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Whitewater rafting, along with alpine skiing, anchored the rapid development of West Virginia’s outdoor tourism industry in the late 20th century. Apparently the Mountain State’s first rafter was Ray Moore of Alexandria, Virginia, who, along with a group of friends in the 1950s, discovered that West Virginia’s rivers were among the most exciting in the nation. The group’s November 1959 attempt on the Gauley River was defeated by the power of the rapids, but was a precursor of today’s whitewater recreation industry.

The Cheat was the first West Virginia river to be commercially rafted, by Ralph McCarty of Monroeville, Pennsylvania. His informal weekend expeditions in the mid-1960s on West Virginia and Pennsylvania rivers grew into a company that plied a substantial portion of its business on the Cheat River each spring. A small and highly technical river, the Cheat’s Class III to V whitewater has made it a favorite among some of the nation’s expert paddlers.

In 1968, Jon Dragan founded Wildwater Expeditions Unlimited at Thurmond in the New River Gorge, establishing the first West Virginia-based whitewater rafting company. The New River, the largest-volume whitewater river east of the Mississippi, was an ideal center for the rafting industry because of the dependability of its flows and a season that could begin as early as March and run through October. Congress named the 53-mile section between Hinton and Fayetteville the New River Gorge National River in 1978 (now National Park and Preserve), at the urging of Congressman Nick Joe Rahall. The lower gorge offers classic Class III to V whitewater, with Class I and II rapids in the gentle upper section.

The Gauley, divided into upper and lower sections, is among the most demanding commercially rafted whitewater streams. The section of upper Gauley beginning just below Summersville Dam is known for its five consecutive Class V rapids. The lower Gauley, beginning at Peters Creek, is slightly less rigorous than the upper. In 1988, Congress designated the 25.5 mile upper and lower Gauley and 5.5 miles of the Meadow River as the Gauley River National Recreation Area.

The Shenandoah River flows through one of the most historic and beautiful sections of the state. Its whitewater is gentle enough for families, and the scenery includes Harpers Ferry and the dramatic cliffs of the Blue Ridge where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac. The most often-rafted sections of the Tygart Valley River sport challenging Class III to V spring whitewater and magnificent scenery.

These five rivers capture most of the state’s commercial rafting, although companies have occasionally offered trips on the Bluestone and Meadow rivers. More than 100,000 visitors raft in West Virginia each year, a significant decline from the peak of 250,000 per year in the early 2000s. Of that number, some 20,000 raft the Gauley in its 22-day fall dam release season, known as “Gauley Season.” The Bluestone, New, Meadow, and Gauley rivers comprise the largest federally protected river system in the East. The region, along with the Nantahala River in North Carolina, and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, is among the top three commercial whitewater rafting centers in the United States.

This Article was written by Rebecca Halstead Kimmons

Last Revised on September 01, 2023

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Cite This Article

Kimmons, Rebecca Halstead "Whitewater Rafting." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 01 September 2023. Web. 24 May 2024.


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