The Gauley River National Recreation Area
Just to the north of the New River Gorge National River, another outdoor adventure paradise exists, complete with its own tumultuous, world-class whitewater, abundant rock climbing, and ruggedly wild landscape. The Gauley River National Recreation Area entails 25 miles of the Gauley River, along with 5.5 miles of its major tributary, the Meadow River. Altogether, the park encompasses over 11,000 acres, from Summersville Lake and Dam down towards the confluence with the New River. Largely inaccessible other than by water, the remote Gauley and Meadow Rivers are both well known in the whitewater world for their technical, boulder-strewn rapids. While the Meadow is only paddled privately by highly skilled boaters, the Gauley is renowned among rafters as one of the most demanding and popular commercial runs in the world.
The headwaters of the Gauley River are found in the highlands of the Monongahela National Forest . Only 105 miles in total length, what it lacks in distance it makes up for in descent. The river was entirely free flowing until 1965 with the completion of Summersville Dam, a flood control project of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Before the dam, the first and only known descent of the Gauley River was made by the adventurous husband and wife duo, Sayre and Jane Rodman. Interestingly and sadly, the couple had commented that the section of river flooded by the dam and now under Summersville Lake was “absolutely glorious.” It causes many a boater to stop and wonder, considering the gloriousness of the 25 miles that are paddled today. Another notable story of Gauley legends is that of kayaker John Sweet. In 1968, he became the first known paddler to successfully run “The Devil’s Backbone” rapid. In his honor, this famous (or infamous) 14 foot cascading river wide waterfall is now referred to by all as Sweet’s Falls.
The section of the Gauley River below Summersville Dam has become world renowned for its whitewater rafting. Every September and October, there is a six week scheduled release of water that has become known as Gauley Season. Commercial rafters and private kayakers alike come from all over the United States and the world to experience the steep drops and huge waves of the Gauley. Rapids with names like Lost Paddle, Pillow Rock, and Pure Screaming Hell have become central figures in the stories of whitewater lore. With over one hundred rapids in the 25 miles, a trip down the Gauley is not a relaxing float trip, but instead an adrenaline rush induced by crashing currents and dynamic drops.
Rafting is just one of many outdoor activities to partake in while visiting the Gauley River National Recreation Area. The cold water released from the dam, coming out of the bottom of Summersville Lake, makes for ideal conditions for trout fishing. The Gauley is stocked with golden, rainbow, and brown trout. Anglers can also fish for muskie, walleye, and bass. Summersville Lake, though technically a separate entity from the National Recreation Area, also offers many outdoor recreation opportunities. Flatwater kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are both great ways to explore the nearly 3,000 acres in size with 60 miles of shoreline. Being West Virginia’s largest lake, motorized boating and scuba diving are also popular. The cliff lined shores are also growing in popularity among rock climbers. With such close proximity to the well known climbing of the New River Gorge, many climbers are establishing new routes on the rock walls of Summersville Lake and along the Meadow River. There are plenty of hiking trails to be traversed as well, and some of the best views and trails can be found by starting at the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park. Located on the northwest side of the Recreation Area, Carnifex Ferry is a 157 acre park that sits on the rim of the Gauley River Canyon. It commemorates the 1861 Battle of Carnifex Ferry, a major Union victory that led to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from western Virginia, and later the formation of West Virginia as its own state. Carnifex Ferry is one of the oldest state parks in the United States and is a popular site for Civil War reenactments. Hiking trails here lead to overlooks of the Gauley River and, for the more adventurous, all the way down to the river itself.
No matter what your outdoor adventure needs may be, you are sure to find something that suits you at the Gauley River National Recreation Area and Summersville Lake. Just a short drive north on Route 19 from the New River Gorge, it is just another reason why this part of southern West Virginia is an outdoor recreation and adventure seekers promised land.
As many of us do, Bryant responds to many titles. His two favorite roles are husband to his wife Laura and proud Papa to his three girls. Professional titles include guide, instructor, operations manager, race director, photographer, and writer. He has worked in the outdoor adventure industry for 18 years, spending the vast majority of that time leading whitewater rafting and climbing trips here in the New River Gorge region of WV.