Let the whitewater rafting begin! (Photo: Charlie Archambault/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
The best and worst part of rafting the Gauley River is the noise. You can hear the rapids coming before you see them. The river drops almost 700 feet over the course of its 25 miles of rapids, and before you hit the whitewater you can hear it pounding, warning you about what’s to come.
The Gauley River, which runs through the heart of the West Virginia Mountains, is one of the most thrilling stretches of commercially runnable whitewater in the world. It has a cult following, so people travel from all over to paddle it — it’s a must do if you’re a whitewater enthusiast. But you can raft there only in the fall: Starting the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers drain the lake behind the nearby Summersville Dam, and on weekends in September and October they release that water (at 2,800 cubic feet per second) through the spillway. It rushes downstream creating huge waves, tricky technical waterfalls, and boat-wide holes that have been known to suck the shoes and board shorts right off a rafter.
The Class V (aka expert level) Gauley is the CrossFit of rafting rivers, high intensity, in your face, and addictive. It’s pool-drop river, which means that there are stretches of rapids with short stints of flat water in between. When it drops, it drops fast. The water is high, you’ll be paddling constantly, and there’s always the chance you could flip — but it’s quite a ride. If you’re less experienced at whitewater rafting, go with a guide (Class VI and North American River Runners are good ones).
Only the brave tackle the Gauley. (Photo: James Sullivan/Flickr)
Two main sections define the Gauley: the upper and the lower. The upper is the Hollywood stretch, where there are constant rapids, including the thrilling Sweets Fall — you drop over the falls, a tight, technical entrance, and then Postage Stamp Rock, notorious for flipping boats, is right ahead of you. To add to the excitement, kayakers and rafters crowd the shore, heckling and howling, waiting for boats to flip and rafters to hit the water. The lower section of the Gauley is slightly more mellow, but not by much — it’s still full of whitewater.
The lower Gauley is a bit more mellow but still whitewater. (Photo: Charlie Archambault/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
You can run either one or combine the two stretches for one really long day or a two-day overnight trip. Most commercial rafting outfitters offer both options. But beware: Because it’s West Virginia, if you spend the night, there’s a good chance you’ll get sucked into a moonshine-fueled sing-along.
Partying on the riverbanks is just as much a part of the experience as the rafting. (Photo: Mya/Flickr)
It might be because the season is short and adrenaline is high, but the Gauley fosters a serious party scene. Most rafting companies bring coolers filled with beer (two or more for every person on the trip) for the bus ride back from the river, and Gauley Fest, the weekend-long party that happens on the third weekend in September, is notoriously rowdy, with bands, food trucks, races, and a late-night dance party.
A scenic view of the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, West Virginia. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Fayetteville, the town at the base of the Gauley River, is also worth visiting. It’s an outdoors mecca: the nearby New River Gorge has great sport climbing, and the hiking and biking in the area are stellar, but the town’s population swells significantly in September. In the morning, stop at the Cathedral Café for sweet potato pancakes and coffee (although you might not need it if your adrenaline is pumping). After your trip, get pizza at Pies and Pints. During happy hours, guides will be there, trading rafting war stories and bragging about how many times they flipped and what the river did to them that day.
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