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West Virginia's Hidden Gem: The Gauley River

One of the best whitewater destinations in the world is right here in the West Virginia mountains. The Gauley River is a 105-mile-long river that merges with the New River to form the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio River. The river features numerous recreational whitewater areas, including those in Gauley River National Recreation Area downstream of the Summersville Dam.

“The Beast of the East.” “The Big 5.” And, “the best 10 seconds in American whitewater.” These are all phrases you may have heard used to describe the Gauley River or individual rapids on it. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a list of the top-5 whitewater rafting rivers in the world, the Gauley is on it. But, what they’re really talking about is the Upper Gauley—the ten miles of river immediately below Summersville Dam.

Maybe you didn’t know this, but downstream of the Upper Gauley, there are 14 more miles of rapid-rich river just sitting there, lonely, wondering where you are and why you aren’t running it.

Ask any experienced Gauley rafter which section is more scenic, and most won’t hesitate to name the Lower. “Incredible rock lines, incredible cliff lines, and the mountains—it’s a totally different feel than the New River,” says AOTG CEO, Roger Wilson, who himself also guided the Gauley for decades. “The canyon’s a little more narrow. There are some nice cliff walls that run probably 150 foot straight up the out of the river, straight up the mountain.” He’s talking about Koontz’s Bend, a section of the Lower Gauley that is home to the incomparable Canyon Doors Rapid. Our Lower Gauley lunch site and Deluxe Overnight camp are right there in the middle of it.

“The Beast of the East.” “The Big 5.” And, “the best 10 seconds in American whitewater.” These are all phrases you may have heard used to describe the Gauley River or individual rapids on it. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a list of the top-5 whitewater rafting rivers in the world, the Gauley is on it. But, what they’re really talking about is the Upper Gauley—the ten miles of river immediately below Summersville Dam.

Maybe you didn’t know this, but downstream of the Upper Gauley, there are 14 more miles of rapid-rich river just sitting there, lonely, wondering where you are and why you aren’t running it.

Ask any experienced Gauley rafter which section is more scenic, and most won’t hesitate to name the Lower. “Incredible rock lines, incredible cliff lines, and the mountains—it’s a totally different feel than the New River,” says AOTG CEO, Roger Wilson, who himself also guided the Gauley for decades. “The canyon’s a little more narrow. There are some nice cliff walls that run probably 150 foot straight up the out of the river, straight up the mountain.” He’s talking about Koontz’s Bend, a section of the Lower Gauley that is home to the incomparable Canyon Doors Rapid. Our Lower Gauley lunch site and Deluxe Overnight camp are right there in the middle of it.

The Upper Gauley is famous for its “Big 5” rapids.

1. Insignificant
Start out with long line of steep drops. That will take you right into an onslaught of pounding waves and huge holes of recirculating water, including a massive pour over.

2. Pillow Rock
One of the more unique rapids you will find, Pillow Rock’s name is self-explanatory. After dodging a minefield of smaller rocks, a massive pillow of water rushes you up and over a building-sized boulder before plunging into a giant wave below.

3. Lost Paddle
A full quarter-mile of continuous whitewater with 4 separate drops and a huge wave that leads directly into a 9-foot plunge. You will have to zigzag around rocks, then slide through one of the exit slots at the end.

4. Iron Ring
A favorite for spectators, Iron Ring will roll you down an 8-foot drop and you have work to avoid a boulder and a hole-quickly, quickly! Then you tumble immediately down another 8-foot fall. But the obstacles change depending on water levels, so keep your ears open for instruction.

5. Sweet’s Falls
The final challenge of the Gauley’s Big 5 is a 14-foot waterfall. If you’re lined up right, it’ll be a thrilling and fun drop. Keep those paddles ready to avoid tipping on the rock at the bottom, or you might have to swing left into the Box Canyon. 

On the Pillow, Up the Rock

Fun Facts About the Gauley

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 (Lower Gauley) can ride these waves with an experienced guide.

  • The Gauley River National Recreation Area is managed by the National Park Service.
  • 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.
  • A step up from the Lower New is the Lower Gauley.  A flight of stairs up is the Upper Gauley.
  • 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.
  • A Civil War battle raged right above the river on September 10, 1861.
  • 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.
  • Gauley Season is more than just a river trip, it is an experience.
Adventures on the Gorge lodging white water rafting, new river, gauley river, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, zip lining, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, mountain climbing, rappelling

Upper Gauley Express

THESE TRIPS ARE AVAILABLE DURING FALL GAULEY SEASON ONLY, ON SPECIFIED DAM RELEASE DATES. This trip allows guests to run the world-class Upper Gauley River

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