West Virginia’s scenic Gauley River: class V rafting, fall colors

“Holy crap, what a sausage fest.” This was my first thought, as I glanced around the crowded parking lot. It was a cool, drizzly September morning at Adventures on the Gorge, but that wasn’t stopping 40 men–many of certain age and wafting last night’s whiskey fumes–from preparing to raft the Class V+ Upper Gauley River.

I was in Lansing, (southeastern) West Virginia, fulfilling a 20-year goal to run the notorious Gauley. Every weekend, from mid-September to mid-October, water from the Summersville Dam is released into the Upper portion, raising the river to epic proportions (a raging 2800 cfs is average Gauley flow this time of year). In layman’s terms, the rapids remain at a solid Class III to V+, making for one of the wildest whitewater experiences in the United States.

Since it first opened to commercial trips in 1974, this 26-mile stretch of river, which contains over 100 rapids, has drawn whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world. The dam was built in 1965 for flood control, and the release extends the “Gauley season” well past other American rivers. An added bonus are the fall colors that peak in October, making for a visually stunning trip.

The Upper Gauley in particular is known for its steep, drop/pool rapids. A gauntlet of five consecutive Class V+’s–Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls–form the most famous stretch. The Lower is more sedate, although it still has plenty of Class III, and a couple of Class IV/V’s.

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I’m not the only one with Gauley fever. Over 60,000 adventurers annually converge for the dam release, which is why the infamous Gauley Fest is held in September. The New River is also located in this region. Now believed to be the oldest in the world, after the Nile, the New ranges from Class I to V, depending upon season, but has long stretches ideal for sunset paddles and float trips.

The New and Gauley are located within the New River Gorge National River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, respectively. But there are other charms in the region as well: the stunning New River Gorge Bridge (formerly the largest arch bridge in the world, and a BASE jumping mecca), climbing, mountain biking, and fishing. The scenery runs toward rolling farmland dotted with dilapidated barns, historic hamlets, and thick swathes of forest. The New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau site is a good resource for area attractions and amenities.

Many outfitters exist in this region, nearby Fayetteville being the whitewater epicenter of West Virginia. The town’s National Historic District, while small, is very charming, and has pretty much anything you might need. Grab a coffee and afternoon snack at The Cathedral Café, located in an actual former church, or, to quell a hangover, pick up something cheap and carby at the awesomely-named Tudor’s Biscuit World.

Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), which bills itself as an “outdoor adventure destination company,” was named one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth,” in a 2009 National Geographic survey. They’ve capitalized on the region’s multi-sport opportunities by creating a 1,000-acre “campus” bordering the New River Gorge National Park. The property also has accommodations ranging from camping and rustic platform tents, to new, deluxe cabins and vacation homes.

AOTG was founded in 2008, the result of a merger of two existing–and exceedingly well-regarded–local whitewater companies. Founding Director Dave Arnold has been guiding on the Gauley since the ’70′s. His Class VI-Mountain River merged with The Rivermen; collectively, they possess the most whitewater experience in the region. Safety being my number one criteria for choosing an outfitter, I knew I was in good hands.

AOTG has plenty of seasonal options (April-October) if you don’t go in for big hydraulics, can’t afford a multi-day raft trip, or don’t want to rough it. The company offers half-day, full-day, and overnight runs on the New and Gauley Rivers, ranging from Class I float trips to epic Class V (you must be at least 15 years of age to run the Upper Gauley). The overnights are actually “glamping” on the river (think hot tub, primitive showers and pit toilets, Baggo, fire pit, kegs of Anchor Steam and PBR, and prime rib and salmon for dinner).

As for the testosterone-fueled parking lot scenario, it turned out my trip was comprised primarily of several groups of men who do Gauley season annually. If you’re a solo female planning to run the river and aren’t into crushing beer cans on your head, you can always talk to a rep about booking a trip with a more balanced male-to-female ratio. Private women’s groups do book with AOTG, but the guides I spoke with told me the Gauley tends to be rather penis-centric. Don’t let it dissuade you. The most important things are listening to your guide, paying attention to what’s going on around you, and digging in hard.

As much as I love major whitewater, however, I don’t enjoy courting death or yardsales (something of a sport on the Gauley, which is admittedly very entertaining to watch). Fortunately, Miles, the guide in our nine-person raft, had outgrown the urge to capsize for kicks, although he took us down more technical lines when they presented themselves. A native Coloradan with vast whitewater experience, he was top-notch: patient, skilled, and an all-around good guy. His fiancee, Julie, was the sole female guide. Tough woman, that Julie.

The Gauley isn’t the biggest whitewater I’ve run (that would be the Futaleufu, in Chile), but it’s pretty damn big. What makes it scary are the drops, undercut rocks the size of houses, and churning hydraulics–these are not rapids you want to swim. Thanks to Miles, we didn’t have to. We had a fantastic day on the Upper, and pulled into our campground at the “Canyon Doors” rapid, at the start of the Lower Gauley.

Whether or not glamping is your thing, AOTG has a great set-up. The location is gorgeous–steep canyon walls glowing dusky rose with the setting sun–and a hot shower, drink, and slab o’meat at the end of a cold, exhausting day on the water were very much welcomed. If you require down-and-dirty primitive camping; check with other outfitters, as everyone offers something different. Go to the NPS site for camping permit information if you’re paddling independently.

AOTG offers a total of 14 experiences that can be done independently, or as part of an all-inclusive package. Besides whitewater, there’s rock climbing, horseback riding, tree canopy tours and ziplines (the badass new Gravity zip debuted on Sept. 26), caving, biking, and a Gorge Bridgewalk. There are four restaurants/bars (have a sunset beer at Chetty’s Pub, which has an open-air deck and fantastic view of the Gorge), and three camp stores/outfitters. The property is definitely geared toward families and couples, and customized options like team-building and youth groups. But even if you’re traveling solo and on a tight budget, there are affordable options, with prices starting at $39 for activities/$8 BYOT camping (depending upon season). It does have the feel of a summer camp, so be forewarned.

I actually much prefer independent travel, but I like that AOTG makes adventure activities accessible for the solo adventurer who might otherwise be thwarted by logistical or financial constraints. I ended up doing a package, with two nights in one the sweet deluxe cabins (hot tub, hardwood floors, fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor grill, and fire pit), and the river trip. Also included was a full day doing the Treetops Canopy Tour, and the Gravity Zipline–not stuff I’d ordinarily do, but I’m glad I did. The Treetops Canopy Tour ($99/pp), which debuted in May, ’09, is a three-and-a-half hours, and includes ten ziplines and five sky bridges.

It’s not extreme, but the tour is a fun, educational way to spend the morning. In between zipping over Mill Creek and through ancient hemlock, hickory and magnolia forest, the guides talked about the history and botany of the region. The course is also designed with sustainability in mind, and is part of a project to help save the threatened Eastern Hemlock from wooly ageldid infestation. Thus far, AOTG guides and staff have tagged and treated 6,000 trees, some of which are over 300 years old. Although it rained steadily throughout my tour, it only served to heighten the desolate beauty of the forest. The tours run year-round, so you can also experience zipping in the snow.

Gravity ($69/pp) is a total blast. With lines running 1800-,1600-, and 1300-feet in length, at a height of 200 feet, you can really haul ass (up to 45 mph). The location atop one of the highest points in the valley makes for incredible views of fall foliage and farmland. Do it. What the hell. Do it all.

The New River Gorge is a five-hour drive from Washington, DC. The closest airport to the region is Charleston, WV