Autumn Adventures: Dive On In

Head to West Virginia's New River Gorge for outdoor activities along the world's second oldest river.

This is my favorite kind of trip. A small overnight bag packed with only the essentials — swimsuit, shorts and tanks, sunglasses, sunscreen and tennis shoes. I've left my hair dryer, laptop and makeup all at home. For the next three days, the outdoors of southern West Virginia will be my haven, with no reason to prep in front of the mirror or check emails.

Yet the five-hour drive from Cleveland to the New River Gorge, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains, has left me antsy. I love to swim and have been thinking about the cool, refreshing water the entire ride. So once I see Hawks Nest State Park, I make a quick detour for a ride on the New River Jetboat.

After a short tram ride down to the river's edge, I meet up with Captain Rick. With a thick Southern accent and plenty of hospitality to match, he chauffeurs his guests around the river, regaling us with stories of the area — most important being that we're on the world's second oldest river. I can't help but laugh during the six-mile trip upstream, water spraying in my face as he makes sharp turns and speeds along. Once he reaches the New River Gorge Bridge, he slows so we can all get a good look.

At 876 feet above water, it's the third-highest bridge in the U.S. Rising out of the rapids of the New River, its curved steel beams are simply stunning. I decide I need to get closer to the action.

There's no better way to do this than with a two-hour Bridge Walk Tour, which leads guests underneath the bridge via its catwalk. As the only tour of its kind in the U.S. and only the second in the world, it makes me a little nervous.

But after I strap on my harness, hooked to safety cables that run the length of the bridge, I relax and venture my first wobbly step. I take in the views of the river cutting into the mountains and see white-water rafters paddling furiously upstream.

As we walk, our guide explains the intricacies of the steel structure and how the completion of the bridge back in 1977 cut travel time from one side of the gorge to the other from about 45 minutes to about 45 seconds.

In the moment, that sounded pretty fast. I'd soon discover I hadn't experienced anything yet.

The next day I wake early for a zip line canopy tour at ACE Adventure Resort. I get strapped into a diaperlike harness, put on a helmet and take the plunge. Curling up in a ball to go faster, I speed along at close to 40 miles per hour — too fast to take in any of the scenery, but it's the adrenaline rush I'm after. As I make my way through the course of nine lines, including one that's 800 feet long and another that's 100 feet off the ground, I get more daring, trying some backward or while hanging upside down.

Although flying through the trees was fun, no trip is complete without experiencing the river. I sign up for ACE's white-water rafting along the lower New River. The three-hour excursion is full of 20 rapids ranging from class II to V (the higher the number, the more challenging). Jeremy, my guide, shouts commands, "Forward three strokes, back two," as we navigate rough waters, our boat twisting and turning. I could stay all day just doing what he calls "West Virginia surfing" — maneuvering our boat into a safe rapid as we hold on, our boat bending and contouring with the waves.

Once we come to a calming pool, we all hop out of our boats, and I finally get that swim. I float on my back, looking up at a skyline full of mountains, quietly taking it all in.

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