Gauley National Recreation Area Summersville, W.Va. Visited: October 10, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 255 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? One of the world’s top ten most challenging white-water rivers.
BEAUTY (8/10) Uh, scenery? We barely had the time or the notion to look around and appreciate the gorgeous fall colors, the shimmering water surface, the churning rapids, steep waterfalls and school bus-sized rocks we were about to attack. Most of our Gauley River memories involve steely glares into the coming rapids, determined rowing and raging waters engulfing our persons. We had to wait until watching the video of our trip to see the beauty of our surroundings.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10) The Gauley NRA exists solely for a month’s worth of early fall whitewater rafting, or at least that is what we gathered. The Gauley River’s borders do not teem with remnants of coal mines, ghost towns and notions of the past. Heck, all those things are under the lake created by the Summersville Dam. Oddly, the Gauley was not a navigable whitewater river until AFTER the dam was built in 1966. Unlike our trip on the nearby New River, our guide spared us history lessons and geography stories; we had more important things (Class V-VI rapids) to worry about. Maps show that the Gauley River borders the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park, a Civil War fight. Who knew?
CROWDS (9/10) The fall Gauley run brought a more practiced, younger crowd than most Appalachian whitewater runs. Our boat included a family of four and the eldest son’s two friends from Appalachian State. The parents and the App. State students had all run the Gauley, one by himself on a kayak! The family’s fourth member was a 17-year old girl. She had never been rafting before and was really scared; almost as scared as us. The other boats consisted mostly of 20-35 year-olds hailing from all the surrounding states. The Gauley season also draws River guides from the entire United States. We overheard a few say that they would not miss this River for the world; it is just too fun. The amount of collective adrenalin among the Gauley boaters is astounding.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5) The Gauley River is located in south-central West Virginia, about an hour and a half drive southeast from Charleston. It is not the Gauley’s location that makes it inaccessible; in fact, it is a 4-7 hour drive from a host of major cities (Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Asheville and Winston-Salem, N.C. and Richmond, Va.). No, the Gauley’s diffidence comes from its short season and its eight Class V+ whitewater rapids. The rapids run because of a dam release. The Corps of Engineers release the water on a very limited basis: Sat.-Mon. from Labor Day through the third Saturday in October. The Class V+ rapids are especially prohibitive and should be attempted only by highly experienced kayakers or on a hired raft trip.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5) The NPS has no official Gauley NRA facilities. There is not even a Park brochure. The Corps of Engineers runs a VC at the Summersville Dam. We were too tired to drive there. The New River Gorge NR operates the excellent Sandstone VC and Museum, located where I-64 crosses the New, about 10 miles east of Beckley, W.Va. You can also get Gauley related info and books at the New River’s Canyon Rim VC. The outfitter we chose, Appalachian Whitewater, has a terrific bookstore filled with T-shirts, souvenirs and myriad trip mementos. They also operate a base camp from where your trip departs. The camp includes a campground, overnight cabins, an on-site bar where you can watch the video of your trip, a pool, a free breakfast room, a hot tub for relaxation and a nice outdoor patio. In addition, their mid-trip lunch barbeque is terrific.
COSTS (1/5) Running the Upper Gauley River ain’t cheap, generally costing about $140 per person. Check around for the best rate. We got lucky and found a 2-for-1 Monday special through the superb Appalachian Whitewater outfitter. There is a range of Gauley River rafting packages. Do your research.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) If there are no NPS facilities, then there cannot be any NPS Rangers although the Sandstone VC Ranger was very nice. “You running the Gauley tomorrow? Ho, ho, ho that should be one heck of a ride.” The whitewater outfitters standard boat carries eight. You can pay additional monies for a smaller boat and the resulting crazier ride.
TOURS/CLASSES (9/10) We are alive and owe great thanks to our guide, Kevin. Before our trip started, he asked the boat what kind of run we wanted. We conferred and agreed that we wanted to go all out. Kevin obliged. Our boat flipped twice. The first time was the scariest. Kevin warned us that if we capsized in this Class V rapid, we might be underwater for 10 seconds or more. He was right. After our untimely boat ejection, Kevin somehow mustered the strength to pull all eight of us out of the battering rapids and into the boat in record time. He then had the steadiness of mind to get us quickly back into active rowing position before the boat flipped again. We had faith in our guide to both save our lives and give us a ride so fun that our lives might need to be saved. A perilous but perfect combination.
FUN (9/10) We could not help comparing our Gauley run to our New River whitewater trip. The Rivers are just a few miles apart, we used the same outfitter and they are our only two rafting experiences. Our conclusion: Just because the Gauley was bigger, faster, scarier, more death defying, more insane, more non-stop with better food, better weather and done in cool wet suits does not necessarily make it more fun. We had an unbelievably spectacular time but we were also very sore and completely drained. Drained from adrenalin loss, intense concentration, life-sustaining paddling, fear and the absolute battering inflicted by the water. Was the New River more exciting? No, but it was more fun.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) The Gauley is the ultimate eastern whitewater trip. Ultimate as in the last, as in the nth degree of anything you can do east of the Mississippi. It is not going to get any (insert superlative) than here. We can see how the Gauley is the most fun a skilled, serious whitewater enthusiast could ever have. However, for the neophyte here is definitely not the place to start. The Gauley is the extremest of the extremes. "What’s it like?" we asked our New River guide months ago. His response: “All I can say is gollllllly!”
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