Great Gauley! 5 highlights on one of the world’s best stretches of whitewater

West Virginia is undeniably one of the epicenters of whitewater rafting and kayaking in the world, with the Cheat River in the North, the New River in the South, and countless smaller streams such as the Bluestone, Meadow and more all flowing through verdant Appalachian gorges.  But one river stands out amongst all these in terms of waves, drops, and sheer awe: The Gauley.

Whether you have the skills to pilot your own raft or kayak down the river, or go with any of our excellent commercial outfitters, a trip down the Gauley will not be forgotten.  

Here are just a few highlights of this epic whitewater run: 

1. The Upper Gauley’s “Big 5” rapids will take your breath away

There are 5 rapids on the Upper Gauley that gain the whitewater rating of “Class V,” which are the upper level of what can be safely guided down. Each one of these “Big 5” has its own characteristics:  

  • Insignificant Rapid is the opposite of its name, but starts small before building into enormous waves.
  • Pillow Rock Rapid is a rollercoaster culminating in a sharp right angle turn directly over “volkswagon rock.”  
  • Lost Paddle Rapid, just below the Gauley’s confluence with the Meadow, is long, complex, and features a steep drop down the “Hawaii Five-O” wave.  
  • Iron Ring sneaks up on you after a subtle left turn.
  • Sweet’s Falls is a glorious 14-foot drop that you will usually run in full view of dozens of other rafters who are enjoying the show from the cliff above.

2. Nature and technology have merged for your rapid enjoyment

We all know how amazing the rapids of the Upper Gauley River are— but why does the famous “Gauley Season” happen in the fall, and right as the season for rafting the nearby New River winding down?

Summersville Dam, located just upstream of the Upper Gauley, needs to be drained every winter to allow for flood control and water storage the following spring. Starting in the early 1980s, local guide services managed to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the dam earlier in the year for the benefit of our rafting season. The result? 22 perfect and predictable levels of whitewater through the beautiful fall months of September and October.

3. It’s not just the Upper Gauley

The Upper Gauley with its “Big 5” gets all the attention, but you cannot go wrong by adding in a separate trip down its little brother, the Lower Gauley.  

With its own awe-inspiring rapids such as The Mash Bros. with 3 gigantic waves in succession, or Pure Screaming Hell with its monster-sized hole, the Lower Gauley is a fun force to be reckoned with.

Want to really kick it up a notch? Do a trip down the “Marathon” from Summersville Dam all the way into the slack water near the Gauley’s confluence with the New River. This 27-mile stretch combines the Upper, Middle, and Lower Gauley into a full-day trip with more class V rapids than you’ll know what to do with.

4. The Scenery is Wild and Wonderful

Though not as deep as the New River Gorge, the Gauley River canyon is a lush and verdant paradise, even without its rapids. River-sculpted sandstone block are strewn about the gorge.

At the Canyon Doors, twin pillars of rock tower more than 100 feet above the river, evoking mythical scenes out of movies like “Lord of the Rings.” At the Perfect Wave, shelves of rock extend out into the river’s current, giving perfect access to a wave that boaters and paddleboarders love to surf during the hottest months of summer.

5. History Flows Down the River

The Gauley’s history extends well beyond the whitewater industry’s innovative relationship with the upstream dam. Loggers transported wood down the river toward the Kanawha River and Charleston via a series of pulleys and floats (this is where the namesake for Iron Ring rapid comes from). Even before this, the historic battle of Carnifex Ferry, just above Pillow Rock rapid, was an important step in securing West Virginia for Union forces in 1861.

Want to experience the history, beauty, and excitement of the Gauley River in its full fall glory? Then book your trip as soon as possible for this Gauley season!

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This post was last updated on July 20, 2020