FeatureAuthor: Steven Shaw
Rafting the Upper Gauley River in wild and wonderful West Virginia is a bucket list adventure for any adrenaline junkie. It’s nicknamed the “Beast of East” for good reason and known worldwide as a premier whitewater river. The wild ride drops more than 650 feet in 24 miles through tight channels that are swarming with boulders.
The Gauley season runs from the first weekend after Labor Day and continues for six weekends, five 4-day weekends, and one 2-day weekend. During Gauley season the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Summersville Lake which turns the Gauley into the “Beast of East.” With the extra water raging downstream the famed “Big 5” which are 5 gnarly class-V rapids, each ensure you feel every single time your heart beats.
Once your wetsuit is on, PFD is tight, helmet strapped down and paddle in hand you are ready to rock and roll. Rafts for the Upper Gauley put in at the base of Summersville Dam after which there is no turning back… it’s time for church.
Once you are settled in and enjoying the scenery about 0.9 miles in along the river you hit your first big rapid, aptly named Initiation. This Class IV rapid gives rafters a taste of what is to come.
Following a few more minor rapids, rafters come to the first of the “Big 5”... Insignificant Rapid. The name is quite the misnomer, rest assured “Insignificant” is quite significant. The rapid gets its name from a party who ran the Gauley at lower flows in 1968. At the time they reported “no significant rapids” upstream of Pillow Rock. When 2800 CFS is rushing out of Summersville Dam Insignificant can be a beater.
About three-fourths of a mile down the river, you will notice some rust-colored stain along the sandstone cliffs above the river. That’s when you are about to hit Class IV rapid Iron Curtain.
After a short stretch of calm water and a left-hand bend take a look up high river right and you will see a clearing in the trees. That’s Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park, which preserves the site of the 1861 Civil War battle of Carnifex Ferry. The battle was an important Union victory that would ultimately lead to the eventual Confederate retreat from (then) western Virginia. The park was established in 1931 and is one of the oldest state parks in the nation. Each year during Labor Day weekend the park hosts “Thunder on the Gauley, The Battle of Carnifex Ferry Civil War Reenactment.” Once you see the clearing in the trees you should also hear the next Class V rapid… Pillow Rock.
Don’t let the name fool you, Pillow Rock is neither soft nor shaped like a pillow. It’s a massive rock in the Gauley that’s about the size of your average West Virginia mobile home. The rapid itself is not that long, taking all of about ten seconds to run. That said, those ten seconds are one hell of a ride.
After Pillow Rock, the next big rapid is a little more than a mile down river. Lost Paddle rapid is the longest Class V on the Upper Gauley, consisting of three giant drops over the course of about a quarter mile. Lock your feet in well and listen to your guide because Lost Paddle is a long wild ride.
After you make it past Lost Paddle there are a series of smaller rapids over about 2 and a half miles. Tumblehome is first and is a big Class IV. That’s followed by Class III Shipwreck Rock and then another big Class IV Iron Ring. Afterward, you get a bit of calm before the storm so to speak… then Sweet’s Falls.
Sweet’s Falls is a massive 14-foot waterfall that is a highlight for many who run the Gauley. The truly beautiful rapid is named after John Sweet who was the first person to run the drop on the 1968 exploratory run. If you decide to raft the Upper Gauley with River Expeditions, you pull out for lunch just below Sweet’s Falls. Lunch with a view has never been truer. Plus you get to watch the carnage. During the hour or so we were sitting on the cliff above the falls we saw no less than a dozen boats flip, sending rafters down the river in a hurry. The volume of “oohs and aahs” from the watching crowd goes up and down with the severity of how bad those in the water are getting worked.
After Sweet’s Falls, there are about three and a half miles of river left to run. Along the way, there are a few minor rapids, one of which you can hop out and float through. There is also a sweet spot where you can hop out, climb a short hill and jump off a perfectly good cliff into the water. The last major rapid is a mean Class IV named Julie’s Juicer. This one sneaks up on you, and as the owner of River Expeditions put it, this is the rapid she “met Elvis.” To be clear, you don’t want to meet Elvis, in this sense he will not love you tender.
If you plan on doing the Gauley, we rafted with River Expeditions. They are a second generation West Virginia owned rafting company. They offer a variety of trips down the New and Gauley Rivers. Their property is also rad. They have a campground with showers, but if you are of the fancy folk persuasion and feel like glamping there are plenty of other options. They have cabins available for rent as well as wall tents on a wooden platform with surprisingly comfortable beds in them. But, best of all they have a bar on site. After you pull out, down a cold brew along the river and take the school bus ride back; everyone cleans up and heads to the bar. River Expeditions is recording video of everyone the entire trip down the river. They quickly edit a video of the days radness and they show it in the bar. So you can sit back, relax with a brew and much-needed burger while watching everyone be awesome.