The New River (and the adjoining Gauley River) have some of the best rafting in the country. There are a few big outfits in the Fayetteville area that guide rafting trips:
The most prominent appeared to be ACE. We saw ACE rafts (and buses) everywhere. We sat along the river for about an hour one day only to see dozens of rafts float by, and at least half of them were ACE.
Probably in second Place is River Expeditions, which is the outfit we toured with. We didn’t stay at their campground, but both ACE and River Expeditions have a whole resort/campground where they host other outdoor activities like rock climbing. When we arrived at River Expeditions, I was impressed with everything they offer.
The last “big” name we saw was Adventures on the Gorge. We saw their rafts every once in a while, but not nearly as frequently as River Expeditions or ACE. According to our guide there used to be dozens of outfits, but inevitably the bigger outfits bought out their competitors only to leave a handful to chose from.
Our rafting experience with River Expeditions overall was great! They were organized and get you moving. It’s a 20 minute or so bus ride to the Cunard River Access. We rafted the “Lower” River
There are 2 main options for rafting the New River Gorge: Upper or Lower
The Upper River is a more relaxing ride with lower level rapids overall. The Lower River is full of rapids and you have to constantly be alert while drifting down the river (your guide will make sure of it).
Rafting the Lower River
You’ll want to bring a guide
For the Lower River, each raft has at least one guide. Their job is to give you directions to paddle, and sometimes to shift your weight, in order to keep the raft upright (and hopefully with you in it).
Our guide’s name (I’m sure nickname) was Possum. Say what you will about the name, but listening to Possum kept us in the raft the entire time on the river. Most people fall out at least once. Our guide knew the river better than anyone else in the raft, so I listened to everything he said and assumed it would keep me in the raft (it worked).
The Big Hole
After a few “warm up” rapids, most of the guides will turn you around to go into the rapid upstream and “surf”. This area is known as the “Big Hole”. I believe this is part of Keeneys Rapid. Someone more familiar with the river will have to tell you.
Anyway, the object at the Big Hole is basically to paddle into the rapid and stay on the raft as long as you can. All of the occupants of the raft have to constantly shift their weight from one side of the raft to the other as the raft spins and the water from the rapid pulls it underwater.
Here is the only example I could find on YouTube:
If you think this looks dangerous, you are correct!
Although many people fall out of their raft here (or are forced to jump out by their guide), almost everyone makes it back to their raft with no problem.
Rafting is dangerous
However, a man from one of the nearby rafts was evacuated after falling off at the Big Hole. Dozens of us volunteered to help lift this man up a steep hill and walk him on a backboard through the forest along the railroad and to an ambulance. We heard that this man had an underlying medical condition and probably should not have been rafting in the first place.
If you look at the rafting map, you can see there are “backboard locations” listed along the river for precisely this reason. People get hurt doing this. So take that into consideration when you sign that waiver to go rafting.
Rafting is fun too
I think everyone from our raft was in a bit of shock after a 2 hour-long delay due to the evacuation. Our guide said that this was the first time that they had to evacuate someone this season. Even if that was true, it certainly alerted us to the danger that rafting poses.
We still had many rapids to go over after the incident. And as we made it down the river, we gradually got more comfortable with the raft again. Although I’m sure that what had happened earlier was swirling in the back of everyone’s head for the remainder of the day.
The downside to rafting is that you aren’t supposed to bring cameras with you. Mainly because it is unsafe to be filming while you are trying to paddle through a rapid and if you try, you will probably lose your camera. I lost my sunglasses during a calm section where I got in the water to swim.
Therefore we didn’t get any pictures. River Expeditions takes pictures and videos for you (which I am sure was good) but we didn’t stick around to watch it.
The next day we sat by the river near the bridge and watched the rafts go over some class 3/4 rapids. If you haven’t rafted before, this section may look deceptively easy, but you can feel those bumps when you are actually in the raft.