It takes a certain type of person to think it’s a good idea to jump from a large boulder into Class V whitewater — with just a helmet and a life preserver. The roaring river, a shot of adrenaline and a cheering crowd standing around on surrounding rocks creates the air of some sort of whitewater Roman coliseum.
Every September, thousands of like-minded thrill seekers travel from across the country (and even the world) to Summersville, West Virginia, to sleep in a municipal park, drink beer, listen to music and hit the water. The region is home to some of the country’s best and biggest whitewater: the Gauley River.
“It’s the eastern whitewater mecca,” says Stephen Smith, 47, a whitewater raft guide and kayaker from Ocoee, Tennessee. “When Gauley season goes, it’s the place to be.”
Three and a half hours south of Pittsburgh, close to Route 19, the Gauley River spouts out of the base of Summersville Dam into a nearly 1,000-foot-deep canyon. The next 25 miles of river — eventually feeding into the New River — are widely considered some of the best stretches of whitewater rafting in the world. But from Route 19 you’d barely even know it’s there, except for a couple of road signs marking the turnoff.
While the river runs at varying levels year-round, an agreement with the Army Corp of Engineers created an annual six-weekend dam release schedule starting after Labor Day that dumps roughly 2,800 cubic feet per second of water from Summersville Lake to create a consistent natural high-water level for whitewater rafters and kayakers — “Gauley Season.”
Every year, Covid notwithstanding, the river conservation and advocacy group American Whitewater hosts Gauley Fest, a four-day celebration with vendors, live music food and beer to kick off the season and raise money for stewardship projects. Through festival fees and raffles, the event in late September is a significant fundraiser for the group, which lobbies for recreational access through dam releases and other environmental programs nationwide.
“We would not have as much access as we do without them,” Smith says. “American Whitewater makes it happen.”
The dam release for recreational purposes during the fall drawdown stems from U.S. Congressional legislation to protect recreation in the river valley back in the 1980s, an action that was among the first of its kind.
While it’s well known among the whitewater community, to the rest of the world the Gauley River takes a back seat to its more famous neighbor 15 minutes to the south, the New River Gorge — America’s newest National Park.
Together the two recreation areas are arguably the epicenter of outdoor activities in the “Wild and Wonderful” state.
The truth is, however, the rich rafting history is a big reason the region has become a major center for recreation. Whitewater rafting even predates the completion of the New River Gorge Bridge in 1977.
Charlie Walbridge knows that history as well as anyone. A pioneer in the world of whitewater safety and a former guide and board member with American Whitewater, Walbridge, 74, has been rafting and kayaking the Gauley since the early 1970s.
“Rafting is what really brought the outdoor recreation interest into the area,” he says. “They came here and said, ‘Wow, we can do here what they do out West.’”
The first descent of the Gauley is credited to Sayre and Jane Rodman, prior to the completion of Summersville Dam. According to a National Parks Service history, their first attempt failed in 1959, but they succeeded in 1961, before the dam’s completion in 1965.
From there, the industry started slowly, Walbridge recalls.
“For years there’d be a couple of dozen people on the river,” he says. But friends started telling friends and commercial guiding operations started to sprout up.
Today Gauley Fest alone attracts 2,500 people for a single weekend, with even more skipping the festival and going straight to the water.
Growing up in a family of commercial rafters in Tennessee, Smith has been coming to the Gauley since he was a teenager in the early 1990s. He and his wife Dawn Felicidario, also a raft guide, now make the pilgrimage almost every year.
“There were more people on the river this Saturday than I have seen,” Smith says of this year’s event.
That’s a trend that officials are reporting for the entire state in all types of outdoor recreation.
According to the West Virginia Department of Tourism’s 2021 economic impact report, visitors now annually spend around $180 million in the two sparsely populated counties surrounding the Gauley River, Summersville Lake and parts of the New River Gorge. Statewide tourism is now a $4.8 billion industry.
Recreation in Summersville
With expert guides, the danger is significantly lower, but for those not looking to tempt fate on Class V whitewater, there are countless other reasons to venture down to the heart of West Virginia.
The Lower Gauley offers a still exhilarating but less daunting Class IV and III stretch as does the New River Gorge. Additionally, the upper stretch of the New River offers tamer family and child-friendly rafting.
But rafting is only scratching the surface.
“There’s just about every outdoor sport you can imagine,” Smith says. “That section of West Virginia is really hard to beat.”
He and his wife try to spend more and more time there every time they visit.
From hiking trails with views of the New River Gorge, climbing and mountain biking, to Civil War battlefields and old mining ruins, there’s no shortage of draws to the region steeped in history.
If the calm flatwaters of a reservoir are more your speed, there’s also the 2,700 acres of Summerville Lake and its impressive cliff-lined inlets and shores.
The largest of West Virginia’s lakes, it offers everything from scuba diving and paddleboarding to power boating.
Dining and lodging options
For those not keen on camping in a municipal park with 2,500 of your new friends, there’s a host of accommodation options from tent camping and adventure resort-style lodging to Airbnbs, bed and breakfasts and traditional motels.
The small town of Fayetteville, just south of the New River Gorge Bridge, is a good place to kick off or end any adventure. Once a struggling main street with empty storefronts from bygone mining and logging booms, Fayetteville has become a nationally recognized outdoor town, with coffee shops, independent bike and outdoor gear stores and breweries — and festivals most weekends.
It’s a shining example of embracing a recreation economy.
“Fayetteville is a bustling little town now,” Walbridge says, comparing it to when he first started rafting there in the 1970s. “You went into Fayetteville (then) and it was just dead. The changes I’ve seen are just remarkable.”
If you’re in Fayetteville, the Freefolk Brewery and Bridge Brew Works are worth a stop. Freefolk looks like just a small hole in the wall on an otherwise nondescript road, but a step inside and you will be greeted by wall-to-wall murals created by one of the brewery’s owners. You’re likely to strike up a conversation with a local who might have a good tip on where to start your next adventure. A little outside of Fayetteville, Bridge Brew Works offers a large outdoor seating patio perfect for the after-adventure brew.
Know before you go
The Upper Gauley is not a river to be taken lightly. The 9-mile stretch includes five Class V rapids and a number of Class IV and class III segments. Many of the large rocks and boulders dotting the river also have undercuts that channel water beneath them and could potentially trap a person who falls from a raft and doesn’t swim to the right location. Commercial guiding operations set minimum age requirements of 15 or 16.
“There are rocks out there the size of houses,” Smith says. “You have to know what you’re doing. They aren’t just rivers that everyone can just hop in and paddle.”
Any good trip takes planning and a good outdoor recreation adventure starts with a map. National Geographic makes an excellent trail map for the New River Gorge and Gauley River areas. It’s a must-have for any visit.
The state’s department of tourism website is also an excellent resource with lodging options, activity listings and regional guides.
Fayetteville’s website also has camping and lodging options including Arrowhead Bike Farm and Campground for those seeking a two-wheeled adventure that ends with a beer. New River Bikes and ACE Adventures Gear in Fayetteville are also good stops for adventure inquiries.
This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.