New River Gorge offers scenic outdoor challenges

West Virginia’s New River offers some of the best white water in America. On the Lower New, rafters can expect to crash through giant waves but still float through calm sections with spectacular scenery.

NEW RIVER GORGE, W.Va. — Teenagers can be hard to entertain, especially when the event is a no-texting, try-to-keep-the-iPod-to-a-minimum-so-we-can-actually-have-a-conversation family vacation.

If the kids don’t have fun after being loaded into the car with the suitcases, well, let’s just say it’s going to be a long and quiet ride back home.

Thank goodness, then, that there are so many recreational activities to choose from in this rugged, scenic corner of West Virginia. They include a world-class canopy tour that has you zipping and soaring through the treetops via a network of platforms and rope bridges, 120 feet above Mill Creek canyon, at speeds reaching 30 mph.

Plenty of people still travel to this neck of the “wild and wonderful” woods to raft the rapids on the Upper New (relatively calm), Lower New (moderate to raging) and Gauley rivers (famous for its annual fall releases from Summersville Dam, creating some of the biggest and baddest white water on the East Coast). Increasingly though, they’re rounding out their trips with adventure sports on dry land: guided rock climbing and rappelling, mountain biking and ambush paint ball, an extreme — and usually messy — version of the kids’ game Capture the Flag.

Adventures on the Gorge, an all-inclusive adventure resort on 1,000 acres on the rim of New River Gorge, offers all of the above, plus horseback riding, caving, guided hiking and disk golf, in which players use Frisbee-like disks instead of balls and clubs and throw for “par” at above-ground targets instead of into holes in the ground.

One of the most popular activities, though, is the aforementioned zip line, custom-designed by Bonzai Design in a hemlock forest to the tune of $500,000.

“People like the perception of risk,” says Dave Arnold, one of the founders and partners in Class VI River Runners, which was purchased by investors in 2008 and merged with Mountain River and Rivermen outfitters to create AOTG.

The Gauley and New rivers have long been considered among the best whitewater playgrounds in the United States. Yet as boomers have aged, the numbers paying to strap on PFDs and whitewater helmets while on vacation have tapered; the rafting industry last year attracted less than two-thirds of the number of visitors it did during its peak in 1995.

Resorts such as AOTG, then, are diversifying with activities that, while exciting, are a little kinder to middle-aged body parts. They can be purchased singly (rafting prices start at $104 for a rapid run on the New River, $79 for a half-day of rappelling and climbing and $79 for guided mountain biking) or packaged with lodging options that include the Paddle House, a four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot rental home built to green standards. It’s tricked out with reclaimed heart-pine flooring, a cherry-and-granite kitchen, two fireplaces and a wrap-around deck overlooking the New River.

In other words, so long to ending a day in the woods or on the water with hot dogs cooked over a camp fire and bunking down in a pop-up tent. Unless you want to, that is.

While my daughters and I were lucky to overnight in a private house in Wild Rock — a new sustainable vacation community uniquely situated on the gorge — we could have slept in sleeping bags under the stars. Geared to families of all budget levels, AOTG offers traditional tent camping ($15/person) along with platform tents ($69/night) that sleep up to eight in bunks on its Millcreek campus. Vacationers also can choose among six styles of cabins, the most luxurious of which include hot tubs, glossy hardwood floors and fully equipped kitchens ($59 to $449/night May through October, and dramatically less during the “secret season” that runs Nov. 1 through April 30).

Because you might not have the energy to drive the three miles to historic Fayetteville after a hard day of playing (word to the wise: Don’t speed on Route 19), AOTG also boasts four “destination” restaurants serving everything from brisket and ribs smoked over applewood to gourmet pasta and grilled fresh seafood. Situated in a timber-frame pavilion with open-air views of the spectacular gorge that dissects the Appalachian Mountains, Smokey’s on the Gorge offers the fanciest fare, not to mention the best place from which to watch a Mountain State sunset. Plus, there’s a Pittsburgh connection: Food and beverage director Larry Poli ran the legendary Poli restaurant in Squirrel Hill before it closed in 2005.

Vacationers can dine a la carte or pair accommodations with a meal plan; adding breakfast runs $10 to $12 (kids 11 and under half price) and dinner, $19 to $25 (kids $10 to $14).

With everything in one place, saving you time and money, little surprise AOTG was named in 2009 as one of the “best adventure travel companies on Earth” by the editors of National Geographic Adventure.

Joe and Christina Barry of Ross ended up paying about $1,500 for an all-inclusive package that included four nights in a cabin, meals, two guided rock climbing sessions, a half-day rafting trip, the canopy tour, mountain biking and guided hike. They liked it so much, they’re considering returning in the fall with their two children, ages 25 and 22.

“We used to do the family week at the Outer Banks,” says Mrs. Barry, 49, a training manager for SilverSneakers, a fitness program for older folks. “But as we get older, we’re less and less interested in the beach.”

Summer is fast disappearing, but no worries, as fall is actually a great time to visit the New River Gorge. Cooler temperatures lend themselves to sweat-inducing activities such as hiking and climbing and biking, and the guided canopy tour, which has drawn tens of thousands of zip-liners since it opened last summer, might actually be more scenic when the old-growth eastern hemlocks have dropped their leaves and the terrain 85 feet below is dusted with snow. (It’s open weekends and by appointment Nov. 1 through April 28.)

Autumn also ushers in the state’s largest festival, the annual Bridge Day in Fayetteville on the third Saturday of October. That’s when up to 200,000 people are expected to crowd into town for a chance to watch hundreds of BASE jumpers leap off the New River Gorge Bridge in rat-a-tat, parachuted succession. The festival, which this year runs Oct. 15 to 17, also features teams of rappellers chosen by lottery who will ascend and descend from a rope fixed on the bridge’s catwalk.

Nearly as heart-racing is the opportunity for us regular folk to walk legally and safely across the steel structure, the second-highest bridge in the United States, and the longest single-arch steel span bridge in the Western Hemisphere. (This is the only day of the year traffic is shut down.) Still, you’d better not look down if you have acrophobia, because this 70-foot-wide state highway sits a whopping 876 feet above the water. It’s also spectacularly, oh-my-God-how-fast-can-I-get-across-it long, spanning 3,030 feet.

Possessed with nerves of steel? When the much-anticipated BridgeWalk tour ($69; bridgewalk.com; 1-304-574-1037) opens at the end of the month, you’ll be able to ratchet it up a notch with a guided walk over the gorge on a 24-inch-wide catwalk. You’ll be strapped into a safety harness, of course, so there’s no chance of falling. And the traffic on Route 19 will be safely over your head. (The catwalk is part of the bridge’s existing structure.) But still. We’re talking almost three football fields above the rocks and water.

“Some people will do it to conquer their fear of heights,” notes BridgeWalk manager Benjy Simpson, adding, without a touch of irony, “The views are outstanding.”

Whether I’ll have the courage to take that soaring walk above the New River remains to be seen. But my daughters and I certainly had a great time rafting the Lower New River with veteran guide Tom Wagner. And the canopy tour? An adrenaline rush like no other, it’s thrilling, scary and just plain fun all at the same time, and not just for me.

The girls gabbed the entire way back to Pittsburgh.

If you go

Adventures on the Gorge, Lansing, W.Va.

Getting there: The New River Gorge region is about 220 miles south of Pittsburgh, or an easy 3 1/2-hour drive on Interstate 79 south to U.S. Route 19 south, just north of Fayetteville. To get to AOTG’s canyon rim facility, take the Ames Heights Road exit (if you cross the New River Gorge Bridge heading south, you’ve passed it) and go about 1 mile.

Where to stay: AOTG offers a variety of lodging, from luxury vacation homes with gourmet kitchens and hot tubs to rustic cabins, platform tents and old-fashioned campsites. The most luxurious accommodation is Paddle House in Wild Rock (starts at $500/night; www.paddlehousewv.com), a new ecological 725-acre community on the New River. Outfitted with three master bedroom suites and a bunk room, it sleeps 12 and boasts a great room with a fireplace, hot tub and two decks overlooking the gorge.

Other area options include bed and breakfasts, chain motels and hotels and rustic cabin rentals.

Where to eat: In historic Fayetteville, you can’t beat the hand-stretched gourmet pizza at Pies & Pints (there’s an all-you-can-eat buffet 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays) or whole-grain pancakes at Cathedral Cafe, near the Fayette County courthouse on South Court Street. It’s in a turn-of-the-century church with cathedral ceilings and stained-glass windows. Locals also swear by the pulled pork barbecue at Dirty Ernie’s Rib Pit on Keller Avenue and authentic tacos at Diogi’s Mexican Grill & Cantina on North Court Street, just off Route 19.

For more upscale dining, try the dinner buffet at Smokey’s on the Gorge, an open-air restaurant overlooking the gorge on AOTG’s campus. Rendezvous Lodge on the Millcreek campus features bison and chicken sliders on Thursday evenings and live music several nights a week.

What to do: It all depends on how you spell “adventure.” Activities include whitewater rafting on the New and Gauley rivers, all-terrain vehicle tours, paintball, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing and caving. The area is also renowned for its smallmouth bass and trout fishing and whitewater kayaking. Treetop’s half-day canopy tour ($99, must be 10 years old and weigh at least 90 pounds) includes 10 ziplines, five sky bridges, one rappel and three short hikes. If you prefer a birds-eye view of the gorge, take a ride in a Bell 47-G2 helicopter ($60 person, www.wvhelicopters.com; 1-800-277-7727) or WWII era Stearman bi-plane ($135/person, www.wildblueadventurecompany.com; 1-304-574-1150).

Upcoming seasonal events include the 12th annual Oak Leaf Festival on Aug. 28 through Sept. 5 in Oak Hill, W. Va. (www.oakleaffestival.org) and the 31st annual Bridge Day Festival on Oct. 15 – 17 in Fayetteville, W. Va. (www.officialbridgeday.com). That’s when up to 200,000 converge near the New River Gorge Bridge to party while hundreds of BASE jumpers from across the globe parachute off the side.

Info: adventurewestvirginia.com; 1-800-252-7784 or newrivercvb.com.

– Gretchen McKay

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