Had I been blindfolded and helicoptered into this place, I would have guessed I was in Costa Rica or New Zealand, or Southeast Asia. Surely this wasn’t anywhere I could drive to, even on a major road trip. But I arrived via airplane in … wait for it… Charleston WV and drove a little over an hour to reach an adrenaline mecca.
My base camp for this outing was Adventures on the Gorge (www.adventuresonthegorge.com), located a short drive northeast of Fayetteville, deep in the mountains near the New River Gorge and Gauley River. Its founders tell me that it is the first – one of the few – all-inclusive, on-site adventure resorts in the country. Adventure is truly what they’re all about. Serious adventure, not the scaled-down, insurance-regulated version we’re so used to here in the overly litigious USA.
AOTG offers everything from serious, white-knuckle ropes courses and zipline canopy tours, to lakeside bouldering and climbing. You’ll find remote trails for hiking, running and mountain biking where it is highly unlikely that you’ll run into another human. There’s even LEGAL base-jumping one day a year from the almost 876-foot high New River Gorge Bridge – the only place in the country that allows this. All of this is either on-site or less than an hour’s drive away, and can be part of an all-inclusive package or purchased individually by guests and the general public.
“There’s nothing else quite like Adventures on the Gorge in the country – certainly no adventure resorts like us – so yes, we are indeed unique. Few destination resorts have a setting quite like ours,” says Marketing Director and Co-Founder Dave Arnold. “We are situated on one world-class whitewater rafting river and near another – the Gauley – and there are numerous national and state parks and recreation areas within a short drive. We’re also surrounded by a dense mix of hardwoods and hemlock trees that provide the perfect environment for the TreeTops Canopy Tour, one of our four aerial adventures, while granite and ultra-hard sandstone cliffs all over the area add world class climbing to the mix.”
But AOTG was born on the water, and that’s still its bread and butter. Water is everywhere in this area – whether it’s roiling white or placidly turquois. And the people behind it – a group of existing rafting outfits who were competitors one day and partners the next – are legitimate, self-described “river rats” from the early heyday of whitewater rafting in the 70’s. “I went in one day from competing very aggressively with the guy who owned Rivermen, to having him in the office next to me sharing responsibilities,” adds Arnold, who previously owned Class VI, one of the early river outfitters in the area. “We came together as a way to promote growth in a declining industry, and we all ended up being better at every aspect. And we did so without losing any employees.”
Over three days, along with some climbing and ropes, I spent a lot of time on the water. First by SUPing on Summersville Lake, which provided some of the clearest, smoothest water I’ve ever had the pleasure of paddling, followed by a “warm-up” casual paddle over class II and III rapids. From there, I moved on to the world-renowned whitewater on the class IV and V Gauley river during the notorious “Gauley Season” – a month-long period of high release levels from the dam in early fall that turns that stretch of whitewater into one of the most famous in the world.
The resort operates year round, and activities vary accordingly, but come early fall there’s a palpable excitement in the crisp mountain air. The payoff for a long, busy summer is imminent, and it comes in the form of world-class whitewater. According to federal legislation the dam on Summersville Lake must release especially high levels of water for a 30-day period in September, turning the already fun and powerful Gauley one of the whitewater runs on planet at that time of year.
Every morning during the so-called “Gauley Season” the dam’s cavernous pipes open, raising river levels 4 feet in a few hours and increasing flow rates from a meager 700 cubic feet per second to an earth shaking 2800 cfs. If you’re not familiar with these numbers, a cubic foot would perfectly fit a basketball – now imagine 2800 of those every second. For comparison sake, in terms of skiing that would be the equivalent of 30 days of 2-foot dumps every night, on a mountain that suddenly doubles its pitch, and all the proper trails disappear!
As thrilling and plentiful as the adventures are, and as gorgeous and wild the surroundings, what really sets AOTG apart is the resort itself. Just the mention of an all-inclusive resort tends to make my skin crawl – the idea of sitting poolside with umbrella-topped frozen drinks is just not my idea of travel. But I also understand there are plenty of folks out there who love adventure AND luxury, and AOTG has something for everyone. It offers both all-inclusive and ala carte options for lodging, food and drinks, and activities, giving you the option to choose whichever plan suits your needs. Plus the lodgings themselves vary greatly in price and plushness, with everything from tent sites and tent cabins to four-bedroom luxury homes, with multiple options in between. They’re also situated separately, so the younger, often more rowdy, crowds may choose the camping area, while families can stay peacefully and comfortably in the homes (all equipped with private outdoor hot tubs!).
The campus also features three full-service restaurants, serving everything from BBQ and pizza to classic pub food to more gourmet seafood and game dishes. Sweet Java Falls – named after the renowned Sweets Falls on the Gauley, and one can only assume the legendary Lava falls in the Grand Canyon – is a full espresso bar with baked goods. And the Rendezvous Lodge is an indoor/outdoor bar offering live music and dancing all overlooking the spectacular New River Gorge. While I was too exhausted from my days of adventure to indulge, I hear it draws quite an impressive crowd of locals and guests alike, especially during the high summer and Gauley seasons.
Of course all-inclusives can be prohibitively expensive, but the wide range of lodging, activities, and eating options means more budget-minded travelers can also find a way to enjoy all that AOTG has to offer. But if you’ve got it, you can certainly spend a decent chunk of change, there, especially if you choose a package that includes the highest luxury digs, gourmet food, and a jam-packed schedule of activities.
Their tent sites and tent cabins are surprisingly affordable: All-inclusive packages start at $380 for two days and $700 for four days, including food and activities each day, ($400 and $720 for simple cabins). On the other end of the spectrum, 3- and 4-bedroom deluxe cabins run $560/$570 for two days and $1040/$1050 for four. Those same options ala carte range from $70-$90 per night for a rustic cabin for two people depending on season, and $345-$460 for the 4-BR luxury cabins.
Options for less activity and more relaxation also exist. You can also choose to prepare your own food, or combine some cooking and ala carte dining, since the deluxe cabins all feature full kitchens replete with cooking materials. There’s even a private hot tub on the patio! Activities are also offered all-inclusive or ala carte, so you can stay in a tent and just raft one day, for instance, but still get use of the pool and all the other amenities.
Summer is clearly the high season at the resort, with a large percentage of their business during the Gauley Season. But come winter there’s 1500 vertical feet of skiing at nearby Snowshoe Mountain, and if the local trails are covered, XC skiing is available right on and around the campus. Some ropes and zips also remain open, weather permitting, which employees say is the best time to do it. And at least one restaurant remains open year-round as well. Lodging prices also drop virtually in half, so it could be a great chance to get some peace and tranquility.
AOTG doesn’t necessarily offer anything that you can’t find elsewhere, but I haven’t seen a place in the US that offers all these legit adrenaline activities in one resort. And it’s a helluva lot closer than Costa Rica!