BREAKS, Va. — The cooler temperatures and changing leaves are universal signs of autumn, but for adventure enthusiasts they also signal the start of the fall whitewater season.
Whitewater rafting is an annual highlight for many extreme adrenaline junkies, but it can be a great action-packed family-friendly weekend activity too.
While the masses flock to run the infamous rapids of West Virginia’s Upper Gauley and New rivers, Kentucky has it’s own lesser-known fall attraction that’s just as beautiful and wild: the Russell Fork River.
Flowing from the John W. Flannagan Dam in Virginia, along the border of Virginia and Kentucky through the Breaks Interstate and on into Pike County, Ky. the Russell Fork offers spectacular views and thrilling whitewater.
Although the gorge section of the river is only for expert kayakers, families can enjoy a tamer but still-thrilling ride through the upper and lower sections of the 1,000-foot deep gorge known as the Grand Canyon of the East.
Two guided trips are offered by family-owned and operated Sheltowee Trace Outfitters, based in Corbin, Ky. Under the watchful eye of founder and owner Rick “Smurf” Egedi, the company has been safely leading excursions on the river for decades. (They also guide rafting trips on the Cumberland and the Big South Fork rivers in Kentucky.)
Their Russell Fork season is short — only the first four full weekends of October. Remaining trips this year are offered Oct.11-12, 18-19 and 25-26.
The half-day “Fun Run,” takes rafters down the upper section of the river from just below the John W. Flannagan Dam to the river’s Garden Hole take-out just north of the gorge section. It features Class III and Class IV whitewater, including pushy water, steep drops and narrow passageways, along with spectacular views of the 1,000-foot high carved stone walls, glimpses of arched railroad trestles and of course unspoiled wooded mountains painted with fall color. The Fun Run is appropriate for children and adults age 12 and over, and is $55 per person.
The “Family Run” is a shorter, tamer trip through Class III rapids on a lower section of the river. In addition to boasting views of the canyon, railroad and mountains, the trip ends with a scenic float through downtown Elkhorn City. It’s a great beginner trip and excellent for families with young children. The trip is about two hours long and is $45 per person. The minimum age to participate is eight.
Bonus: water temperatures and the occasional warm sunny day during the season often allow for short “swims” in the river during slow flat water sections.
As with most rafting trips, be sure to leave your helmet on for the Class 5+ bus ride from the takeout.
Both STO trips begin at a rendezvous point inside the Breaks Interstate Park, which offers camping in addition to a range of lodging options. The park is approximately a 2.5-hour drive from the Tri-State. While there, don’t forget to take advantage of the other non-water recreation activities offered in the park!
My recommendation: Don’t skip taking in bird’s eye views of park by exploring some of its 25 miles of hiking trails. The .75-mile Overlook Trail provides almost continuous views of the canyon below.
Reservations for Sheltowee Trace Outfitter trips can be made by calling 1-800-541-RAFT (7238) or online at www.ky-rafting.com.
Learn more about Breaks Interstate Park at www.breakspark.com.