Winner: Fayetteville, West Virginia
As home base for the New River Gorge and Gauley River, Fayetteville has long been a whitewater hot spot for both expert kayakers and amateur rafters around the globe. The happening summer scene tends to simmer out after the annual Bridge Day in mid-October, but a small community of river rats stays year-round through the quiet winter days. They say it’s during those cold months that the true beauty of Fayetteville shines.
“I’ve seen the town grow quite a bit throughout my years of being here,” says Fayetteville born-and-raised Randy Wills. “Once people get out here and see these hills, it really dazzles them.”
Wills is one of only a few West Virginia natives who work with the rafting industry in town. He’s guided commercially for nearly 25 years, working both whitewater and fishing trips for ACE Adventure Resort during the peak season.
“I’ve spent about half my life on the river,” Wills says, “and I feel so blessed to be able to work doing something I love. I’d like to see more local people getting into that.”
The rest of the seasonal workers in Fayetteville are typically transplants from across the country. Some, like ACE video boater and pilates instructor Lisa Marie Kloberdanz, plan on coming for just a season but end up staying longer. Kloberdanz moved from Salida, Colo., to Fayetteville in 2012 in need of a change in scenery. She had lived in other river towns in the Blue Ridge, but says the proximity to the New and Gauley Rivers were the ultimate deciding factors.
“Fayetteville can be a quiet place in the winter especially, but it’s one of the few areas I’ve lived where I’ve been able to find paddlers year-round.”
As a video boater, Koberdanz gets to paddle either the New River Gorge or the Gauley River practically every day. Her job entails capturing the moment for rafting clients, an experience she says is inspiring all on its own.
“If you haven’t been rafting, you need to come experience the New River,” she says. “There’s big whitewater in an awesome setting and you’ll see wildlife. Plus, you’ll get away from cell phones and the computer screen and you’ll get to experience true wilderness.”
Samantha Belcher is another transplant from Virginia who works during the summer as a raft guide for Adventures on the Gorge. She’s rafted around the world, but she says Fayetteville’s whitewater scene is unique for one reason in particular.
“The New River runs all year, which you can’t really say the same about rivers in Colorado or California because those rivers are snow-dependent,” says Belcher. “If you lived in Fayetteville, you could never do everything here in a lifetime—that’s how many fun things there are to do.”
Aside from world-class whitewater, Fayetteville is also a great place for rock climbers, anglers, mountain bikers, and trail runners. The trail system in the New River Gorge is one of the finest in the country, and the gorge walls and cliffs are world-renowned for their epic sandstone routes.
Asheville, North Carolina
In the late 1800s, the railroad and the health industry transformed Asheville from a quiet crossroads town to a popular mountain destination. Wealthy Americans came from far and wide to vacation or seek treatment, but oftentimes would settle in hopes of expanding a business endeavor. George Washington Vanderbilt was one of those wealthy citizens who arrived in Asheville amid the industrial boom. In the 1880s, Vanderbilt ordered the construction of Biltmore Estate, a lavish 250-room manor that, to this day, remains the largest private residence in the U.S.
Although his home resembles a gilded French château, Vanderbilt’s expensive tastes foresaw what would ultimately dominate Asheville’s industry: nature. Situated on the French Broad River, the Biltmore is surrounded by breathtaking beauty. You can tour the mansion or stay within its premises for a pretty dollar, but you can experience just as much beauty and history by floating along the river. The French Broad River Paddle Trail is a newly developed system that connects over 140 miles of the class II-IV river with conveniently placed campsites. The nearby Green River Narrows (class IV-V) attracts paddlers of a different caliber to the Asheville area. The best kayakers from around the world come every November to compete in the Green Race, which will have its 18th annual run this year.
Colonel William Byrd, II, the “father of Richmond,” founded this city over 270 years ago. What has been the source of its enduring success? The river. Established along the banks of the James River, the city is one of the oldest river towns in the South. Both then and now, the James, which was the first American river to be named, is a source of life for Richmond.
From sturgeon to smallmouth bass and the endangered spinymussel, the James is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. The section of river that runs through downtown Richmond is a short class III-IV run that allows urbanites a whitewater escape after a long day of work. The James is also home to some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the area.
Dominion Riverrock, which takes place in the spring, is the city’s annual outdoor sports and music festival. Outdoorsy folk can participate in the James River Scramble 10K Trail Run or watch the country’s top climbers compete in urban bouldering events.
The Rest of the Pack
Albright, W.Va.: Paddle the mighty Cheat River, one of the wild and wonderful state’s most impressive natural-flowing rivers. Whether you’re on the class IV-V canyon section or the class III narrows, the Cheat will be sure to get your adrenaline pumping.
Bryson City, N.C.: Home to the 2013 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships, this quaint Carolina town attracts some of the world’s best whitewater paddlers who live, train, and play on the Nantahala River.
Chattanooga, Tenn.: Once known for its copper mines, the nearby Ocoee River is now a river rat’s playground. If you’re into beer, ‘Nooga is home of the Southern Brewers Festival, which features over 100 draft beers.
Clayton, Ga.: There’s more to Georgia than dueling banjos and squealing pigs. Only 15 minutes away from Clayton are the Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers, which have attracted thousands of adventurous visitors every year.
Columbus, Ga.: This town’s claim to fame as the longest urban whitewater course in the world makes it a must-see when visiting southern Georgia.
Dillsboro, N.C.: An underrated gem, the Tuckasegee River is popular in both the fishing and whitewater communities. If you can catch a run on the weekday, you might get lucky and spot a blue heron or an osprey along the wild river.
Eden, N.C.: They don’t call it The Land of Two Rivers for nothing. On the south side of Eden, check out the confluence of the Smith and Dan Rivers,“ where promise flows.”
Elkhorn City, Ky.: Just over 1,000 people populate this small Kentucky town, but thousands more visit the area in the fall for the release of the Russell Fork River. Class IV-V paddlers can warm up on the upper before sliding down into the technical gorge.
Friendsville, Md.: Some 20 miles south of Ohiopyle is this border town, and although the Yough is a short drive away, try rafting or fishing on Bear Creek. Botanical buff? Check out the Cranesville Sub-Arctic Swamp.
Greenville, S.C.: You don’t need to go far from town to get a little taste of epic. Reedy River Falls is located in downtown Greenville, a perfect spot for an afternoon walk or a weekend picnic.
Knoxville, Tenn.: About an hour’s drive from the Pigeon and Nolichucky Rivers, Knoxville makes a great home base for paddlers who live and work in the city, value good music and culture, but want proximity to the stuff that really matters.
Lynchburg, Va.: The Upper and Middle sections of the James River make Lynchburg a hot spot for visitors looking to experience Virginia’s largest and most historic river.
Marlinton, W.Va.: A tributary of the New River, the Greenbrier River is the longest free-flowing river in the East. If you’re not into paddling, bike the Greenbrier River Trail, one of the nation’s oldest rail-trails.
Martinsville, Va.: The Smith River runs right through this Old Dominion town and is a great place to spend a weekend floating through history or fishing for trout.
Ohiopyle, Pa.: The Upper Yough (that’s ‘yawk’) draws class V paddlers and gung-ho rafters from all over the world.
Washington, D.C.: Great Falls is the difficult class V section of the Potomac River, which runs through the heart of the nation’s capital.