Updated 1/22/24 by Lori

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It’s no secret that West Virginia offers some of the world’s most exciting options for whitewater rafting. It’s one thing to say some of the best in the country, but the world, that’s saying something. So if you live in the east or are traveling this way, white water rafting in West Virginia is a must adventure. 

Rated as a top 10 white water rafting destination, West Virginia has world-class rapids for adrenaline junkies and smaller rapids for recreational rafters.  Each river offers a unique experience for varying degrees of expertise.

 So if you’re looking for thrills and spills or just a leisurely afternoon on the river, check out our list of the eight best places for whitewater rafting in West Virginia.

West Virginia Whitewater Rafting locations.
The BEST West Virginia Whitewater Rafting locations!

 

1. Upper New River: Great for Beginners to White Water Rafting in West Virginia

People white water rafting in West Virginia
The New River is best for those new to white water rafting.

If you’re new to white water rafting in West Virginia, the 360-mile-long New River offers options for beginners. The best one is the Upper New River. This is an excellent ride for newer adult rafters and those introducing children to the sport. 

Whitewater rafting can seem intimidating, especially before experiencing it. This swath of the New River brings only Class I and Class II rapids, so it’s not a frightening experience even for the timidest first-timers.

This part of the New River lies in a spacious valley, which means shallower and slower water, making it more of a relaxed pace and ride. This, in turn, makes most of the guided trips along the Upper New River “float trips,” perfect for getting the newbie’s “feet wet” while barely getting their actual feet wet. It’s possible to bring along your camera to grab some beautiful shots of the New River Gorge without fear of submerging it. But do so at your own risk!

You don’t need to worry about the equipment since most of the outfitters in the area will have everything you need for a fun, safe experience. The key equipment provided is a life jacket, helmet, and paddle. Your guide will give you plenty of instruction on the best safety practices, so once you step into that raft, you should know what to expect and how to handle the unexpected.  

Specifically, beginning your journey at this part of the New River gives you the added benefit of appreciating the beautiful New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. This area is America’s newest national park, established in late 2020.

 So, the Upper New River is the perfect choice if you want to do more sightseeing than rapid navigation. Prepare for a relaxing ride through striking scenery enveloping you as you travel through the New River Gorge.

Contact one of these awesome outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Upper New River.

2. Lower New River: For those Wanting a Bit More

White water rafting the Lower New River in West Virginia
The Lower New River is for those craving a little more excitement!

Once experienced, the Lower New River is the next step for white water rafting in West Virginia. This stretch of the New River Gorge has an even mix of easy-paced calm water and exciting Class IV rapids, which will get your heart pounding. 

Twenty-three rapids spread out over an 8-mile ride make for a great day! You’ll put in upriver, where you will experience long stretches of calm pools to get comfortable and prepare for the fun downriver. 

The pacing is excellent, with scores of intense rapids spread out, so recovery isn’t an issue. While expert rafters may want to battle the rapids with brief respite, this ride suits those who prefer some recovery. 

Unlike the Upper, which is more shallow, the Lower New River depths create steeper drops amongst the large boulders peppering the river. As always, the season dictates how intense the rapids will be.

For the more experienced, springtime snowmelt and rains make for bold rafting as the river’s volume swells. This is the time of year to experience some freakish waves that aren’t for the faint of heart!

The water and air temps will still be cool in the mountains, so a wetsuit is a must. Even in mid-June, it’s hard to avoid a full-on chill without the proper gear. Chilly but worth the goosebumps to experience some intense rapids capped off with a Class V.

Most guided tours are half or full day on the Lower New River, but both will take beneath the monstrous 876-foot-high New River Gorge Bridge. 

You can raft well into the fall, which makes for a scenic time to visit. With the beautiful colors of falling leaves, you can enjoy something different during the annual Bridge Day in mid-October when base jumpers leap off the bridge.  

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Upper New River.

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3. Upper Gauley River: Adrenaline Junkies Rejoice!

Big waves as people white water raft the Gauly River in West Virginia.
This stretch of white water is one of the most extreme in the world.

For adrenaline junkies who crave the most thrilling whitewater experience in West Virginia, the Upper Gauley takes the cake as the most extreme rafting in West Virginia and ranks as one of the top five places to river raft in the world. 

Here you will be satisfied as the rapids come early and often, ranging from Class IV to Class V. During the 13-mile span, you will drop 335 feet, a virtual staircase of rapids. That’s 30 more feet than the Statue of Liberty is tall!

This is a ride for those with a fair amount of rafting experience. Newbies or those with few rides should consider the nearby New River instead. This ride will exhaust you, and you will need the skill more than ever to keep yourself and your raft mates afloat.

 Navigating through large boulders on a series of steep rapids like the “Big 5” will keep you on the edge of your seat with its continuous Class V rapids.

If you can’t get enough of the rough, fast stuff, the best time to hit the Upper Gauley is in the fall. This is known as “Gauley Season,” when the Summersville Dam releases massive amounts of water. Like spring rafting, fall weather is cold in this part of West Virginia, so you must bring or rent a wetsuit and water shoes to manage the cold air and water.

To plan a rafting trip on the Upper New River, contact one of these outfitters:

4. Lower Gauley River: A Little Less Intense White Water Rafting in West Virginia

People rafting in the Lower Gauley River in West Virginia.
The Lower Gauley River is less intense but still provides thrilling white water rafting in West Virginia.

While the Upper Gauley is the “big brother” of the West Virginia rapids, the Lower Gauley shouldn’t be discounted. It offers its own version of ridiculous whitewater, like the Mash Bros. rapids, which take you through 3 consecutive mammoth waves.

Another appropriately named set of rapids is the Pure Screaming Hell rapids, which feature a massive hole that will get you out of your seat and have you screaming like… well, you get the point.

So the ride is pretty stellar along the Lower Gauley, even if it’s less intense than the Upper. But the scenery is just as grand, and you’ll have more time to appreciate it. While the breaks are nice, you will still experience some Class III through Class V rapids among the 70 rapids on this 17-mile stretch.

Your guide will instruct you on the opportunities to exit the raft for some floating and swimming, which is great on warmer days. This ride is best for intermediate rafters and those who like a pleasant mix of extreme and relaxation. 

This trip can be combined with the Upper Gauley for a truly epic day on and in the water. The weather may be chilly in September and October, but that is when this combined trip is most popular. 

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Upper New River:

5. Cheat River: Something for Everyone

People are relaxing on the Cheat River in West Virginia.
The Cheat River has something for everyone in your group, from beginners to more experienced.

One of the lesser-known places to whitewater raft in West Virginia is the Cheat River, which winds along the state’s eastern side into the southwest portion of Pennsylvania. You won’t be “cheated” by choosing this river for its variety of fantastic rapids and views. 

The river is divided into two distinct rides, the Cheat Narrows and Cheat Canyon.

The Cheat Narrows is considered a smoother, beginner-friendly stretch to raft, with only Class II and III rapids. Since it’s a bit more low-key, there are more opportunities for rock jumping and swimming alongside your raft. There is far less turbulence which is great for helping new riders acclimatize to the sport.

The Cheat Canyon portion will excite even the most experienced riders in your group. Cheat Canyon lets you ride the impressive Class IV rapids. The steep mountains which line the river provide postcard views in every direction. You’ll ride between a slew of boulders and enjoy fun, fast chutes, churning waves, and harrowing swirling holes. 

You can enjoy the Cheat River spring into summer, with each portion of the river having peaks for optimal rafting.

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Cheat River.

 

6. Shenandoah River: Perfect for Relaxing 

Calm water for rafting on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia.
The Shenandoah River is perfect for beginners or those wanting a relaxing white water experience.

Another lesser-known whitewater rafting option in West Virginia, perfect for newer riders, is the Shenandoah River. It’s near historic Harpers Ferry, where it meets up with the Potomac River. Yes, the Potomac goes that far west!

The meeting of these two rivers offers whitewater enthusiasts a 6.5-mile stretch of manageable rapids through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and right on by the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. 

Since you’ll only encounter Class I to Class III rapids on the Shenandoah, it’s an excellent ride for those just starting out. The fear of big whitewater will give way when beginners experience these fun rapids and easy chutes. 

The other bonus is that this trip makes for a shorter time commitment, so if smaller family members get restless, they’ll be out of the raft and on dry land much quicker than most other rafting trips.

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Shenandoah River.

7. Potomac River

People are rafting in the Potomac River in West Virginia.
The Potomac River is associated with Washington, DC. But it makes its way west into West Virginia and makes for good beginner to intermediate white water rafting.

Some will be surprised that the Potomac reaches as far west as West Virginia. That is indeed the case. Paralleling the Shenandoah, the Potomac River offers a similar playful ride for beginner to intermediate white water rafters in West Virginia. 

For the most action, plan to visit and raft in the spring when water levels are high and the temperatures are cool but comfortable. You can still get in some beautiful rides throughout the summer, but the whitewater will be more subdued, which will be great for the beginners in your group. 

The Potomac River offers the most gentle whitewater experience in the central Appalachians. 

You’ll experience mainly Class I & II rapids and a single Class III rapid as you take in the gorgeous landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You’ll experience a long string of Class II rapids as you move through the Needles of the Potomac and find your way to the Class III White Horse, which is packed with waves! Depending on the water levels and weather, your guide may allow you to exit the raft for some “funneling”, which is floating through the rapids. This ride is about 6.5 miles long and will take roughly 2- 2.5 hours to complete.

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Potomac River.

8. Tygart River: West Virginia’s Best Kept Secret

Tygart River in West Virginia
The Tygart River might be West Virginia’s best-kept secret.

The Tygart River may be the best-kept secret amongst all the places to whitewater raft in West Virginia. This river is a relatively new option and, as a result, is often less crowded. 

This is a fantastic trip for all skill levels, but it leans toward those considered intermediate. The Tygart Valley Falls 1.5-mile run takes you through the Valley Falls State Park and provides exceptional rafting from spring through fall. 

You’ll ride mostly Class III rapids and top out with occasional high water-driven Class IV rapids, complete with hearty bumps and fun crashing drops. The stretches of flat water are great for getting some floating in, especially when water levels are on the low side. 

This trip is one of the shorter ones, usually taking about an hour or so to complete. It’s a great run that runs swiftly even when other area rivers have slowed or even gone dry. 

Contact one of these outfitters to plan a rafting trip on the Tygart River.

 

Now Pick Your Adventure

It’s obvious how “Wild and Wonderful” the landscape of West Virginia is when traveling through the state, but whitewater rafting is their crown jewel. There are plenty of whitewater rafting options, no matter your skill level. From great flat water to churning Class V’s, you’ll find the type of ride you’re looking for here in the Mountain State. 

If it’s your first time out, do a little research about what to expect. It won’t take long. When setting up your trip, you can usually have most questions answered by the booking agent. Agents are trained to help guide clients through the process, answering important questions. 

Whitewater is a blast. Pick a location and GO! You’ll have the time of your life if you follow all the instructions and guidelines.

Luggage Service

If you’re flying into WVA, you may need a place to store your luggage before you can check into your hotel/resort, or after you check out of your hotel well before your plane is scheduled to depart. One excellent option I love is a luggage storage service. And there’s no better service than Radical Storage which offers you freedom and peace of mind for as little as $6 a day. 

Just find the closest location, book online, store your luggage, and go!

 

8 thoughts on “White Water Rafting in West Virginia: The Best 8 Places”

  1. WOW I had no idea there were this many options to go white water rafting in West Virginia. I live in Charlotte, NC and we have the White Water Center here – but it certainly doesn’t compare to these great options!

  2. An epic guide to top 8 places for whitewater rafting in West Virginia. I’ve never tried it and have never been to West Virginia. May be a sign!

  3. Ahhh I’ve been wanting to raft the Upper Gauley for years! I’m more of a hard-boater but no way I’d do that run in a kayak. Would be super fun to time a trip for Gauleyfest someday, although I imagine that’s kind of a zoo.

  4. I’ve always wanted to go rafting! I’m from East Tennessee, so river life was always floating in a tube 😂 I need more adrenaline than that.

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