22 things you didn’t know about the legendary Gauley River

One of the best whitewater destinations in the world is right here in the West Virginia mountains.

Have you heard of the Gauley River? It’s epic enough to be a legend among whitewater paddlers, but remote enough to stay a well-kept secret.

Here are 22 things you probably didn’t know about enjoying this mountain gem:

1. You have to catch it at just the right time. Gauley Season only lasts 22 gone-too-soon days in September and October.

2. For those 22 (23 this year!) days, the water is guaranteed to be perfect. The flow comes from a release of the Summersville Dam, coordinated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

3. The Gauley is one of the top whitewater rivers in the entire world. Paddlers know it across the globe, but this East Coast gem isn’t just for pros. Adventurers as young as 12 can ride these waves with an experienced guide.

4. The Gauley River National Recreation Area is managed by the National Park Service.

5. The Upper Gauley is known as the wild crown jewel, while the Lower Gauley is considered by many to be their favorite stretch of this iconic river. Schedule an overnight trip to experience both sections.

6. The Gauley’s legendary mythos stems from its “Big 5″— 5 unique, heart-pounding Class V rapids unlike any others in the world.

7. The first of the Big 5’s name seems ironic, but when an early scouting expedition ran the river in the 60s, they said there were “no significant rapids” until reaching Pillow Rock.

8. “The Best 10 Seconds in Whitewater.” That’s how pros describe Pillow Rock, the 2nd in the Big 5 lineup. A “pillow” of water provides paddlers the awesome experience of riding up the face of a giant boulder, where it is customary to “smack the rock” with your paddle!

9. Lost Paddle, home to the Hawaii 5-0 wave, stretches more than a quarter of a mile long, with 4 distinct sections— each technical and with their own big, memorable waves.

10. Iron Ring rapid’s unnatural, jagged rocks are the result of early logging. Timber was sent down the river, and would sometimes get clogged here. The actual iron ring the rapid was named for was part of a system to keep the logs moving smoothly. It was stolen in the 80s.

11. The final “Big 5” rapid, Sweet’s Falls, is actually a 14-foot waterfall. Yup. You can ride over a waterfall. And it is AMAZING! Because the cliffs above Sweet’s Falls are a popular spot to stop for lunch, it’s not unusual for hundreds of people to gather and watch boats tumble over the falls. It’s like a Roman Colosseum.

12. The “Big 5” are the fun runs, but the hands-down most stunning area of the Gauley is rounding the bend to reveal Canyon Doors rapid on the Lower Gauley, named after 2 towering cliff walls that frame its rugged beauty.

13. The scenic nature of the Gauley provides a relaxing break from the rush of the whitewater. The surrounding forest of this National Park is remote, and mostly inaccessible to people. Enjoy the calm, scenic stretches. Not many people get to see them.

14. Though it seems as if civilization hasn’t touched this rugged landscape in centuries, the area was very commercialized during the coal and logging boom. Mother Nature has since reclaimed these wild waters for herself.

15. The Gauley waves are great for surfing! Not the beach kind. After a rapid, you can paddle back into a wave, which pounds down on the boat and holds it in place. See how long you can stay in!

16. Rafting and kayaking aren’t the only ways to play on the Gauley. Recently, stand-up paddle boarding has become a trend. Locals also use the cool waters for fishing and swimming.

17. You’ll hear plenty of stories about how the rapids were named. For a few, the lore is larger than life. The real stories? Not so extreme. Bud’s Boner and Kevin’s Folly were both named after mistakes made in rapids that others considered easy— although both paddlers did end up stranded for a while as a result.

18. A Civil War battle raged right above the river on September 10, 1861. Get historic insights at Carnifex Battlefield State Park, and overlook the river’s stunning landscape.

19. The Gauley is known for being intense, but thousands ride the river safely every year. Only the most experienced guides take visitors down this river, and they want to share a good time with you.

20. Many of the outfitters who can guide you down the river also offer overnight trips with upscale camping, as well as other outdoor activities like ziplining, horseback riding and more.

21. The Gauley area is within a half-day’s drive of most major East Coast cities. West Virginia’s central location makes it a convenient escape.

22. It’s roaring now! Gauley Season is more than just a river trip, it is an experience. Come join us for Gauley season and find out for yourself!

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This post was last updated on July 20, 2020