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Outdoor Playground of the East
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Southeastern West Virginia is becoming the Eastern destination for outdoor activities. Often referred to as the New River/Greenbrier Valley area, in reference to two of the most prominent natural features, the region is seemingly blessed with more than its fair share of mountainous beauty and outdoor activity possibilities for enthusiasts at every skill level. Topping the list is the outstanding white-water rafting. The New River offers an introduction to this thrilling sport. This ancient river, actually the world's second oldest behind the Nile, flows through a gorge cut across the Allegheny Plateau. The massive volume of water flowing through the gorge produces huge waves and excellent rapids that top out in the Class V range. Two sections of the river are rafted, the Upper and the Lower.
The Upper New River provides family fun for most all ages. This fairly tame section has rapids that rarely approach the Class III range. "Rubber Duckies" are the order of the day for summer family outings on the Upper New. (Duckies are inflatable, sit-on-top water craft that are a cross between a kayak and a rubber raft, available in one or two-person sizes.)
The Lower New River is a different matter. Offering one of the East's finest white-water runs, here one finds standing waves and technical rapids that challenge experienced white-water fans. Rapids in this stretch are primarily in the Class III to Class V range. The ride is both exhilarating and a bit scary, especially the first time down the river. Skilled guides thrill clients as they negotiate the river with ease. The river drops 240 feet in this 14 mile-long stretch. Near the end of the rafting trip visitors will pass under the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's longest single-span arch bridge and our nation's second highest, standing 876 feet above the river. Each year well over 100,000 people raft the New River.
The Gauley, another area river, adds an entirely different dimension to white-water action. Each September and October, during the annual draw-down of the Summersville Dam, the Gauley attracts hard-core white-water zealots. The Gauley is one of the top-rated white-water rivers in the world, with many back-to-back rapids that are Class V+. The Upper section of this river is for experienced rafters only--and they return year after year to once again feel their blood coursing through their veins as only the Gauley can make them feel.
White-water action isn't all; there's rock climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, and even llama trekking. Many rafting companies offer package deals including any number of these other activities.
The heart of the action is in the area of the New River Gorge National River, a 53 mile-long free-flowing stretch of river from Hinton to Fayetteville. The region was set aside in 1978 and is managed by the National Park Service. A visit to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, overlooking the New River Gorge, serves as an orientation to the area.
There are several miles of hiking and mountain biking trails within the gorge. The biking trails run from flat and family-oriented to some challenging single-track, for experienced riders only.
"It was okay, except for the rocks...and the roots...and the mud...and the hills," expressed one inexperienced rider who found more than she bargained for on a single- track trail.
Those are the items that make it challenging. She did forget to mention the fact that at times the narrow trail borders a sheer canyon wall with a drop of several hundred feet. There are periodic openings in the vegetation offering excellent panoramic views of the river and gorge.
Rock climbers will be happy to know there is a ten-mile stretch of cliffs in the gorge with well over 1,000 climbing routes. The Nuttall Sandstone, which forms the gorge's rock walls, is a very hard conglomeratic rock that resists erosion. The many horizontal and vertical fissures in the rock provides excellent hand and foot holds for climbing.
Do you like your outdoor activities a little less "cutting-edge?" Not into Class V white-water? Do you like your adventure a little on the padded side? Check out the offerings in Greenbrier County. The county offers many soft adventure activities, from canoe trips to cave exploration.
The Greenbrier River Trail is a 78 mile long Rails-to-Trails project that presents excellent family outing options including hiking, biking, and horseback riding. For those who don't know, the Rails-to-Trails program takes abandoned rail lines and converts them to non-motorized multi-use trails. The trail runs from Caldwell, in Greenbrier County, to Cass, in Pocahontas County, crossing 35 bridges along the way. It is one of the nation's longest stretches of rail-trail. The trail follows along the banks of the mild Greenbrier River, the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern US. A wide, level gravel-covered trail makes for excellent family bicycling. Several area businesses offer bicycle rentals. The trail features a relaxed cycling atmosphere through some of the state's most beautiful scenery. The trail links two state forests, Greenbrier and Seneca. It also links two of the state's more popular state parks, Watoga and Cass.
Following a lazy valley course surrounded by mountains, the Greenbrier River offers excellent canoeing opportunities. The most one may encounter is a set of Class II rapids, a chance to practice technique on very mild white-water, nothing more. Since the river is free-flowing, the water level is dependent upon rainfall and does get a little low in the summer. Several area outfitters offer canoe rentals and guided tours.
Another interesting diversion is the recently reopened Organ Cave. It takes its name from one of its calcite formations which resembles a pipe organ. The cave's year-round temperature of 55 degrees makes it especially attractive on hot days (or even on a cold winter day).
The cave's 44 miles of mapped trails place it among the world's largest. The cave is important for several reasons, among them are its history, its biology and its paleontology. The first recorded discovery of the cave was in 1704, but Native Americans knew of its existence long before then. Thomas Jefferson spent some time exploring the cave and in 1791 his workmen removed the remains of a large three-toed sloth. The imprint of the sloth can still be seen in the cave. The remains of a complicated-tooth horse and a saber-toothed tiger were also found in the cave. Today it is home to eight species of bat, two of which are endangered, the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat.
The cave played an extensive role in the Civil War. Confederate soldiers used the cave as a source of salt peter, an ingredient used in the production of gunpowder. Today, 37 salt peter hoppers remain within the cave. They stand as they were left by the Confederates in 1865. Over 1,100 of the soldiers would gather in the 200' long Chapel Room for Sunday church services. The 22nd Virginia Infantry is thought to have been the primary unit occupying the cave. More recently, 1958-62, the cave was considered a fall-out shelter by Civil Defense and some old supplies may still be seen near the cave's entrance. There are commercial trips from 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily. The trips depart approximately each half hour and last one and a half to two hours. For the more adventuresome there are "wild caving tours." These range in length from two hours to all day.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS