The following article is a paid collaboration with Wild, Wonderful West Virginia.
While an ocean wave might last for a few seconds, the lives of river waves are measured in days, sometimes weeks and occasionally months. In other words, you can expect your legs and balance to give out long before the ride will.
Pack more than just your board and a sense of adventure for river surfing, though, because if you wipe out, you could be looking at a class-III/IV swim. Bring a helmet, bring a PFD, and bring a releasable leash, so that your board doesn't become a hazard in the rocky water.
Cowabunga, kook, and welcome to the top three park-and-play surf waves in West Virginia.
1. The Perfect Wave, Middle Gauley River
The Gauley River's aptly named Perfect Wave is glassy, with large, friendly eddies on both sides. Perfect Wave is never huge, but it’s always begging to be carved up. Plus, it has quarter-mile section of flatwater immediately below it, which makes it, well, perfect for whitewater newbies. The swims are mercifully short here, too, as the Perfect Wave has a tendency to flush easily.
It's a 45-minute drive from Fayetteville, WV, to Mason’s Branch on the Gauley River, and a super easy 100-meter walk from your car. Local surfers have worked hard to create a chill hangout spot as well, so the Perfect Wave’s surf sessions are very social. You'll likely find a campfire roaring here, even on cold, cloudy days.
The Perfect Wave is in at 600-3000 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Middle Gauley River. It goes flat for a while after that, and then comes back in at around 5500.
2. The New River Dries
In the 1920s and 30s, Union Carbide built a dam on the New River and a tunnel under Gauley Mountain to divert up to 10,000 cfs of water for power generation. The tunnel effectively de-watered a three-mile section of river immediately downstream of the dam, hence its name: the Dries.
But this is West Virginia, and sometimes it rains a lot. When the water on the New River reaches more than 10,000 cfs, the overflow has to go somewhere, so it goes over the dam and wets the Dries. Once the flow there reaches about 24,000 cfs (yes, that much) a series of waves right next to the Route 16 bridge begins to form up. Collectively known as the Put-In Waves, they are West Virginia’s answer to the North Shore of Oahu, and even better, it's just a five minute drive from Fayetteville.
As the water level rises, the waves get bigger and smoother, but the consequences of a swim also increase. The adventure begins at around 24,000 cfs and doesn’t end until who knows how high.
3. Diagonal Ledges, Lower Gauley River
It would be an outright lie to call Diagonal Ledges on the Gauley River a park-and-play wave. It would be accurate, on the other hand, to call it an hour-long, 4WD, clearance-mandatory wilderness exploration, followed by a 45-minute hike, then mandatory ferry above a class-IV rapid— and play wave. But hey, this is the Gauley River, and that’s just part of the adventure. Ask a local to show you the way.
Once you’re there, enjoy hour after hour of smooth carving on a sublime mix of glassy surface and fluffy top in the middle of a quintessential downstream V. Diagonal’s wave is typically 3-5 feet tall at its crest, and offers that soul-tickling mix of drop-ins and S-turns that you are craving.
If you don’t have much experience on whitewater in general, it’s probably best to choose a boogie board or another wave entirely, because once you’re off, there’s a short, but bracing class-IV swim between you and the next calm pool.
Surf’s up at 2400-3600 cfs on the Lower Gauley River.
Discover more wild, wonderful West Virginia whitewater.