A wall of water appears out of nowhere and suddenly towers over a 16-foot-long raft filled with eight flabbergasted paddlers. The raft surges into the trough at the base of the wave and then rockets skyward, threatening to fling itself backward. The wave, however, is forgiving this go around and the raft pitches forward as it crashes through to the other side, West-by-God-willing, upright. All eight unsuspecting passengers and one very suspecting guide remain on board. As fast as it began, the rapid is over and the drenched rafters—expressing a mixed bag of excitement and relief—are high-fiving their paddle blades beneath the majestic arch of the New River Gorge Bridge.
Spoiler alert: This is the grand finale of a high-water spring rafting trip on the New River Gorge. If your rafting trips on the New haven’t ended with the Million Dollar Wave, you probably didn’t go rafting on a high-water spring day. This wave only comes out to play at water levels of above 17,000 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS), but when it does, it’s easy to see how it got its aquatically affluent name.
“The New at high water is a totally different rafting experience than at lower summer levels; it’s like rafting a completely different river,” said Bryant Baker, a river operations manager and guide at ACE Adventure Resort in Oak Hill. “My all-time favorite single feature would have to be the Million Dollar Wave on the left side of Fayette Station Rapid. It’s a 15 – 18-foot standing wave from crest to trough, and it’s hidden from view so your guests don’t see it until they’re dropping into it. Then it’s stomach-in-your-throat, boat-standing-up-on-end good.”
That New New
The New River Gorge is one of the top whitewater rafting destinations on the East Coast—if not the country—with an average of 65,815 people rafting the river on commercial rafting trips each year. With visitation numbers highest during peak summer, the majority of paddlers are unaware of the rowdy characteristics the river takes on in spring. The Million Dollar Wave isn’t the only feature thing that ramps up with the water levels every spring. In fact, most rapids on the New are nearly unrecognizable at high water compared to their average summer day counterparts.
Double Z, the most challenging rapid to navigate on a typical summer day, transforms from a rocky, zig-zagging obstacle course to a wide-open ramp with a monstrous, boat-destroying hydraulic known as Barry’s Hole. But while Double Z arguably gets easier at high water (as long as you avoid Barry’s Hole), the set of successive rapids known as The Keeney’s are a whole different story. As the water rises, what was once three separate rapids becomes one massive series of holes and waves with a dangerous rock pile known as The Meat Grinder seriously upping the consequences if something goes wrong.
Alongside the class IV/V rapids on the river, high water also ups the ante of the class II rapids, turning them into boat-flipping holes and epic rollercoaster wave trains. “It’s a naturally flowing river that always runs and at every level it has at least one supreme rapid,” said Sam Kellerman, a raft guide at Adventures on the Gorge in Fayetteville. “That’s what makes the New River so great.”
The Springtime Beast of the East
Beginning in North Carolina, the New’s rainy watershed funnels vast amounts of water into the constricting canyon of the New River Gorge, creating a year-round whitewater mecca where the excitement and ferocity rise in tandem with each cubic foot on the water gauge. “It’s very exciting and sometimes intimidating to work on the New River during springtime when water levels are unpredictable and can change rapidly,” said Tony Morris, a guide at New and Gauley River Adventures in Fayetteville. “It’s wild because, with every six-inch change in water level, the rapids and river features change.”
Between June and September, average water levels in the New River Gorge range from 2,000 – 6,000 CFS, according to United States Geological Survey (USGS) records from 2008 – 2018. By comparison, the same 10-year averages for March through May show average water levels ranging from 13,600 – 16,300 CFS, with flows frequently rocketing to above 24,000 CFS—or higher—throughout the spring season. Rafting companies run commercial trips each year from March through October at water levels ranging from less than 1,000 CFS to a commercial cut-off of 32,000 CFS.
“You’d be hard pressed to find anything in the Eastern U.S. that can compare with high water flows in the New River Gorge,” said Baker, who in addition to guiding on the New River for 16 years has also guided commercially on the Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. “It takes on characteristics more commonly found on high-volume Western rivers. The quality and size of the rapids are very similar to what you’d find on parts of the Colorado in Utah and Arizona.”
Pure Whitewater Focus
Ironically, only a small percentage of the New River’s admirers experience these spring conditions.
Only eight percent of the 59,987 commercial clients who rafted the New River Gorge in 2018 did so from March through May, according to figures from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. The number of private boaters—folks who paddle without a guide—is not recorded, according to the National Park Service.
According to Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, the high water, blustery weather, and unpredictable nature of spring rafting could be why the New River sees fewer rafters in the spring. “It comes down to having the will and desire for big water,” Wilson said, noting guests who come in the spring are “More pure whitewater focused.”
Clients also have to be more flexible because the section of river that companies choose to run each day depends on the water levels, resulting in trips frequently being moved to different parts of the New or the neighboring Gauley River. “Our levels change so much and so often it becomes normal,” Wilson said. “Check the levels at five a.m., then lay the plans for the day. It’s never boring.”
During peak spring flows from March through May, boaters must also be prepared for average air temperatures ranging from 40–60 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the balmy summer temps in the 70s during peak summer months of June through August, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Water temperatures follow a similar trajectory, with the New River remaining below 65 degrees Fahrenheit until June, when temps commonly rise to bathwater-like 70s and 80s and stay there until the end of August, according to data from the USGS.
The chilly weather and water call for a hardier bunch who are willing to don neoprene wetsuits and cold-weather gear, said Haynes Mansfield, marketing director at ACE Adventure Resort. “Spring rafting on the New River is far less family oriented and far more adventure based,” Mansfield said. “This is not the trip for guests seeking a waterpark like, concrete-lined, slurpy-sipping, lazy river experience. It’s a trip for people that are intrigued by adrenaline.”
Spring often draws people who have already rafted the New or Gauley rivers in the summer and fall, Mansfield said. High-water days are the perfect “step up” for people looking for a rowdier ride, said Kellerman, who frequently has guests return specifically to experience big water. “Catch the New somewhere between 18,000 CFS to 32,000 CFS and you will get big 15 to 20-foot-tall waves crashing in your face, huge fun wave trains, and non-stop adrenaline,” he said. “It’s a little cold but if you dress right, it’s totally worth it.”
Juniper Rose is editor-at-large for Highland Outdoors and a whitewater raft guide on the New and Gauley rivers who’s favorite exclusive high-water feature on the Lower New is the Million Dollar Wave.
5 things You’ll Only See on a High-Water Spring Day
Seldom Seen Rapid—Behold the appearance of the phantom rapid
Location: Between Double Z Rapid and Harmen’s Ledges
The beta: This rapid only appears at above 24,000 CFS—dig in for a big-wave roller coaster
Barry’s Hole—Stare down the meanest looking hole on the river
Location: Halfway down Double Z on river left
The beta: Don’t go anywhere near it above 14,000 CFS
The Cloud Chamber—Hold on tight for a near-vertical drop into a wall of frothy white water
Location: Left of center at the top of Miller’s Folly Rapid
The beta: When the river is above 10,500 CFS, head for the horizon line and fire it up
Million Dollar Wave—Ride the tallest runnable wave on the river
Location: Left side of Fayette Station Rapid
The beta: Don’t miss it above 17,000 CFS
Ghost Towns—Spot historic coal mining ruins visible through the leafless trees
Location: More places than you’d expect along the banks of the river
The beta: Come in early spring before the leaves hide history from view