Gauley Fest: The Nation’s Most Epic Whitewater Event

Sunrise on the Gauley River.
Sunrise on the Gauley River. Highsider10
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The following article is a paid collaboration with Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.

Epic whitewater, gear giveaways and plenty of wild whitewater takes around the campfire— welcome to Gauley Fest, the largest paddling event in the world.

This "Woodstock on the water" draws whitewater runners from all over the world to Summersville, WV, to celebrate the kickoff to “Gauley Season”— the epic but elusive swell on one of the top 10 whitewater river runs in the world.

The Gauley River in West Virginia is one of the most popular advanced runs in the eastern United States, and has a legendary reputation in the whitewater rafting world.

It’s calm most of the year, but it roars in the fall, when controlled dam releases send a rush of water downstream that bring the beloved "Beast of the East" to life. These releases create a series of rapids that some paddlers wait all year for: the famous “Big 5” Class V rapids on the Upper section:

  • Insignificant, which, ironically is not actually insignificant in any way

  • Pillow Rock, dubbed "the best 10 seconds in whitewater"

  • Lost Paddle, a long stretch made of 4 sub-rapids called First, Second, and Third drop, and Tumble Home

  • Iron Ring, named after a large iron ring once left by loggers that was removed in the 1980s

  • Sweets Falls, a 14-foot waterfall named for John Sweet, who pioneered rafting on the Gauley in 1968

Because these world-class rapids draw paddlers from around the globe, it was really only a matter of time until someone established a formal festival.

Enter Gauley Fest. American Whitewater started the event in 1983 to celebrate the disruption of a hydro-electric project that would have been the end of the Gauley. And Now it’s the premiere paddling festival, every 3rd Saturday in September.

It’s is your best chance to truly become a part of the whitewater community—you’ll meet new people, including paddling pioneers, and talk to some of the top outfitters in the industry. Plus, there are raffles for some seriously sweet swag, including boats.

Every once in awhile a storm will hit around the time of the release, and when this happens, the water levels get up to nearly 3 times the typical release amount, making for an extra fun weekend on the rapids.

A kayaker takes on the Iron Ring rapid in the Upper Gauley. 
    Chris Amelung
A kayaker takes on the Iron Ring rapid in the Upper Gauley. Chris Amelung

Know Before You Go

"Woodstock on the water" can be a whirlwind of an experience, so it’s best to go into it with some pre-planning and flexibility. Here are the essentials:

  • You can volunteer! The festival relies on volunteers to keep it going, so if you can spare a couple hours, volunteering can help make it happen. You’ll get a t-shirt and some other surprise goodies out of the deal, and they can accommodate groups, so you and your friends can volunteer together (Friends make everything more fun!)

  • Cost. It’s $20-$40, depending on how many days you want to go.

  • Expect that typical large festival camping experience. Gauley Fest has lots of people and lots of tents, which means there are a few important rules to follow. No fires (hello gas stoves!), no glass bottles and all spots are first come, first served (so get there early). This year they’re planning on having a quiet camping zone behind the cabins, so if you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, you’ll want to scope those out right away.

  • Dogs are welcome, but there’s a $20 pet fee, and you have to keep your pooch under control at all times.

  • Gauley Fest has a Facebook page where you can keep up to date on things like shuttle schedules, musical acts and the like as things progress.

  • There’s an age limit for hitting the water. It’s generally recommended that all paddlers on the Upper section be at least 15 or 16 years old, and at least 12 years old to be out on the Lower section. But ultimately it’s up to the outfitter, so call ahead to make sure.

The New River Gorge Bridge, one of the most photographed places in West Virginia.
    JWorst
The New River Gorge Bridge, one of the most photographed places in West Virginia. JWorst

Not Looking for a Class V Adventure?

If the Big 5 are out of your league (as they are for many recreational paddlers), the Lower section of the river has much less intense rapids. The nearby New River Gorge is the place to go for secluded beauty, in addition to a breathtaking bridge that’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most photographed spots in the state.

Learn more about The Gauley River rafting season.

Originally written for West Virginia .

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