Dig Into West Virginia’s 50th Year of Whitewater Rafting

The Birth of An Industry 
When the Dragan brothers, Jon, Tom, and Chris, began Wildwater Unlimited 50 years ago in Thurmond, West Virginia, they had no way of knowing they were creating an industry that would become a vital part of the state’s present day tourism industry. That first year the Dragans showed 80 people down the river and shared the primordial beauty and rich history of the New River Gorge that continues to captivate people from all over the world today. A trip through the gorge is like traveling back in time and creates a connection to a time gone by that so many crave in the digital age.
If You Build It, They Will Come
The opening of the 876-foot high New River Gorge Bridge in 1977 and the development of US 19 into a four-lane highway made the New River Gorge more accessible than ever. Built as part of the Appalachian Development Highway System, the improved infrastructure trimmed hours off the trip to the area. The trip from Pittsburgh, for example, went from a seven-hour journey on winding back roads to a four-and-a-half hour jaunt. Up until the early 2000’s, the New River Gorge Bridge was the longest single span, steel arch bridge in the world.
In addition, with the designation of the New River as a National River by the National Park Service in 1978, the rafting industry, already on the rise, saw even more people make the trip to the once remote southern part of West Virginia. By the 1990’s there were over 20 outfitters drawing over a quarter million people to the Mountain State to soak up the whitewater experience. As the industry changed and outfitters consolidated, rafting companies developed additional activities to create a wonderland of outdoor adventure and paired those with a range of lodging options from rustic camping to luxury cabins.
The Rivers
Southern West Virginia boasts some of the best whitewater rafting not only in the U.S. but also the world. The New River, rolling through its ancient thousand-foot deep gorge, features laid back float trips on the upper section and quintessential whitewater—roller coaster waves and big holes—on the lower section. The Gauley River takes things up a notch, especially on the Upper Gauley, which is steep, fast and will push your limits.
The People
Perhaps the thing that makes rafting such an exhilarating physical experience is the participation factor. If you’re in the raft, you’re paddling. You’re helping the boat go where it needs to be. That’s why the person in the back of the boat shouting commands is called a guide instead of a pilot. River guides come in as many varieties as there are rapids, each one with a story to share. Guides hail from all walks of life, but are drawn to the job because it’s an experience you just can’t get anywhere else. All these hard working folks all add up to a memorable adventure in an amazing place.
Want to see for yourself? Start planning your visit to whitewater rafting country today!
Other Ways to Celebrate
In addition to commercial whitewater trips, there are events in Southern West Virginia throughout the year centered around its rivers.