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Where to Swim, Kayak and SUP in the New River Gorge

June 22, 2024

Filed in: New River Gorge

The clear water of Summersville Lake surrounded by white cliffs and green trees. A waterfall is in the center with people swimming and paddle boarding around it.
Fun in the water at Summersville Lake. Photo: Mountain Surf Paddle Sports

Since “River” is literally its middle name, many people planning a visit to the New River Gorge naturally think of water activities. Kayaking, standup paddleboarding, swimming and tubing are great ways to beat the summertime heat, but it is VERY important to know where you can do these things safely.

As the New River makes its way through its namesake gorge, most of it is wild and untamed and not recommended for casual recreation. Here’s what the National Park Service has to say about it: “Individual trip participants must recognize and assume responsibility for the attendant dangers, which include – but are not limited to – possible loss of life.”

But there are lots of options in the area to safely get wet. We always point out to our guests at Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals that the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is only the centerpiece of a phenomenal outdoor recreation area. Read on see our recommendations and a list of the area’s recreational lakes.

A large map of New River Gorge National Park and the surrounding area.  Swimming spots are marked with a blue star. Kayaking and SUP spots are marked with a yellow star. Equipment rentals are marked with a red star.
Read below for detailed corresponding information.

Swimming and Tubing in the New River Gorge

Swimming

We recommend the following swimming locations in and around the New River Gorge:

  • Summersville Lake
  • Swimming Hole below the Gristmill at Babcock State Park
  • Stone Cliff Beach in New River Gorge National Park
  • Army Camp in New River Gorge National Park
  • Grandview Sandbar in New River Gorge National Park
  • Swimming Hole below Glade Creek Falls on the Glade Creek Trail
  • Lake Stephens
  • Bluestone Lake
  • The Dries at Cotton Hill near Fayetteville – The Dries is a section of the New River immediately downriver of Hawks Nest Dam. During most of the year it has very low and slow water due to the dam’s diversion of the water through an underground tunnel. There are, however, several times a year when the dam is released and water level changes quickly. Read the signs and talk to a local before venturing into the Dries.
  • Important note: The National Park Service strongly recommends wearing a PFD (personal flotation device) in the river.

Adventure Lakes

There are three adventure lakes in the area that have inflatable games, slides and more: ACE Adventure Waterpark in the lower (northern) section of the New River Gorge, Lake Stephens west of Beckley, WV, and Pipestem Resort State Park Adventure Lake in the upper (southern) section.

Tubing

You can rent tubes, other small crafts, and book a shuttle service on the upper New River and Greenbrier River at Berry’s Campground near Hinton, WV which is about an hour from Fayetteville.

A family playing and swimming in the water hole below the old grist mill at Babcock State Park. There are big rocks and waterfalls all around them.
The swimming hole at Babcock State Park. Photo: Shawn Means

New River Gorge Kayaking

Have your own kayak?

You better be a REALLY good kayaker to get on the New River. Here’s what the National Park Service has to say about it: “The section of the New River from Hinton to Thurmond – known as the upper (southern) section of the river – offers challenging Class I, II, and III rapids suitable for intermediate whitewater paddlers, and consists primarily of long pools and moderate rapids. Downstream from Thurmond in the lower (northern) section of the river the channel significantly narrows and includes technical Class III – IV rapids. The New River below Thurmond is suitable only for advanced and expert paddlers.”

Because kayaking on whitewater requires a high level of expertise, we only recommend the following flat water locations:

Need to rent a kayak?

Rented kayaks can only be used at the location where they are obtained. Outfitters do not rent kayaks for use on the Lower New or Gauley Rivers. You can rent kayaks at the following locations:

Want to take a class or guided kayak tour?

ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge both offer whitewater kayak skills clinics, guided whitewater kayaking trips, and guided flatwater kayaking trips. Lakeside Outfitters offers guided kayak tours on Summersville Lake.

Amy in a green kayak in the middle of the New River.
Kayaking above Kanawha Falls. Photo: Shawn Means

New River Gorge Standup Paddle Boarding (SUP)

Have your own SUP?

We recommend paddle boarding at the following locations:

Need to rent a SUP?

Rented paddle boards can only be used at the location where they are obtained. Outfitters do not rent paddle boards for use on the Lower New or Gauley Rivers. You can rent standup paddle boards at the following places:

Want to take a guided SUP tour?

We HIGHLY recommend booking a trip with Mountain Surf Paddle Sports. They offer trips to Summersville Lake, Kanawha Falls, and even under the New River Gorge Bridge! Adventures on the Gorge and ACE Adventure Resort also offer paddle boarding trips.

Numerous people standing and sitting on standup paddleboards in the middle of the New River with green leaves hanging overhead from the riverbank.
SUP on the New River. Photo: Mountain Surf Paddle Sports

Recreational Lakes in the New River Gorge Region

Summersville Lake

Summersville Lake, West Virginia’s largest lake, is located just south of Summersville, WV about 20 minutes from Fayetteville. It comprises 2,800 acres of beautiful crystal clear water that is heavily used for boating, fishing, swimming, scuba diving, climbing, and other recreation.

Visitors sometimes have a hard time understanding how to best access the lake since it’s operation and marketing are shared in part by the Army Corp of Engineers, City of Summersville, the Summersville CVB and even a small section by West Virginia State Parks. None have produced a good, complete online map, so we recommend studying Google Maps and following this advice:

Looking down on green West Virginia hills and the New River from the Hawks Nest Overlook. The railroad bridge across Hawks Nest Lake is present in the distance.
Hawks Nest Lake. Photo: WV Tourism

Hawk’s Nest Lake at Hawk’s Nest State Park

Hawks Nest State Park is located in Ansted, WV about 20 minutes from Fayetteville. The lake is actually a wide section of the New River created by the Hawks Nest Dam. There are two boat ramps where you can launch with your own equipment, or you can enjoy a guided jet boat ride. We like to hike to the lake on the Hawks Nest Rail Trail (AKA Ansted Rail Trail), but you can also drive there via Hawks Nest Road (60/2).

Boley Lake at Babcock State Park surrounded by color trees in full autumn colors of orange, yellow, brown and red.
Boley Lake at Babcock State Park. Photo: WV State Parks

Boley Lake at Babcock State Park

Babcock State Park is located near Clifftop, WV about 20 minutes from Fayetteville. In addition to the great swimming hole below the old grist mill, Babcock State Park is home to Boley Lake, a small but beautiful lake that offers rentals of paddle BOATS, rowboats and canoes (but not swimming).

Bright pink water lilies blooming on hundreds of lily pads in the middle of Plum Orchard Lake.
Plum Orchard Lake. Photo: WV Dept. of Natural Resources

Plum Orchard Lake

Plum Orchard Lake is near Pax, WV about 30 minutes from Fayetteville. This is a 2,953-acre WV Wildlife Management Area primarily used for fishing. Swimming in not permitted, but you can bring your own kayak or paddleboard and float among the waterlilies.

A shiny blue lake with clouds reflected in the water. The lush green trees of Little Beaver State Park surround the lake.
Little Beaver Lake. Photo: WV State Parks

Little Beaver Lake at Little Beaver State Park

Little Beaver State Park is located near Beaver, WV near the Grandview section of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It is about 40 minutes from Fayetteville. You can rent stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, canoes and paddle BOATS at the park’s 18-acre lake, but it’s not for swimming.

A big lake surrounded by pine trees with blue inflatable water toys and tubes near Beckley, WV.
Lake Stephens. Photo: Raleigh County Parks

Lake Stephens

Lake Stephens is located west of Beckley, WV about 45 minutes from Fayetteville. This 272 acre fishing and boating lake, operated by the Raleigh County Park and Recreation Department, has a marina, concession stand, beach, water park, and sprinkler splash pad. Paddle BOAT, kayak and aqua bike rentals are available.

The bright blue water of Bluestone Lake just south of New River Gorge National Park.
Bluestone Lake. Photo: WV State Parks

Bluestone Lake at Bluestone State Park

Bluestone Lake State Park is located south of Hinton, WV about an hour from Fayetteville. Fishing boats, pontoon boats, kayaks and canoes are available for rent at the Bluestone marina and swimming is easy and welcome.

Private and Public Tours Available: New River Gorge Eco Tours: Nature-focused Guided Forest Walks in New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

Who are we? Amy & Shawn, New River Gorge hikers, master naturalists, and owners of Lafayette Flats Boutique Vacation Rentals in downtown Fayetteville, WV – the heart of New River Gorge National Park. Need more data for your New River Gorge exploration? We recommend the following:

Our 10 Favorite Activities in the New River Gorge

New River Gorge Explorer: A 5-Day Itinerary

Choose Your Own Adventure in the New River Gorge

comments +

  1. Betty Callender says:

    I am a local and have paddled on the Upper New and Greenbrier rivers in my kayak as well as some of our local lakes. I am disappointed that you used a photo of someon in a kayak with a PFD on. In my humble I
    Opinion it is dangerous to be on any of our rivers with this important life saving equipment.

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