Explore your wild side with rafting, rappelling and more.
While packing the car for a trip to West Virginia with my son Nick, I kept replaying the state's longtime travel slogan—Wild, Wonderful West Virginia—in my mind.
I felt confident that our trek, whose itinerary included paddling an inflatable kayak on the New River, whooshing through the treetops on a zip line, learning new water sports and walking across the 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge, would be wild. I just wasn't sure how wonderful it would be. I occasionally suffer from a fear of heights and tend to prefer picture-taking to risk-taking while on vacation.
But knowing that the trip would offer me a chance to share some new adventures with my soon-to-be-13-year-old, I gamely drove the 225 miles to the New River region of West Virginia, which is home to thousands of acres of parkland, one of the oldest rivers on the continent and historic coal-mining towns.
We went through Adventures on the Gorge for several of the activities, but there are other service providers, notably for boating. The New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau has a wealth of information at newrivergorgecvb.com.
Canyon Rim Visitor Center
162 Visitor Center Road, Lansing, West Virginia; 304-574-2115; nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/crvc.htm
Operated by the National Park Service, the visitor center offers a great introduction to the region's history and how natural resources have shaped its economics, shifting from mining and logging to a leading recreation destination. Anyone who plans to raft or kayak on the New River will enjoy seeing how the safety gear has changed over the years.
Another display emphasizes the enormous impact of the New River Gorge Bridge, a steel arch that offered residents a safer, more efficient way to cross the gorge. The structure, which opened in 1977, reduced travel time from 40 minutes to less than a minute.
The stunning view of the park from the center's back deck further underscores why the area attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Tourists can find out about park programs ranging from fishing and rock climbing to yoga and tai chi, hiking trails and other regional attractions.
The Bridge Walk Tour
57 Fayette Mine Road, Lansing, West Virginia; 304-574-1300; bridgewalk.com/index.php
In the weeks leading up to our trip, whenever someone asked what we intended to do in West Virginia, I always included “scary, bridge walking.” The thought of ambling across the 3,030-foot-long bridge, whose midpointtowers 851 feet above the river, was daunting to say the least.
Upon learning of my fears, our tour guide explained the safety features of the bridge's harness system. He also pointed out places along the catwalk—located under the driving surface—where several beams come together, creating the comfortingillusion of afloor. Despite the talk, I was still scared, especially when semitrailers rumbled overhead and caused the bridge to shake.
Still the view of the river and park was spectacular, as long as I looked out—not down. I snapped photos with my camera and even posed for a photo near the center. By the time we reached the other side, I had relaxed a bit and was able to appreciate the uniqueness of the experience.
When we got off the bridge, Nick, who had been good-naturedly teasing me, seemed genuinely impressed. His scaredy-cat mother had faced her fears head-on and did something remarkable. Not a bad lesson for a kid who will start high school in another year.
Tip: Consider taking a camera with a neck strap rather than a smartphone in order to keep from dropping the device.
Cost: $69 per person. Participants must be at least 8 years old and 48 inches tall.
Adventures on the Gorge, 219 Chestnutburg Road, Lansing, West Virginia; 855-379-8738; adventuresonthegorge.com/adventures/zip-line-aerial-adventures
After my successful walk across the New River Gorge Bridge, I figured an afternoon spent zip lining would be no sweat, so Nick and I signed up for the Adventures on the Gorge TreeTops Canopy Tour. Even though I got nervous every time I had to launch myself off a platform, I loved the adrenaline rush of speeding through the trees in the old-growth hemlock forest.
Cost: $99 adults, $49.50 children ages 10-12. Participants must be at least 10 years old and meet weight restrictions.
Kayaking on the New River
Lansing, West Virginia
Whitewater rafting/kayaking is the sport that made the region an adventure destination. Nick and I opted for the Upper New River, which has Class I to III rapids. The daylong tour is designed for families with children ages 6 and older. Participants board one- or two-person inflatable kayaks—dubbed duckies—and follow the guide (i.e., Mama Duck) through the rapids.
The trip offered plenty of excitement as we bounced through the rushing water, paddling hard to avoid rocks and keep our boat straight. When we stopped for a picnic lunch provided by the tour group, we were both soaked and smiling.
Nick enjoyed the kayaking but really wanted to get out and swim in the crystal-clear water. After lunch, our guides indulged the kids by stopping to let them swim and encouraging them to play King of the Mountain by flipping over and standing on their kayaks, then trying to knock one another into the water. The kids—most of whom didn't know one another—had a blast.
Tip: Wear a bathing suit or clothes that dry quickly.
Cost: Ranges from $74.50 to $149. This trip operates in summer only, though the company has other offerings that span spring to fall.
Looking for high adventure? Each September and October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summersville Dam into the Gauley River, creating Class IV and V whitewater that attracts rafting enthusiasts from around the country. Those trips are geared to ages 15 and older. Prices range from $99 to $189.
More information: adventuresonthegorge.com/adventures/whitewater-rafting/upper-new-river-white-water-rafting
Boating on Summersville Lake
Nicholas County, West Virginia
After several excursions that allowed Nick to indulge his adventurous side, I was ready to have some fun that didn't require a helmet or a harness. We headed to Summersville Lake, a reservoir surrounded by sandstone cliffs, where we boarded a pontoon boat staffed with a guide who took us to a picturesque spot. After dropping anchor, our guide pulled out equipment for kayaking, standup paddle boarding and rock climbing. We spent several hours playing in the water. While Nick donned a harness and climbed the nearby cliff face, I slathered on sunscreen—my definition of safety gear—and enjoyed the afternoon.
Cost: $119 to $129
More information: adventuresonthegorge.com/adventures/lake-adventures/half-day-summersville-lake-multi-sport
Mining for History
513 Ewart Ave., Beckley, West Virginia; 304-256-1747; beckley.org/general-information-coal-mine
Before heading home, I added an unplanned stop at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Other than the exhibits at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, Nick and I hadn't really learned much about the state's coal mining industry, which I felt was necessary to really understand the local history.
The destination, which includes a trip underground into an old mine, rounded out our trip. Our guide was a retired mine worker who shared fascinating details—such as how miners worked alone and why they took birds into the mine—about the job and its dangers. The historic site also includes a youth museum and examples of a coal camp house, school and church. The attraction operates seasonally from April to November.
Cost: $20 adults, $12 children