Whitewater rafting on the Gauley River makes for a great day trip near New River Gorge National Park! Here are some tips for planning your adventure.
Did you know that West Virginia is home to some world-class whitewater rafting?
If you're planning a getaway to New River Gorge National Park, or one of the nearby state parks like Babcock, Hawks Nest, or Little Beaver, you'll see frequent mention of whitewater rafting on the Gauley River or the New River.
Wondering whether this adventure is for you? We recently tried a guided rafting trip on the Gauley. Here are some useful tips, along with a look at what our day was like!
When Is the Best Time to Go Whitewater Rafting on the Gauley River?
During Gauley Fest, or the ensuing six-week rafting season! This happens in the fall when the Army Corps of Engineers releases water from the dam at Summersville Lake. The water release creates a high flow that’s perfect for rafting.
Rafting is also sometimes possible in spring or summer, but our river guide told us that these trips are often canceled due to low water levels.
Should I Raft the Upper Gauley or the Lower Gauley?
The Upper Gauley is a highly technically challenging route with multiple Class V rapids, and is best for experienced (or expert) whitewater rafters.
This is not a good route for children, for your first (or probably even second or third) whitewater rafting trip, or for anyone who’s not a strong swimmer.
Whitewater rapids are labeled from Class I (easy) through Class V (extremely difficult). For more information, see this guide from Rafting America.
The Lower Gauley is still a pretty epic whitewater rafting experience, and includes multiple Class IV and V rapids.
The Lower Gauley route is not as technically difficult as the Upper Gauley, and with a good rafting guide this could be a good choice for first time whitewater rafters, young teenagers and rafting enthusiasts. (This is the route we opted to do.)
Looking for a slightly tamer (or kid-friendly) whitewater rafting experience in the area? Check out tours on the New River instead.
Do I Need to Know How to Swim?
Probably yes. Even on the (slightly less technical) Lower Gauley, there is still a chance the raft could flip. And there’s always the chance that you could fall out of the raft while going through rapids.
What Gear Should I Wear?
On a hot day, the water can still be fairly chilly! When we went, the ambient temperature high was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and the water was 60 degrees. The rafting company recommended wetsuits (which they had for rent), or at the very least long-sleeved rashguards.
On a much warmer day, a rashguard and quick-dry shorts might be fine.
If you’re not sure, contact the rafting company you’re using and ask them for their recommendations.
I wish I’d brought a quick dry t-shirt to change into, because by the end of the day I was fairly warm, but I was glad I had the jacket for the morning.
Wear shoes that can get wet. I wore these Teva Original Universal sandals with NRS Hydroskin 0.5 Socks. Towards the end of the trip I took the socks off and the water then felt significantly colder on my feet.
Where Can I Leave My Car Keys?
If you’re using a rafting company tour, they likely have a spot for you to store your keys before going on the water. (You definitely don’t want to bring your car keys along and then lose them in the river.)
What Can I Bring With Me While Whitewater Rafting on the Gauley?
As little as possible.
I do wish I’d brought along a dry t-shirt to change into after the rafting. Our guide had a dry bag where I could’ve stored it. I didn’t realize I’d be on a bus for almost an hour in damp neoprene.
Can I Bring My Phone?
You probably shouldn’t, because there’s a real chance that you could lose it in the river.
If you want your phone for photos, remember that you definitely should NOT try to take photos while going through rapids. You’ll want to be carefully listening to your rafting guide's directions and paddling, not taking photos.
Besides, on our trip a company called Whitewater Photography took photos from the shore that we were able to access later!
That said, I did take my phone. I stored it in this CHUMS water pouch, put the cord around my neck, and tucked the pouch inside my floatation vest.
At one point on the rafting tour, just before the final Class V rapids (where there was a greater chance of the raft flipping), our guide asked to place both my phone and another rafter's phone in the dry box in case the raft flipped, so we handed them over to keep them safe.
I was able to take photos during lunch, and also at one very quiet spot on the river where we had the option to get out and swim.
If you’re wanting to bring your phone to make phone calls or text, you might have a signal on most of the bus ride (I did with Verizon), but you probably won’t have a signal at the rafting start point, end point, or at any point along the river.
Ask your rafting guide before the tour starts if it’s okay for you to bring your phone — some guides might prefer you leave it in your car.
How Many People on the Raft?
Our tour group used rafts that held up to eight, plus the tour guide. Our raft had six on this trip, plus the tour guide.
Whitewater Rafting on the Lower Gauley River
We booked a tour with Adventures on the Gorge.
The tour check-in and bus left from Fayetteville.
Here’s how our full-day tour went:
9:30 to 10 a.m. (30 minutes): Assembling gear, getting a safety overview, taking photos. This is the last chance for a real bathroom until you get back.
10 to 10:50 a.m. (50 minutes): Bus ride to the starting point. Once we arrived, we got our raft assignments. There were port-a-potties available.
11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (90 minutes): On the water!
12:30 to 1 p.m. (30 minutes): Hot lunch! They had a tent set up for a great lunch spread with lots of options.
I had a burrito with bean dip and chicken.
My husband had the same, plus a pulled pork sandwich. We both had cookies.
There were port-a-potties here too.
1 to 4 p.m. (Three hours): On the water. This was the longest stretch on the river, going through multiple Class IV and V rapids. It also included tamer spots where we had the option to swim.
4:30 to 5:20 p.m. (50 minutes): Bus ride back
After, we headed to Fayetteville for dinner. (Interested in the local food and drink scene? We enjoyed Wanderlust CreativeFoods, as well as Honeybee Coffee and Donut House in nearby Summersville!)
Do you have questions about whitewater rafting on the Gauley that we didn't answer here? Let us know in the comments!