Paddler’s Guide to the New River Gorge

Photo: NPS

World-class whitewater awaits paddlers of all types in West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

West Virginia’s New River Gorge is a renowned paddling destination, and for good reason: It’s got world-class river sections that cater to nearly every kind of paddler. The New is an exciting but friendly whitewater river, generally running between Class I and Class IV. And options abound along the 53 miles of river within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, with stretches that range from calm and nearly flat to packed with gnarly rapids—all of which boast nonstop, spectacular views of the New River Gorge, where densely forested ridges rise up 1,000 feet on either side. Picture yourself paddling Class III-IV Fayette Station Rapids under the iconic New River Gorge Bridge, a single arch that spans the gorge nearly 900 feet above.  

You can run the New year-round, but the paddling season is generally considered to be April through October. Start at one of the national park visitor centers and pick up a river map and guide. Then grab your boat, PFD and helmet—and be sure to talk to folks at the local outfitters or shops before a first-time DIY outing. Hills to Hills Tours and Shuttle can help you set up your shuttle. There are plenty of commercial rafting and kayaking trips as another option. 

SUP the dammed Lower New

If you’re a kayak or standup paddleboarding novice, start at Hawks Nest State Park, where the Hawks Nest Dam on the New creates Hawks Nest Lake, which is generally flatwater. Put in at the state park marina and tour around the edges of the lake and tributaries, enjoying great views of the mountain valleys. When you’re ready to take it up a notch, head downstream just past the confluence of the New and the Gauley rivers, which join to become the Kanawha River (pronounced ka-NAW). Below Kanawha Falls is a public boat ramp for anglers—be considerate and put in from the sand, leaving room for vehicles that are accessing the concrete boat ramp. This is a park and play spot—enjoy kayak touring or paddleboarding from below the falls to the bridge downstream and back. It’s moving water but still relatively chill as long as the gauge height is under 5 feet. Want to level up to whitewater on the Upper New? Sign up for a class with Mountain Surf Paddle Sports to make sure you have your skills and safety dialed in first.

Float a day-trip or overnighter on the Upper New

The Upper New is the exciting but not over-the-top section of the river within the park, with great views and rapids between Class I-III. For a day-trip, try putting in at McCreery River Access (where Class II McCreery Rapids greet you) and paddle about 11 river miles to Stone Cliff River Access, where there is a park service campground. 

Camping trips along the Upper New are great, with plenty of access points and campsites (park service river campgrounds are primitive and first-come, first-served), plus you can legally backcountry camp at any appropriate place along the river. Try putting in at Meadow Creek Campground and float about 7 miles to Glade Creek River Access and campground for your first night, or continue an additional 10 miles to Dowdy Creek and camp riverside—take a side-trip to a nearby waterfall on Dowdy Creek. Then paddle to Stone Cliff on Day Two—or Three, if you want to break it up. It’s about 24 river miles from Meadow Creek to Stone Cliff.

Kayak the Class IV Lower New

If you have big-water paddling skills—that is, you can read and run a river as well as perform a roll—the Lower New is one of the most fun sections of river in the country. Put in where most commercial runs start, at Cunard, where there's good infrastructure, including toilets. Then get ready for rapid after rapid, featuring names like Swimmers, Greyhound Bus Stopper and Thread the Needle, plus house-size boulders, swimming holes, constant views and a takeout under the New River Gorge Bridge—all which make this one of the most memorable 6.5 miles you’ll ever paddle. Many people like running the Lower New when the Fayette Station gauge is measuring river depth between 2 to 6 feet. Check out the American Whitewater page for gauge info and recommended levels.  

Getting There

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is in a remote setting but not more than a day’s drive from most major cities in the East. From Pittsburgh, it’s 3.5 hours southwest via Interstate 79 to U.S. Highway 19 (Exit 57) south to Fayetteville. From Charleston, W.V., it’s an hour: Take I-64 east to US-19 north to the gorge. More info: 

Refresh & Refuel

Begin your day at the Cathedral Cafe in the park gateway community of Fayetteville, W.V., and end it at Pies and Pints, where you can balance your pizza and beer with a generous spinach and gorgonzola or arugula and goat cheese salad. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.