It's 26 miles from Summersville Dam to the town of Swiss, WV, which is why the full Gauley run is called the Marathon. Most people choose the 10-12-mile Upper Gauley or the 14-mile Lower.
Destination Distance From Downtown
5 of 5 diamonds
The Gauley has the whole package. Its reputation for being big, pushy, and technical is well-deserved.
Time To Complete
The Upper Gauley's 10-12 miles take 4 hours at a leisurely pace. The Lower Gauley's 14 miles take 4 hours if you're booking.
The Gauley runs almost all year round—though typically at low levels it’s more suited to kayaks and duckies than rafts—but fall Gauley Season is when it becomes a destination. Guaranteed high flows from Summersville Dam for 6-7 weekends in a row never disappoint.
There are few rivers in the world as storied as the Gauley. From its eventful first descent in 1961 to today, the history of this gem is packed with tales of adventure, and though it’s most famous for its scheduled autumn flows (known as Gauley Season), the Gauley runs almost year round at a wide variety of levels. Its two main sections, the Upper and Lower Gauley, provide glorious water for intermediate and advanced paddlers alike.
What Makes It Great
If ever a whitewater river run had the complete package, it’s the Upper Gauley. This world-famous section of river has an intimidating reputation for good reason. It is simultaneously pushy and technical, and even the lesser rapids tend to be unforgiving of overconfident boaters. The water can be tricky to navigate, so if you are looking for a stretch-out-and-relax cruise down the river, this is not the right spot for you. Boaters need to know there are undercuts (lots of undercuts), and sieves. Several rapids can claim any combination of the aforementioned hazards, and some have—gulp—all of them. And at minimum 10 miles long, it ain’t over ‘till it’s over.
Despite the challenges that await, the Gauley’s rapids have an elegance about them that most rivers can only aspire to.
The Upper Gauley drops 335 feet in 10 miles, which may not seem terribly steep, but the “Big 5” rapids nonetheless all have a certain gravitas that makes them forces of nature figuratively, as well as literally. Try to read and run Insignificant (which is anything but) and see where that gets you. Pillow Rock is literally the best 10 seconds in American whitewater. Lost Paddle is a test to see how long you can keep it together. Iron Ring is simple to run, but oh, so steep. And Sweet’s Falls is a Class II wave train... right up until it dumps you unceremoniously into Class V mayhem, the banks of which might very well be lined with spectators hoping for a show.
Though the Lower Gauley still sports 3 Class V rapids—Upper/Lower Mash, Heaven Help You, and Pure Screaming Hell—they all tend to be less serious than their brothers and sisters upstream; however they all still feed copious helpings of scenic eye candy. The Lower is long at 14 miles, and almost all of it is action packed with big waves and fun chutes.
You can also surf the rapids. The Gauley has a park-and-play wave at Mason's Branch, and a hike-in wave at Diagonal Ledges, as well as several surf waves people play on during their Gauley runs. Mason's and Diagonal Ledges are great for SUP and standard surfboards.
Gauley Season consists of 6 or 7 (depending on the calendar) weekends in a row beginning the weekend after Labor Day and ending Bridge Day weekend, which is the third in October. But fall isn’t the only time to run the Gauley—oh no. In fact, she runs much of the summer, too, just with substantially lower flows. Summer levels tend to be far more creeky, with slower pools punctuated by steeper drops. There are also virtually no people to share the river with, so keep its remoteness in mind when selecting gear.
Who is Going to Love It
The Upper Gauley is not Class V plus. Nevertheless, use your judgment. If you want to try this one alone, it’s best to be an experienced paddler. If you’re a first-timer, there are guide services that can help you best navigate the river.
As for the Lower Gauley, it’s not a bad entry exam into Class-V river running, but bear in mind, the harder rapids here trend toward long and pushy. Keep an eye far ahead to avoid all the holes, any one of which can ruin an otherwise spotless day.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
While it’s easy to find the put-in for the Upper Gauley (it’s right at the bottom of Summersville Dam), the river’s other 26 miles are connected via a complex system of 1-lane gravel roads. In addition to the dam, there is public access at Wood’s Ferry (take-out from the Upper and put-in for the Lower) and at the town of Swiss, WV (take out from the Lower). You can also shorten your Upper Gauley run by a couple miles by taking out at Mason’s Branch, although it’s closed to private boaters on Saturdays and Sundays during Gauley Season—and you won’t get to see the massive Class IV+ Wood’s Ferry Rapid.