West Virginia’s Gauley River Sets the Standard for Wilderness and Wonder
It takes a certain type of person to think it’s a good idea to jump off a big rock into Class V whitewater – with just a helmet and a lifeline. The roaring river, a dose of adrenaline and a jubilant crowd hovering around the surrounding rocks like some sort of whitewater Roman coliseum.
Every September, thousands of thrill seekers travel from across the country (and even the world) to Summersville, West Virginia, sleeping in a city park, drinking beer, listening to music and swimming. The region is home to some of the best and largest whitewater in the country: the Gauley River.
“It’s the whitewater mecca of the east,” says Stephen Smith, 47, a whitewater raft guide and kayaker from Ocoee, Tennessee. “When the Gauley season ends, this is the place to be.”
Three and a half hours south of Pittsburgh, near Highway 19, the Gauley River gushes from the base of Summersville Dam into a canyon nearly 1,000 feet deep. The next 25 miles of river – which eventually empties into the New River – is widely regarded as one of the best stretches of whitewater rafting in the world. But from Route 19, you’d hardly know it’s there except for a few signs pointing the way out.
As the river flows at varying levels year-round, an agreement with the Army Corp of Engineers has created an annual six-weekend dam release schedule discharging approximately 2,800 cubic feet per second of lake water. Summersville to create a constant natural water level for whitewater rafters and kayakers – “Gauley Season”.
Every year, notwithstanding Covid, the Rivers Conservation and Advocacy Group American Whitewater hosts Gauley Fest, a four-day celebration with vendors, live musical food and beer to kick off the season and raise money for stewardship projects. Through festival fees and raffles, the event is a major fundraiser for the group, which lobbies for recreational access through dam releases and other environmental programs nationwide.
“We wouldn’t have as much access as we have without them,” Smith says. “American Whitewater makes it possible.”
The release of the dam for recreational use during the fall drawdown stemmed from U.S. Congressional legislation to protect recreation in the river valley in the 1980s, an action among the first of its kind.
Although well known among the whitewater community, in the rest of the world the Gauley River takes precedence over its more famous neighbor 15 minutes to the south, the New River Gorge – America’s most recent National Park.
Together, the two recreation areas are arguably the epicenter of outdoor activities in the “wild and wonderful” state.
The truth is, however, that the rich history of rafting is one of the main reasons the region has become a major center for recreation. Whitewater rafting even predates the completion of the New River Gorge Bridge in 1977.
Charlie Walbridge knows this story as well as anyone. A pioneer in the world of whitewater safety and a former guide and board member of American Whitewater, Walbridge, 74, has been rafting and kayaking the Gauley since the early 1970s.
“Rafting is what really sparked interest in outdoor recreation in the area,” he says. “They came here and said, ‘Wow, we can do here what they do out west. “”
The first descent of the Gauley is credited to Sayre and Jane Rodman, before the Summersville Dam was completed. According to a National Parks Service history, their first attempt failed in 1959, but they succeeded in 1961, before the dam was completed in 1965.
From there the industry started slowly, Walbridge remember.
“For years, there were about 20 people on the river,” he says. But friends began to tell friends about it, and guiding business operations began to develop.
Today, Gauley Fest alone draws 2,500 people for a single weekend, with even more skipping the festival and heading straight for the water.
Growing up in a business rafting family in Tennessee, Smith has been coming to Gauley since he was a teenager in the early 1990s. He and his wife Dawn Felicidario, also a raft guide, now make the pilgrimage nearly every year.
“There were more people on the river that Saturday than I saw,” Smith said of this year’s event.
It’s a trend officials are reporting statewide across all types of outdoor recreation.
According to the West Virginia Department of Tourism’s 2021 Economic Impact Report, visitors now spend an estimated $180 million annually in the two sparsely populated counties surrounding the Gauley River, Lake Summersville, and parts of the New River Gorge. . Statewide tourism is now a $4.8 billion industry.
Recreation in Summersville
With expert guides, the danger is significantly less, but for those not looking to tempt fate in Class V whitewater, there are countless other reasons to venture into the heart of West Virginia.
The Lower Gauley offers a still exhilarating but less daunting Class IV and III stretch, as does the New River Gorge. Additionally, the Upper New River offers family and kid-friendly rafting.
But rafting only scratches the surface.
“There’s just about every outdoor sport you can imagine,” Smith says. “This part of West Virginia is really hard to beat.”
He and his wife try to spend more and more time there with each visit.
From hiking trails with views of the New River Gorge, rock climbing and mountain biking to Civil War battlefields and old mining ruins, there’s no shortage of attractions in the history-steeped area.
If the calm waters of a reservoir are more your speed, there’s also the 2,700 acres of Lake Summerville and its impressive coves and cliff-lined shores.
The largest of West Virginia’s lakes, it offers everything from scuba diving and paddleboarding to motorboating.
Dining and accommodation options
For those who don’t like camping in a city park with 2,500 of your new friends, there are a host of accommodation options ranging from tent camping and adventure resort-style accommodations to Airbnbs, rooms bed and breakfasts and traditional motels.
The small town of Fayetteville, just south of the New River Gorge Bridge, is a great place to start or end an adventure. Once a struggling main street with empty storefronts from past mining and logging booms, Fayetteville has become a nationally recognized outdoor town, with cafes, independent bike and outdoor gear shops and brewpubs – and festivals most weekends.
It’s a shining example of embracing a recreational economy.
“Fayetteville is a bustling little town now,” Walbridge says, comparing it to when it started rafting in the 1970s. “You went to Fayetteville (then) and it was just dead. The changes I have seen are simply remarkable.
If you are in Fayetteville, the Freefolk Brewery and Bridge Brew Works worth the detour. Freefolk looks like a little hole in the wall on an otherwise nondescript road, but one step inside and you’ll be greeted by wall murals created by one of the brewery owners. You’re likely to strike up a conversation with a local who might have some great advice on where to start your next adventure. A little outside of Fayetteville, Bridge Brew Works offers a large outdoor patio perfect for post-adventure brewing.
Know before you go
The Upper Gauley is not a river to be taken lightly. The 9-mile stretch includes five Class V rapids and a number of Class IV and Class III segments. Many of the large boulders and boulders that dot the river also have undercuts that channel water underneath and could potentially trap someone who falls from a raft and doesn’t swim in the right place. Commercial guiding operations set minimum age requirements of 15 or 16 years.
“There are rocks there the size of houses,” Smith said. “You have to know what you’re doing. These are not just rivers that anyone can jump and paddle in.
Any good trip takes planning, and a good outdoor recreation adventure starts with a map. National Geographic does a great trail map for the New River Gorge and Gauley River areas. It is a must for any visit.
The states ministry of tourism website is also a great resource with accommodation options, activity listings and regional guides.
The Fayetteville site also offers camping and lodging options including Arrowhead Bike Farm and Campground for those looking for a two-wheeled adventure that ends with a beer. New river bikes and ACE Adventure Gear in Fayetteville are also good stops for adventure requests.
This story is part of a new series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.