Many travelers are familiar with rafting on the Colorado River, but if you live on the East Coast and are looking for a driving destination that can serve as a vacation for the whole family, then the New River in West Virginia can be just the right spot.
Adventure seekers started coming down to the New River Gorge area in the 1960s to navigate the New River and nearby Gauley River. In the 1970s, a group of friends from Cincinnati, Ohio, traveled to West Virginia to turn their passion for rafting into a business.
Then in 2007, the owners merged their operations, took on the name Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG,) and family vacations have not been the same since. AOTG is located directly on the New River Gorge—on more than 250 acres— and is a choose-your-own-adventure type of trip—with a wide range of activities, accommodations, and dining options.
Families can book several different packages including an all-inclusive style “Explore the Gorge” option. It can be more on the relaxed side with one excursion a day and the rest of the time free or an action-packed trip with an excursion booked every morning and afternoon. You choose your adventure level.
The resort provides an array of outdoor experiences, including whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley Rivers, aerial adventures, rock climbing, rappelling, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. Here is a sampling of some of the best activities.
Spending Time on the Water
While there are dozens of activities to pick from at AOTG, rafting is the top reason people come down to the New River Gorge. Fortunately, there are more than two dozen rafting experiences on the New and Gauley Rivers, so families can pick trips based on their kids’ ages and comfort levels. The good news is that kids 11 and younger raft free with a paying adult.
The Upper New River Full-Day trip is open to kids six and older and is one of the most popular family rafting trips. It’s a great way to introduce kids to rafting, and it is also a good option for adults who are looking for a milder whitewater experience. This part of the river has class I-III rapids, and there are calm parts of the water that allow for jumping in and swimming. Plus, instead of everyone fitting into one big raft, the company uses duckies, which are inflatable one and two-person rafts shaped like kayaks. The duckies are great because they provide a more individualized, personalized experience on the river. The duckies are self-bailing, so any water that comes in, will drain out on its own, and they are stable, easy to maneuver, and fun.
The guides are experts in helping get people back into the water if they do flip (everyone wears a life jacket and helmet) and the “duckie tower” is a fun part of the tour. Lunch at the beach is also provided.
The Lower New River Full-Day excursion is another popular rafting trip for families with older kids (kids have to be 12 and older to participate). There are more than25 rapids ranging from class II – V on this part of the river. This excursion lasts between four and six hours—the journey is between 11 and 16 miles long—and boasts amazing views of the New River Gorge and the famous New River Gorge Bridge. Lunch, swimming breaks, and water fights are all part of the fun.
If rafting and rapids aren’t your thing, then the Half-Day Summersville Lake Adventure excursion is a great way to relax on the water. Families spend the morning on the lake—swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, rock climbing, or just chilling out. A pontoon boat is the home base for the three hours of this tour.
Canyon Falls Swimming Pool has one of the best views of the New River Gorge Bridge from its stunning 10,000-square-foot deck. The pool is a great place to relax between activities or just chill out for the day.
After spending the day rafting on the river, hit the skies with the TreeTops Zipline Canopy Tour. Open to kids 10 and older and weighing more than 90 pounds, this two-hour experience includes 10 ziplines, five sky bridges, and a rappel to the ground at the end. This zipline travels through a hemlock forest along Mill Creek and affords amazing views of the mountains, water, and wildlife below.
Another good option above the ground is the TimberTrek Adventure Park, which has more than four acres and seven obstacle courses to explore. The easier courses are open to those four and older, and there are plenty of challenging courses for those seasoned adventurers. There are more than 60 platforms, and obstacles range from bridges, ziplines, ladders, nets, swings, and more. Guides are spaced out throughout the course to help with encouragement or hands-on assistance. Each group is allowed three hours of climbing time.
A highlight for many families is the Bridge Walk on the world-famous New River Gorge Bridge. The catwalk is 24 inches wide, made of steel, and sits 850 feet about the New River. This bridge is more than 3,000 feet long, making it the longest steel-arch bridge in North America. This experience, which takes about two hours, is an incredible way to get perspective on the New River Gorge area as well as enjoy amazing views of the New River itself. It’s especially fun to watch the rafters traverse the rapids below. The narrated tour includes a history of the bridge and the area. But it’s the views that make this excursion a top pick for families.
What’s really nice about Adventures on the Gorge is that there are so many different types of accommodations, ranging from deluxe cabins to platform tents. One of the best options for families is the three-bedroom Cabin on the Gorge. Each cabin has its own private hot tub; a full kitchen with refrigerator, microwave, oven, stove, sink, dishes, and utensils. The first floor has a spacious living room (with a queen-size sleeper sofa) and dining room area as well as two bedrooms, each with a queen bed. A full bath is also on the main floor. The upstairs has a loft-style bedroom with two queen beds, plus a living room area with a queen-size sleeper sofa and a full bathroom.
Normally the resort has three restaurants open for dining, but due to COVID, Smokey’s is the only restaurant open this year. It has amazing views of the gorge, so sitting outside and enjoying your meal is ideal. It is known for its BBQ ribs, pulled pork, fried catfish, and burgers. For those looking for lighter fare, there’s a nice selection of salads and appetizers.
My work has appeared in over 30 publications including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel Leisure, Robb Report, Afar, Family Vacation Critic, Architectural Digest, O, The Oprah Magazine, Reader’s Digest, USA Today and MSN Travel. Follow me on Instagram @JudyKoutsky