Adventure 101: Rafting the Gauley River

The raft steadies for what seems like a nanosecond before the crest of a wave hooks the thick rubber inflatable and propels it through the roiling water.

With names like Heaven Help You and Pure Screaming Hell, the rapids on West Virginia’s Gauley River are not for the fainthearted, especially in the fall, when large releases of water from Summersville Dam turn the Upper Gauley into a churning mass of water.

> Where to Go:

Stick with the locals, who favor the Upper Gauley River rather than the busier New River.

Upper and Lower Gauley offer 28 miles of nonstop action through 150 rapids ranging from Class III (medium difficulty) to Class V, combining big wave trains and spectacular scenery.

> When to Go:

During the Gauley season (September-October), the Class V (difficult) rapids are the big draw.

Try the Upper Gauley’s Big 5: Insignificant—a misnomer—Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet Falls.

In spring and summer, water levels vary and outfitters adjust their routes to give the best ride possible.

> What to Wear: 

During spring and fall, when the water is chilly, wear wool or synthetics such s polypropylene. When it’s downright teeth chattering, you’ll need to wear a wetsuit.

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In summer, wear a swimsuit and/or nylon shorts, T-shirt, a lightweight rain jacket, and sneakers. Cotton is an absolute no-no—it is guaranteed to make you cold—so leave your favorite sweatshirt at home or save it for snuggling into after your trip when you’re trying to purge the adrenalin.

A helmet and life jacket go without saying.

Essentials: Trips on the Upper Gauley River start at the base of the Summersville Dam; professional river outfitters provide the safest entry and exit points.

This piece was adapted from the National Geographic book Where the Locals Go.

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