An Excursion in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia
Nerves and excitement consume me as our raft approaches the first serious whitewater of the day, then when the size of the wave in front of us becomes apparent, fear enters the picture. This is our first whitewater rafting experience, and I choose the Lower New River in West Virginia, which is highly regarded for its Class III-V rapids (V+ is the highest navigable whitewater). As I am starting to think I should have waded into whitewater rafting rather than jumped in headfirst, we emerge from the wave and I am exuberant.
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This full day of rafting provided some of the biggest rushes of my life and was easily worth the five and a half hour drive from Baltimore. There were many times where I felt I was going to fall into the whitewater, but luckily for me I was able to keep my foot tucked into the beam and my upper body toward the center of the boat while holding on for dear life during the most perilous moments. Not all were as fortunate as two guides navigated 12 of us on our two rafts, but the two paying customers along with the guide in front of us were no worse for wear, and actually seemed to enjoy their dip into the New River.
It was not all hectic though as we were able to catch our breath between rapids on one of the oldest rivers in the world while enjoying the beautiful scenery 1,000 feet below the rim of the New River Gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Our guide explained the geology of the gorge, the ecosystem while peering up at falcons and hawks soaring above us, and the human history while we went through abandoned coal mining and railroad towns. The trip was capped off by going under the third longest single-span arch bridge in the world, 876 feet above us.
There were also further opportunities for excitement between rapids, or even within the more tame rapids. We had ample opportunity to relax in the pleasant water while our lifejackets kept us afloat, yet the really cool part was going down class II rapids while lying on our backs in the water. The biggest rush of the day for me besides being immersed in huge whitewater was briefly conquering my fear of heights as I jumped off a boulder 25 feet above the water. I know, 25 feet does not sound that high, but it sure did look high when I got to the edge!
While the rafting trip was the inspiration for our long weekend in West Virginia and I will get back to that epic day, on our loop route to and from the southwestern part of the state, my now fiancée and I took advantage of what the state is most well-known for, its nature. On the way we stopped at Harpers Ferry, WV, barely more than an hour from Baltimore, and on the way back we enjoyed hiking alongside waterfalls in a state park near Morgantown.
Many know Harpers Ferry for its history, most notably John Brown’s Raid and its role in the Civil War. Harpers Ferry, which is part of the National Park System, is a must for history buffs as you may tour the historically preserved town, but it is also great for hiking. Depending on your level of ambition, the 4.5 mile to 6.5 mile Maryland Heights Trail allows hikers to trace the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, at least until the point where the trail became too daunting for Honest Abe. During your hike you may come across wildlife such as deer as we did, you will also view Civil War sites such as artillery batteries and a stone fort, but the highlight is the magnificent view overlooking Harpers Ferry and the intersection of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.
The return from the rafting trip took us northeast towards Morgantown, a nice college town to explore for an evening. Shortly before the home of West Virginia University is Coopers Rock State Forest, which offers some lovely hiking through dense forest. The hike we choose was especially nice because it followed a stream abundant with small waterfalls until it poured into Cheat Lake. For the more adventurous, there is an opportunity to traverse off trail from the lake up the stream through a series of small, but beautiful falls.
Harpers Ferry, Coopers Rock State Forest, and Morgantown are all nice places to visit for a day and there are several other locations in and on the way to West Virginia that are worth your time, but let’s get back to why I implore you to visit West Virginia, which is their world class whitewater. Now if what I described sounded too extreme, you can start with the Upper New River and its Class I-III+ rapids and then hopefully work your way up. If you have already paddled through big rapids, you are likely aware of the Galley River, which features Class V+ rapids in the fall.
The experience we had with the all-day Lower New River trip through ACE Adventure Resort was perfect for us, though. This was much better than what any water park can offer, but their family friendly property does offer a waterpark on a lake along with plenty of less extreme activities. Our guide was great, the lunch on the bank was as good as one could hope for, and many of the 20 rapids we paddled through were exhilarating. If you have not done it and are able, rafting through whitewater of this caliber should be on your bucket list. It was such a great day that the cheap domestic beer our group celebrated with on the way back tasted like a fine craft IPA.