The Watery Rage of West Virginia: Whitewater Rafting the New and Gauley Rivers

In 1985, West Virginia's outdoor industry found an unlikely ally in the U.S. Congress. After several years of cajoling, begging, and finger crossing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to open the faucet on the Gauley River. Since then, the scheduled water release from the dam adjacent to Summersville Lake has flooded into the Gauley River, transforming what was previously a sporadic rafting venue into one of the most celebrated, consistently challenging rivers in the world.
The Gauley is not for the faint of heart. The river stretches 107 miles from Summersville Dam to its confluence with the New River through a narrow canyon laden with over 60 named rapids, most lying within the 24-mile section starting at the dam. The region's fame draws the helmet-clad hordes, and the river can resemble the aquatic equivalent of a parking lot in front of some of the Class Vs: fleets of brightly colored rafts waiting their turn to run Lost Paddle or Sweets Falls. But once you hit that wall of whitewater, you're literally back in the thick of it—and the surrounding crowds become the most encouraging audience any paddler could ask for. Most outfitters divide the river into two day-long sections: the Upper Gauley, which sucker-punches you with a quick series of five Class V rapids and numerous Class IVs over a short 12 miles, and the Lower Gauley, which offers a dozen more Class IV and V rapids. Two-day trips, which include riverside camping, cover both sections and will help you shake some of the crowds that flood into the Gauley for day trips. The season (and the requisite mayhem) runs every Friday through Monday after Labor Day, and concludes on the third weekend of October in conjunction with the Bridge Day Festival—the world's largest BASE-jumping event, where skydivers launch themselves off nearby 867-foot New River Gorge Bridge, the highest and longest single-span bridge on the planet.
Despite the Gauley's relatively recent worldwide notoriety, West Virginia was on most paddlers' radars long before Congress agreed to turn on the water. Though it may not receive the circus-like fanfare of its cataract-dense neighbor, the New River—the world's second-oldest, after the Nile—makes for an ideal put-in for those new to, and nervous about, whitewater rafting. It begins in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina and flows northwest into West Virginia, where it joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha River. The 14-mile stretch between the town of Thurmond and Fayette Station is now known as the New River Gorge National River, a nationally protected series of waterfalls, whitewater, and flatwater that drops nearly 250 feet through a narrow 1,400-foot-deep canyon lined with sheer rock faces and the occasional abandoned mining outpost. The rapids on the New are more evenly spaced than the whitewater cluster bomb that is the Upper Gauley, which allows for some recuperative float time between the churning rapids. As with the Gauley, the New is commonly run in sections: the Upper, which runs from Hinton to Thurmond, is considerably calmer and ideal for novices, families, and the elderly. Below Thurmond, the river pours into the New River Gorge, which froths with a series of Class IV and V rapids before crossing under the impressive span of the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville.
The geographical proximity of both rivers to Fayetteville has spawned dozens of outfitters who run both the New and the Gauley. Most offer daylong and two-day trips on both rivers, and food (lunch for daylong trips, the full Monty for overnight trips) is usually included in the cost. Due to the technical demands, the Gauley costs a bit more than the New, but expect to pay around $100 for runs on either the top or bottom sections of both rivers. Hitting the New midweek or taking on the Gauley on Mondays in October can drop the price by as much $20 to $25. The Gauley season starts the first Friday after Labor Day and goes until the third weekend in October; the tight schedule means reservations (well in advance) are essential. The New is less structured, and can be run from early spring to late fall, but check on water levels. Founded in 1968, Wildwater Expeditions (1.800.WVA.RAFT; was the first company to officially offer guided raft trips in the region. They also offer camping at their headquarters, just off Route 19. Wetsuits (usually provided by the tour operator for a modest fee) are a good idea, especially during the colder months, and synthetic clothing and shoes or sandals with secure heels are essential. Helmets and life jackets are provided.

Published: 26 Feb 2004 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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