When booking my trip to West Virginia, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Adventures on the Gorge has world class rapids, a tree-top zip line canopy tour, and rock climbing, amongst other outdoor activities. I love a good adventure, but after scouring through nail-biting Youtube compilations of sixty-foot falls from sheer rock cliffs and boats flipping savagely off Pillow Rock, my excitement was marred with apprehension. Nonetheless, I packed my bags and prepared for whatever came.
[Note: Katie Ann was a guest of Adventures on the Gorge. All photos by author except where noted.]
Celebrating 50 years since its birth, the Summersville Dam provides a controlled 2,800cfs to kayakers, rafters and daredevils alike. I found it funny to learn that Dams are typically named after the nearest town, but seeing as in this case the nearest town is “Gad”, the next town over seemed more suitable.
West Virginia has no shortage of magnificent rolling hills and wild running rivers and so we took the opportunity to warm up on the New River before hitting the Beast of the East for some class 3 rapids. From start to finish, we completed eight miles before our take-out point right below the New River Gorge Bridge.
World class rock-climbing and deep water soloing with ratings from beginner To 5.14 on Summersville Lake is the perfect way to escape the Summer heat. We were fortunate enough to rock climb right off a boat the day before the Summersville Dam was released, draining West Virginia’s largest lake and bringing in the 2016 Gauley Season.
Toby Wood, Reservoir Manager is the man with the plan. Through a series of calculated adjustments each hour and a hefty set of keys, the dam is released. With thousands of lives at the mercy of the lake this is a dam important job.
Photo courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge
As quickly as my apprehension for the Gauley came, it went as our guide turned out to be a total badass. Meet Jo-Beth Stamm, one of six members of the all-female rafting team out of Fayetteville, WV. who call themselves, the “Sweets of the East”. Competing for team USA at Worlds, being just a fragment of her resume, Jo-Beth has rafted the Gauley River 1,000 times and compares opening day to Christmas morning.
The New River Gorge Bridge is the third longest steel arch bridge in America at 3,030ft long and 876ft above the New River. Aside from offering me a gorgeous lookout to enjoy a cold IPA after a long day rafting, it attracts adventurers who want to take a walk on its suspended catwalk that runs below the bridge as well as BASE and bungee jumpers.
Pillow Rock is one of Upper Gauley’s five Class 5 Rapids (and the one I’d watched so many wipe-out videos of). The thrill of a lifetime, it did not disappoint as we narrowly made our way through roaring rapids and giant rocks.
Photo courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge
Part of the overnight experience halfway through 26 miles of the Gauley River, we stopped and set up camp at “Canyon Doors”. With pear infused prime rib and venison sliders with caramelized onion Cajun mayo on the menu, I had to remind myself that I was enjoying the best meal of my life in the middle of the woods with no electricity or running water.
Canyon Doors, a rapid on the Lower Gauley and home of the Overnight Camp of “Adventures on the Gorge” is a stunning place to wake up in. From a flat rock on the river bend, I observed the water level rise, covering protruding rocks and filling the river enough so that we could embark on Day 2 of rafting the Gauley.
I found the essence of West Virginia in the pure bliss of being outdoors. Many here live to be fully immersed in the natural world and the adventurous opportunities it offers them.
Before we get started, let’s talk about whitewater. Rapids are classified on a scale of I to VI, based both on how difficult to navigate they are and how dangerous they are. Like any rating system this is somewhat subjective, rapids also vary depending on water volume so they’re not always consistently as difficult (or as easy!) as the rating might suggest.
Class I means moving water and a few small ripples. Class VI is Niagara Falls. Class V rapids are the largest that can be navigated in a commercial raft – they require expert navigation and advance scouting. If you fall out of your raft on a Class V (or ‘go swimming,’ as whitewater guides euphemistically term it), there’s a serious risk of injury.
It might sound funny to suggest easing into West Virginia rafting with a river that contains Class IV rapids. But the New River has long stretches of relatively calm water that are perfect for peaceful floating and swimming – it’s a great compromise trip for groups who want to experience the thrill of whitewater rafting but also fit in some relaxing moments.
The New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It winds through an ancient gorge that’s rich in coal, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, more than 50 mining towns lined the river’s banks. These now lie in ruins, mostly buried by the greenery that has reclaimed the gorge, although a few building and bridge foundations can be spotted by the keen-eyed rafter.
The Upper New is the quieter stretch. Even those with little whitewater experience can rent a ‘ducky’ (inflatable kayak) to navigate its few and far-between rapids. The Lower New is the most popular portion of the New River. It has bigger rapids and hence more thrills, but it still offers breaks between adrenaline rushes. On the Lower New, you can body-surf a Class I rapid, or swim to the shore, clamber up a jump rock and make a dizzying leap into the clear, cold water.
Spring is the highest water-flow season for the New River, so trips during this time are rougher, some of the Class IV rapids become Class IV+.
One step up from the New River on the difficulty scale is the Lower Gauley. This approximately 15-mile stretch of river contains at least 25 named rapids, but they’re fairly well spaced and only three are Class V. In case you think that means you can relax, we’ll say that ‘Heaven Help You’ and ‘Pure Screaming Hell’ are aptly named. The latter, the final Class V on the Gauley, involves a long paddle through three big waves before dropping into the so-called ‘Hell Hole,’ a wash of water that just might swamp your boat. Navigate this successfully and you’ll want to celebrate with a group ‘paddle high-five’ – one of the best things about whitewater rafting is the sense of camaraderie you’ll have with the friends (or strangers turned friends) who have paddled alongside you.
The Lower Gauley also contains one of the most beautiful rock formations along the Gauley Canyon: Canyon Doors. These red sandstone cliffs are demarcated by gulches filled with green vegetation. Of course, you won’t be able to stop and take a photo: the Canyon Doors rapid, a Class III, roars along in front of them, and you’ll have to paddle hard in order to avoid being marooned on the smooth shelf rock.
The Upper Gauley is one of the wildest rides you can take in a raft in the world. The rapids come fast and furious – over the 10 miles of the Upper Gauley, the elevation drops more than 300 feet. Pair that with the pounding current and where the water isn’t white, it’s the bubbling pale green of blown glass. Lost Paddle, a Class V rapid, has four distinct sub-rapids over its quarter-mile length. You’ll want to be sure to keep a firm hand on your paddle’s t-grip while you move through them. ‘Going swimming’ has its hazards, but the fact is that most rafting injuries are caused by t-grips gone rogue, bruising lips and even taking out teeth. As one guide put it, the t-grip ‘looks like an orange but tastes like blood.’
One of the most dramatic spots on the Upper Gauley is Pillow Rock. The river narrows and drops some 30ft over the course of this Class V rapid, intensifying the water speed and necessitating split-second shifts and minute adjustments from whoever’s at the helm as well as some seriously coordinated paddling from the crew: if your guide tells you ‘forward four,’ you’d best paddle exactly four strokes, even if that fourth one has to be aimed directly into a wall of whitewater. This section of the Gauley can be accessed via a hike, so on weekends, you’ll find locals picnicking on the rocks, cheering (or heckling) the rafters and kayakers navigating the rapid.
While it’s possible to take an independent trip on both the New and the Gauley, guided tours are almost obligatory, especially on the Lower New and the Gauley. Class IV and V rapids are extremely difficult to navigate even with an expert at the helm. Most tour operators will not take children under 12 on the Lower New, or children under 15 on the Gauley.
Adventures on the Gorge leads guided trips on both the New and the Gauley, including overnight trips and the ‘Double Gauley,’ which takes you down the Upper Gauley twice in one day (not a booking for the faint of heart). Their expansive campus, with stunning views of the New River Gorge Bridge, also offers a variety of accommodations, from bunk beds to luxury cabins.
The best time to run any part of the Gauley is during ‘Gauley Season’ – the six weeks in September and October when the Summersville Dam releases the water from Summersville Lake, raising the waves to epic levels.
Trisha Ping traveled to West Virginia with support from Adventures on the Gorge. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
There are several companies in the area offering the Gauley Season experience. Adventures on the Gorge provides guided whitewater rafting tours on the Upper and Lower New River as well as the Lower and Upper Gauley River. The company also has other adventures to choose from: zip-lining, climbing, rappelling, fishing, kayaking, and other activities. New & Gauley River Adventures, as you can tell by the name, organize rafting adventures on the New and Gauley rivers. The company also gives a chance to go horseback riding, mountain biking, and fishing. River Expeditions is another excellent provider of guided whitewater rafting trips on the Gauley and New rivers. They also run zip-line and canopy tours and ATV tours alongside fishing, paintball, and rock-climbing. ACE Adventures run guided whitewater rafting trips on the Lower and Upper New River and the Upper and Lower Gauley River. Besides the rafting, guests can enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, horseback riding, hiking, paintball, mountain biking, and playing at the ACE Adventures Water Park.
A Guyventure is a story – one you can brag to your friends and family about, sure. But more importantly, it's an experience you can scribble in your bucket list and eventually stack on top of a mountain of incredible lifelong memories. Get a move on. There's a whole world to explore.
I’m floating towards my impending doom.
I'm being chased by thousands of gallons of water and the river is in a frenzy.
I better not fall out — there’s work to be done.
Every year for six weekends running through September and October, the National Park Service cranks open the Summersville Dam like a faucet and unleashes water into West Virginia’s Gauley River. The exercise of opening the dam is meant to prevent flooding, but there’s a bonus side-effect — the Gauley River gets extra gnarly for whitewater rafting. During Gauley Season, the river transforms into the 'Beast of the East' and gets a bump up the list of best places for whitewater rafting in the States, if not the planet.
This year, West Virginia hosted the 2018 National Rafting Championships, the U.S. qualifier to the World Rafting Championships in Australia — but I wasn’t there to compete. I was more keen on surviving, seeing as I’m a complete newbie.
My overnight rafting excursion began at Adventures on the Gorge, an adventure resort that brands itself as the ‘anti-Hamptons experience’ and my host for the trip. I was outfitted with gear: a lifejacket (known these days as a PFD, personal flotation device), a Play-Doh blue helmet and an orange and blue paddle. “It looks like an orange, but it tastes like blood,” warned rafting guide Tri Mills, reminding us to keep a solid grip on the paddle at all times.
My rafting group got to the put-in alongside the Summersville Dam and I met the man who would be my captain over the two-day voyage, Mike Benevento. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure about him at first. Benevento's jokes while on shore fell flat and his soft-spoken demeanor had me concerned he was too timid to face the ferocious rapids I’d been warned about. But when we got into the water, Benevento oozed confidence.
The guy might as well have been hatched from a riverbed. Growing up in the rural Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, Benevento spent his childhood on the water and rafting grew into an obsession. Benevento now travels the world hunting for the best waves, spending two or three months in each place before his adrenaline itch starts to get scratchy.
If you needed a resume for rafting the Gauley, Benevento’s would go something like this:
“Whitewater rafting is an aggressive medium. It respects the aggressive and it whips the timid — so go get this motherf*cker,” Benevento commanded. “Forward two!”
I obliged without thinking, my body turned and I hauled back water like my butt was on a swivel.
We approached Sweet's Falls, one of the Upper Gauley's 'Big 5' Class V rapids (Class Vs are defined by the Bureau of Land Management as "exceedingly difficult, long and violent," and people have died attempting them). In all, the Gauley River has over 100 rapids and they range from the mildly serious Class III all the way up to Class V – any more difficult and you'd be flying down Niagara Falls.Birdie Hawkins / Adventures on the Gorge
The rapids got fierce, quick. Remembering my orders of attack, I imagined the wave was Tyson, a bully from elementary school, and I proceeded to go after it, each stroke propelling us towards an undercut rock that’ll kill you, a whirlpool that’ll trap you, or 'Dildo Rock,' which will, well, f*ck you.
The raft took a sudden dip and I found myself gulping down water like I was sitting beneath a waterfall. I looked into the ginger ale-green water, contemplating — and strangely salivating — over my own demise. Falling in wouldn't be that bad, would it?
But before I could accept my fate, a sudden jolt and a flick of Benevento’s paddle sent me upright again, still in the boat. No swimming this time.
Feeling accomplished for not falling in — and soaking wet — I helped the group park the raft for the night across from a gorgeous line of open-faced cliffs. I was exhausted and in no mood to set up camp. Fortunately, I was in for some glamping.
There to greet us — well, perhaps greet isn't the best word — was badass chef Mary Brent Galyean, a Chopped chef who specializes in haute cuisine in the middle of the wilderness. There'd be no hot-dogs on a stick tonight.
As soon as we approached the forest kitchen, Galyean laid down the law.
"The #1 rule is stay out of my f*cking kitchen," she said.Birdie Hawkins / Adventures on the Gorge
First came the apps: Elk-stuffed mushroom caps with blueberry balsamic reduction, maple candied pecan brie dip and seared ahi apple pincho with pickled watermelon chutney and warm feta drizzle. I had to pinch myself, 'I'm camping remember?'
For the main course, we had a selection of herbes de provence-crusted coulée steaks, seared catfish bites atop a warm coleslaw, roasted corn orzo, a strawberry and cucumber salad as well as Galyean's specialty: a sweet potato bleu cheese au gratin. Need I go into the chai cheesecake dessert and truffle fried egg duck confit burrito for breakfast or do you get the point?
The next morning we moved out to tackle the Lower Gauley with perhaps an unhealthy dose of overconfidence. Benevento warned us not to get cocky as we approached the Class V ahead, 'Pure Screaming Hell,' featuring a helluva drop, 'Hell Hole': “Those boats up there are small, so you’re bound to see one get eaten by 'Hell Hole' – but don’t spectate. Spectating turns into a group swim and that isn’t as fun as it sounds."
I attacked the wave as ordered, sometimes paddling air when the raft was sent backward.
We slipped inside the boat as 'Hell Hole' approached, popping back up as soon as we could — I had to get back to work paddling.
Unfortunately for my own masochistic tendencies, my urge to get ejected from the raft was left unrequited. Benevento must have liked us too much (he once flipped a group of Baptists who disliked his foul language).
I soon found myself on smooth water, relaxing beneath the blue skies and glowing green trees, dreaming of what it must be like to swim for my life past an undercut rock. Guess I'll have to come back again, won't I?
A little tamer than the Upper but just as fun than the Lower Gauley whitewater rafting is perfect for you! Not everybody is looking for a white-knuckle whitewater experience. If you’d like to have a blast riding giant waves in the remote and scenic backcountry of West Virginia this trip is for you. It’s suitable for beginning rafters, and it only comes around 2 months out of the year!
Season: September - October
Gauley Whitewater Rafting Overnights