, edge of your seat white water rafting. East of the Mississippi, White Water Rafting West Virginia is where it’s at. Don’t take our word for it, adventures on the Gorge captures the thrill of rafting West Virginia in this video.

White Water Rafting West Virginia

As a raft guide during summers in college, I hit the lower Gauley quite a few times to perfect my kayaking and rafting skills. I guarantee there is no bigger, better water, camping, hiking or outdoor excitement on the east coast! All of West Virginia’s rivers are unique, spectacular, and fun to run. All you need is courage and a sense of adventure.

Where to Whitewater Raft in West Virginia

It’s never hard to find a place to go whitewater rafting in West Virginia. Look for rafting companies in popular whitewater rafting in West Virginia towns, like Lansing, Harper’s Ferry, Charlestown, and Albright.

Or, just head on over to Adventures on the Gorge and find a white water rafting, or hiking, or other adventure that suits your family’s goals.

There are four primary rivers for commercial whitewater river rafting in West Virginia, the Gauley, the New River, the Youghiogheny River, and the Shenandoah, but don’t overlook the lesser known, but equally exciting and very popular rivers :

  • Gauley River (There are both Upper, and Lower Gauley runs)
  • New River (There are both Upper, and Lower New River runs)
  • Shenandoah River
  • Cheat River
  • Potomac River
  • Youghiogheny River, often just referred to as, “The Yock.”
  • Tygart River
  • Buckhannon River
  • Middle Fork Rivers

In case it’s easier to pick a river based on the city you’re going to be staying in, or near, here’s a breakdown by city/town and nearby rivers:

  • Albright, WV (North Central WV), The Shenandoah, The Cheat Rivers
  • Circleville, WV The Potomac River, The Cheat River
  • Harpers Ferry, WV The Gauley, and New River
  • Lansing, WV The Gauley, and New River
  • Fayetteville, WV The Gauley, and New River
  • Glen Jean, WV The Gauley, and New River
  • Morgantown, WV The Middle Fork River
  • Jenkinsburg, WV – Cheat River
  • Oak Hill, WV The Gauley, and New River
  • Petersburg, WV The Potomac River
  • Buckhannon, WV The Tygart River
  • Philippi, WV The Tygart River
  • Elkins, WV The Tygart River
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Whitewater Rafting West Virginia on the Shenandoah with Children

If you are new to white water rafting, and you want to start with an easy run, there’s no better rafting than on the Shenandoah River. Shenandoah River is perfect for beginners, first-time rafters, and family or group trips with assorted, or no experience. The water is calmer, with novice rated Class I to Class III rapids. The river is centrally located, just 3 miles east of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and minutes from Virginia. The water is so calm tubers, as well as rafters, enjoy floating down this beautiful river.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Lower Gauley River

If you’re an avid or experienced rafter, or you simply want to raft the best, start with the most famous whitewater in West Virginia – The Gauley River, with both its upper and lower Gauley River runs. Then, move on to the New River, with its “upper” and “lower” canyon runs. The Gauley River is 24-26 miles long and well known for its multiple heavy rapids. Rafting and kayaking anywhere on the Gauley River requires tight, technical maneuvering. For whitewater rafting purposes, the river is split into two main sections—the Upper and Lower Gauley.

Experience Lower Gauley River

White Water Rafting West Virginia
Photo Credit: ACE Adventure Resorts

Depending on which whitewater rafting outfit you choose, the Lower Gauley is a long run—from 11.5 to 17 miles. There are a few stretches of flatwater, and some pools for relaxing and swimming, but for the most part rafters will spend most of their time in Class III-V whitewater. The Lower Gauley doesn’t pack quite the punch as the Upper Gauley in terms of size of water but makes up for it with challenging rapids that require technique and nerves to run. Don’t underestimate it though. It’s an advanced river, especially for first-time rafters.

As its name might suggest, the “Lower” Gauley is not as consistently intense as the Upper Gauley. Don’t worry. It still offers plenty of extreme whitewater rafting adventure. There are 70 rapids along the Lower Gauley, ranging from Class III to Class V rapids. The difference is, unlike the Upper Gauley, you get a chance to take a breath and relax in between the various rapids. There are calmer pools of water to float, and time to stop and swim as well. This stretch of river is a thrill for both beginning and experienced rafters. While extreme in places, with some class IV rapids, the Lower Gauley, is perfect for intermediate rafters, and for brave and daring first-timer rafters who want to experience both the views and the thrills that whitewater rafting West Virginia offers.

If you’re brave enough, and experienced enough, combine the Upper Gauley and Lower Gauley into one trip, preferably in the fall when the water, the leaves, and the temperatures are at their best.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Upper Gauley River

The upper Gauley River is known as the “Beast of the East.” It’s not only the most renowned whitewater rafting rivers in West Virginia; it’s always ranked as one of the top three whitewater rivers in the nation. It consistently ranks in the top five rivers in the world too, and for good reasons. Running the Gauley is like running western whitewater – big water, big runs, and white-knuckle rapids in a long series. It’s Western rafting excitement on an Eastern river. While you will need to be an expert, or traveling with experts to enjoy the Upper Gauley, put this river on your bucket list of rivers to run. The consistent Class IV and Class V rapids that drop you more than 335 feet in a 13-mile stretch, make this the best river in the Eastern US.

The Upper Gauley River has an age limit of 15 with almost all outfitters. Sorry, no younger paddlers allowed. If you are new to whitewater rafting in West Virginia, any river in West Virginia will meet and exceed your expectations for white water rafting, and whet your appetite for more.

Novice Gauley River Advice –

If you’re a novice rafter, this definitely shouldn’t be your first whitewater rafting trip. It’s for experienced white water river rafters only. The ride is intense and most experienced rafters can handle that. However, it’s the aggressive and exhausting, never-seeming-to-end series of steep, consistent, Class 5 rapids that wears even the most experienced whitewater rafters down. You need precision and skill to endure the intense 60-plus rapids. Some have described the trip like being “tossed around in a commercial washing machine all day.” Not only are there huge waves all along the stretch, but you’ll also experience the “Big 5” on the Upper Gauley. The “Big 5” is a series of the steepest, and most voluminous Class V rapids on the river, all strung together in between large boulders. Both the exertion and the views will take your breath away.

Unlike the uncontrollable snowmelt of the western rivers that determines the water intensity, the Gauley River can, and is controlled by a dam. For many seasoned whitewater rafters in West Virginia, the ultimate adrenaline rush is in the fall during “Gauley Season.” Gauley Season is when state officials release water from the Summersville Dam. This literal flood of water creates the coldest, as well as the most intense, whitewater of the year. If you go in late October, plan on a wetsuit and water shoes to keep you at least semi-warm during the most intense white water rafting in West Virginia.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Upper New River Valley

Are you a beginning whitewater rafter, a senior, wanting to try rafting for the first time, or a parent with younger children? No worries. Look for trips on the Upper New River Valley. Most of the rapids here are Class I to III and are all kid-friendly. The water is big enough to thrill, but not to scare, new or first-time rafters. Call the Upper New River Valley mild white water. If you have a group of scouts, school kids, or a youth group or family raft the breathtakingly scenic New River Gorge is a great place to plan your first whitewater rafting trip. Running the Upper New River is the perfect choice for an easy introduction to whitewater rafting. This is a perfect first-time river experience for all ages, from six to 86.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Lower New River Valley

The Lower New River Peak whitewater rafting trip is perfect for all levels of experience, including those rafting for the first time.  With technical rapids that will challenge experienced paddlers, this stretch of water is also exciting and safe for beginners. There are over 20 class III-IV+ rapids along this stretch of the New River, making it one of the most popular whitewater rafting trips West Virginia has to offer.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Cheat River

The Cheat River is a tributary of the Monongahela River and runs about 78 miles through WV and southwest Pennsylvania. The Cheat Canyon section of the Cheat River (from Albright to Jenkinsburg, West Virginia), is more of an expert paddler section – consisting mostly of Class IV and V rapids. It’s also home to the Cheat Festival on the first weekend in May every year.  Paddlers gather from around the country to participate in the Cheat River Race, which takes place in the 10-mile (16 km) Cheat Canyon on the Friday of that weekend. The race uses a mass start where all participants start at the same time. For the first few miles, paddlers must avoid not only the whitewater hazards of the river, but each other. Hence, why the race, which usually attracts 150 people, is often cited as the largest whitewater race in existence.

White Water Rafting West Virginia Youghiogheny River

The “Yock,” as it’s often referred to, is another popular whitewater rafting river for intermediate to advanced paddlers. Also dubbed “The dream stream,” the Yock sources near Silver Lake, WV, and runs through Maryland, and Pennsylvania as well. In fact, most of the outfitters for the Yock are located in Maryland and Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania.

Whitewater Rafting West Virginia Tygart River

While the Tygart River doesn’t boast class IV and V rapids, they are considered one of the better whitewater rafting rivers in West Virginia for beginners. With primarily Class I to Class III rapids, this is a great place to take a family, younger children, and new rafters. One of the fun things about the Tygart is some outfitters offer “moonlight” rafting, or night rafting when there’s a full moon.

Whitewater Rafting Ratings in West Virginia

All whitewater rapids on rivers in America are rated on a “river and rapids” class system from 1-to-5, with a 5 being the most technically challenging. The purpose of the system is to ensure when someone goes rafting or kayaking, that they have a good idea of what to expect from the river. To clarify and simplify this process, all whitewater rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI. The rapids receive ratings based on a combination of difficulty and danger. The system is not perfect, and ratings are only guidelines. As river difficulty increases, the danger to swimming paddlers becomes more severe. As rapids become longer and more continuous, the challenge increases. There is a significant difference between running an occasional Class-IV rapid on a Class II river, versus dealing with an entire river of Class-IV rapids one after another.

White Water Rafting West Virginia
Photo Credit: Adventures on the Gorge

The only exception to the Class 5 system is the Grand Canyon river system, which is rated on a 1-to-10 scale. This is what the different levels mean:

Class 1:

Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. There are few obstructions, all of which are usually obvious and easily missed with little training. The risk to swimmers is slight; and self-rescue is easy.

Class 2 Novice:

Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium-sized waves are easily avoided by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed.

Class 3 :

Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. Depending on the character of the river, it may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast, reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require “must make” moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting may be necessary the first time down. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high, and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential but requires practiced skills. For kayakers, a strong roll is highly recommended. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated Class IV- or Class IV+ respectively.

Class 4 :

Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Drops may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. What eddies exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. At the high end of the scale, several of these factors may be combined. Scouting is recommended but may be difficult. Swims are dangerous, and rescue is often difficult even for experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential.

Because of the large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV, Class V is an open-ended, multiple-level scale designated by class 5.0, 5.1, 5.2, etc. Each of these levels is an order of magnitude more difficult than the last. That is, going from Class 5.0 to Class 5.1 is a similar order of magnitude as increasing from Class IV to Class 5.0.

Class 5 :

Runs of this classification are rarely attempted and often exemplify the extremes of difficulty, unpredictability and danger. Therefore, the consequences of errors are severe and rescue may be impossible. For teams of experts only, at favorable water levels, after close personal inspection and taking all precautions. After a Class VI rapid has been run many times, its rating may be changed to an appropriate Class 5.x rating.

Exceptions:

The Grand Canyon has a 1-to-10 rating, Flat water on the Grand Canyon is 1 while tough rapids like Lava Falls or Crystal can be rated 10 at certain water levels. A 10 rating in the canyon is roughly equivalent to a Class V in the standard river scale.

White Water Rafting Companies in West Virginia

Commercial white water rafting in West Virginia is regulated and permitted by the state of West Virginia. Any white water rafting company offering tours anywhere in the state must be licensed and permitted to do so. And, all guides working on your tour must be certified as well. All companies provide life jackets, helmets and paddles as part of the trip price, but feel free to bring your own approved gear if you want. Here is a list of just a few of the whitewater rafting outfits currently offering white water rafting in West Virginia.

ACE Adventure Resort:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaThis adventure resort offers a variety of activities from white-water rafting to rock climbing. Located just 9 miles from the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Center. Located on 1,500 wooded acres beside the New River Gorge national park in West Virginia, when you’re done rafting, the adventures can continue. North American River Runners operates under ACE and can be found on their website.

ACE ADVENTURE RESORT – INFORMATION HERE

Adrenaline:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaAdrenaline is an adventure company offering a variety of outdoor adventures all over the world, including whitewater rafting in West Virginia on both the Upper and Lower Gauley, and Upper and Lower New River.

ADRENALINE – INFORMATION HERE

Adventures On the Gorge

Adventures On the Gorge is an “adventure resort, offering a variety of outdoor adventure opportunities, including whitewater rafting on both the Gauley and New River.

ADVENTURES ON THE GORGE – INFORMATION HERE 

Cantrell Ultimate Rafting:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaCantrell Ultimate Rafting is the only remaining family owned and operated West Virginia company; situated near the village of Fayetteville. They operate on both sections of the Gauley and New River.

CANTRELL ULTIMATE RAFTING – INFORMATION HERE

Class VI:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaClass VI is a multi-adventure outfitter located in Lansing, West Virginia. It’s the second commercial raft company in West Virginia and has been around since 1969. In addition, it was also the first to offer food and meals to its customers – a tradition it proudly carries on on its overnight and day trips.

CLASS VI – INFORMATION HERE

Cheat River:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaCheat River Outfitters offers trips through the 13-mile long Cheat River Canyon and adventures on the Class II-III  Cheat Narrows.

CHEAT RIVER – INFORMATION HERE

New & Gauley Whitewater Rafting:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaIf you like a smaller outfitter with lots of experience (30 years) and a laid-back approach to rafting, the New & Gauley Whitewater River Adventures might be your perfect outfitter.

NEW & GAULEY WHITEWATER RAFTING – INFORMATION HERE

River Expeditions Whitewater Rafting:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaRiver Expeditions is a multi-adventure outfitter located in Oak Hill, WV. They offer both beginning whitewater rafting trips as well as challenging trips for the experienced and intermediate rafters looking to go white water rafting West Virginia.

RIVER EXPEDITIONS – INFORMATION HERE

West Virginia Adventures:

White Water Rafting West VirginiaLike most West Virginia whitewater rafting outfitters, West Virginia Adventures offers trips on both the Gauley and New River (both upper and lower sections). Plus, this outfitter also offers overnight accommodations (additional cost) for tent camping and studio cabins.

WEST VIRGINIA ADVENTURES – INFORMATION HERE

Whitewater Rafting West Virginia on The Shenandoah River

River & Trail Outfitters:

River & Trail Outfitters has been running white water rafting trips at Harpers Ferry, WV for 45 years, longer than any other company in the area. Not only is floating the Shenandoah a fun ride, as you float by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, river guides will also educate you on the events that occurred in the area and led up to the Civil War. Most noteworthy, trips are offered on both the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

RIVER & TRAIL OUTFITTERS – INFORMATION HERE

Riverriders:

Riverriders is a multi-adventure outfitter offering rafting trips on the Shenandoah River. Popular with new and beginner paddlers, their guides take whitewater rafters down the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Therefore, Their office is located where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia come together. It’s a short 7 mile river excursion that introduces anyone wanting to experience class I to III rapids for the first time. Which is why they are amongst the best on our list for White Water Rafting West Virginia.

RIVERRIDERS – INFORMATION HERE

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