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Monday, November 23, 2020

Editor’s Escape: Wild, Wonderful West Virginia

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True confession: I was born and raised in West Virginia and never went whitewater rafting. I love the outdoors, but I just never took advantage of the plethora of natural adventures the Mountain State offers, including New River Gorge.

Thankfully, I remedied that this summer when my daughter, Madden, and I ventured to the New River Gorge area. It was an easy drive for us from Tega Cay, S.C. — just about four hours (depending on traffic). We travel to West Virginia often to visit family but haven’t explored much else, so I was super excited to share this part of the state with her.

We set up camp (and by “camp” I mean an air-conditioned, fully-plumbed, newly constructed cabin that was blissfully comfortable) at Adventures on the Gorge resort.  

Ideally perched on the rim of the New River Gorge, this adventure resort provides convenient access to area excursions to Summersville Lake, the Gauley River National Recreation Area and local historic attractions. 

The resort is the successful marriage of three (and later a fourth) area outfitters. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that merge and today guests can enjoy expanded activities like zip line and aerial adventures, rock climbing and rappelling, guided hikes, lake excursions and (of course) white water rafting trips. Last year they also garnered a nod from U.S. News & World Report as one of the country’s top six adventure resorts. In addition to onsite activities, the resort boasts a pool, conference center and three restaurants. 

Whether you’re a die-hard tent camper or lean more toward a glamping experience, there’s an accommodation here to suit your needs — rustic cabins, as well as deluxe cabins and luxury vacation rentals (both with hot tubs!). In addition, the resort is situated on over 250 acres, which provides guests ample space to enjoy the outdoors. In addition, AAA Members receive a 10 percent discount on resort activities and lodging.

Onsite dining options include Appalachian-style pub food (and killer views) at Chetty’s Pub, an upscale menu in a casual atmosphere at Smokey’s Steakhouse and Buffler’s Pizzeria (the pizza tots are the real deal). Smokey’s and Buffler’s are open from May through October. 

new river gorgeWater Adventures

After taking advantage of the hearty breakfast buffet at Smokey’s (eggs, biscuits, gravy, breakfast meats, grits, pastries, fruit, etc.) we spent the morning on the Upper New River experiencing our first-ever whitewater rafting trip. The Upper New is kinder and ideal for beginning rafters. We hope to improve our rafting skills so we can return and tackle the Lower New River. My daughter and I shared an inflatable kayak and completed our rafting adventure without tipping over. Halfway into our river journey, our group enjoyed a deli lunch on the river bank — sandwiches, pasta salads, fresh fruit and an insanely delicious red velvet cake. Upon returning to the resort, we viewed a video they created of our day’s rafting shenanigans.

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The next day, we enjoyed a half-day excursion to West Virginia’s largest lake, Summersville Lake. The lake is a reservoir formed by a rock-fill dam of the Gauley River. It was constructed between 1960 and 1966 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to help control flooding in the area. The town of Gad (or remnants of it) lies below the surface. Historically, dams are named after the nearest town to where they are constructed. They decided the “Gad Dam” didn’t really work, so they opted to use the next nearest town — Summersville. 

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Lined by striking sandstone cliffs, the 2,700-acre lake provides inviting coves along which to swim, kayak or stand-up paddle board (or in my case sit-down paddle board). Some of the more adventurous members of our group climbed the cliffs, while I was content to scale a large rock and jump into the water with my daughter. I felt like a kid again. It was awesome.

Our afternoon was spent navigating the platforms and bridges along the resort’s TimberTrek Aerial Adventure Park. Everyone begins at the easiest level — the yellow level. From there you work your way through the challenges, which increase in difficulty with each level. Full disclosure: I gave up after the yellow course.

new river gorgeAlmost Heaven

Our next morning’s activities began at the National Park Service Canyon Rim Visitor Center, which should be a mandatory stop for anyone who wants a deeper knowledge of the area and its history. Park rangers are on hand to educate visitors about the region’s three national parks — New River Gorge National River, Gauley River National Recreation Area and Bluestone National Scenic River. The visitor center also features an exhibit room filled with historical photos and displays about the people, towns and industry of the gorge. Make sure you step out on the back deck and soak in an awe-inspiring two-mile view southward into the park.

That two-mile view was a good preview for our Bridge Walk adventure, which began just a short trail walk from the visitor center. Though I’ve zip lined on many occasions and have even been hang gliding, the prospect of shuffling along the New River Gorge Bridge catwalk among the structural beams 851 feet high was a little unnerving. (To put that into perspective, the Seattle Space Needle is 605 feet high and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is 630 feet high.) 

Completed in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was built to help reduce the drive time down the twisty and narrow mountain roads. It’s the third highest bridge in the U.S. and longest single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

We were tethered to a cable as we made our way across, stopping every few feet so our guide could explain the history of the bridge and share other stories about the area. He was an informative and engaging guide, and quickly quelled my anxiety. Though I would absolutely do this tour again, I still find it hard to imagine what it’s like for Bridge Day jumpers. Each year on Bridge Day (in October), over 700 brave participants can opt to either rappel or BASE jump from the bridge. Other Bridge Day activities include a 5K, chili cook-off and the Bridge Jam music and craft beer festival.

We lunched at Chetty’s Pub on the back deck with expansive views of the New River Gorge. The menu features tasty appetizers like pub pretzels and spicy cheesy chicken dip. My veggie burger was solid and Madden raved about her certified Angus burger. The River Runner cocktail (white, spiced and coconut rums with pineapple and cranberry juice) was the perfect reward for my Bridge Walk achievement.

After lunch, perhaps bolstered by our earlier Bridge Walk success, my daughter and I decided to tackle the TreeTops Zip Line Canopy Tour at the resort. This fun and challenging course weaves through an eastern hemlock forest and includes 10 zip lines, five sky bridges and one rappel. I’ve zip lined a ton of places, and this was one of my favorites. Our guides were professional and funny, and the views above the forest floor were stunning. 

We packed a lot into the few days we spent in the New River Gorge area, but there’s so much more we want to experience and we’re already making plans for a return visit. Even though I moved away from West Virginia in my early 20s, it will always be home to me. 

Interested in going to West Virginia? Call your local AAA Travel agent to get help planning a trip or visit AAA.com/Travel and start planning online.

For more mountain travel inspiration, check out these posts:

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