There’s More to Gauley Season Than the Festival

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You’ve squeezed four days worth of whitewater from your clothes and hung them from your car mirror. Empty beer cans surround the pile of gear stacked behind your rig. As you deflate your raft, the parking lot that was once so full it forced you to park a mile from the river, empties around you. Gauley Fest weekend has come to a close—what now?

If you’re one of the many boaters who has come from across the country for the infamous river festival, I have good news for you. The end of the festival doesn’t have to mean the end of the party. Gauley Season stretches for six weeks each fall with recreational releases Friday through Monday for four weeks and two more weekends of Saturday-Sunday releases. While the vast majority of boaters clear out after the festival weekend, those who stay will get an entirely different experience.

Once the crowds have departed, you won’t have to wait in line just to enter a rapid anymore, and between release weekends, you’ll get a chance to explore the local paddling, hiking, biking, and climbing scenes, plus an eclectic collection of bars and restaurants boasting live music and everything from downhome cooking to vegan smoothies.

Paddle the Gauley without the crowds. As much as I love a good river party, there’s no denying that during Gauley Fest weekend it can get so hectic it’s difficult to take everything in. Sticking around gives you a chance to experience a different version of the river and appreciate the rapids and the scenery rather than just begging for carnage and battling the crowds for a spot on Pillow Rock.

Insider tip: Don’t forget to paddle the Lower Gauley. While the larger rapids of the Upper Gauley hold most paddler’s attention, the Lower Gauley stands alone as a stunning section of whitewater and, in my opinion, has even better scenery — especially when it comes to the canyon’s fall colors.

Stop to play at Summersville Lake. While you may have pulled over on your way to the put-in to view the lake feeding the Gauley at one of its many overlooks, you probably failed to notice the numerous recreation opportunities on the lake. Covering 2,700 acres, Summersville Lake is the largest lake in West Virginia and with over 60 miles of shoreline there’s plenty of space to spread out and relax post-Gauley mayhem. Whether you rent a stand up paddle board from a local company, go jet skiing or just take your kayak or raft out to explore, the lake is a stunning way to spend a warm fall day.

Insider tip: Stop at Whippoorwill, a local climber hangout, for some deep water soloing. With everything from challenging overhanging routes to simple scrambles, the great thing about climbing here is you don’t need anything other than maybe a pair of old climbing shoes you don’t mind getting wet—no harness or ropes needed and the water serves as a crash pad.

Rock climb in the New River Gorge. Speaking of rock climbing, fall is the season for climbing in the New River Gorge. A rock climbing hub as famous amongst climbers as the Gauley is to paddlers, whether you’re a climber or not it’s worth seeing this side of the gorge. If you don’t have your own gear you can hire an outfitter to take you out or rent gear in Fayetteville.

Insider tip: If you don’t want to hire a guide but are looking for some climbing beta, head to The Grove (a local bar and climber hangout) and see if you can befriend a climber and convince them to take you out on the rocks.

Paddle the neighboring New River. The New River is the local go-to to keep your boat from getting dry between Monday and Friday releases on the Gauley. Coursing through the depths of the New River Gorge, paddlers should not miss the chance to run this big-water treat while they are in the region. Often forgotten during Gauley Season, I find it’s nice to mix it up and with a different style of whitewater and scenery for a couple midweek laps after four days straight on the Gauley. 

Insider tip: If it rains, the Meadow River, a tributary of the Gauley, is another great local run with everything from read-and-run class III-IV to stout class V sections.

Hike in the New River Gorge. If you would rather explore the gorge on foot than by boat, or want to check out a view of the river from above after a day on the water, the number of trail options are as plentiful as the rapids below you. For the best views of the rapids and some stunning cliffs, I like to head out to Diamond Point on the Endless Wall Trail via the Fern Creek Trailhead. The trailhead is quick to reach by car from the main highway and offers a mix of hiking through the forest, traveling through rhododendron tunnels (a West Virginia hiking classic) and traversing along rock ledges overhanging the gorge. That being said, if you’re looking for views of the famous New River Gorge Bridge, head to Long Point (across the river) instead.

Insider tip: If you want the views without the hike, make the drive to Beauty Mountain, where you’ll find a panoramic overlook of the gorge just a few minutes walk from the road.

Mountain bike Arrowhead Trail. The region couldn’t be better suited for mountain biking, with not only a network of trails made for two wheels but also convenient bike rental options if you didn’t bring yours along. My personal favorite is the Arrowhead Bike Farm, located just down the road from the numerous trailheads and offering bike rentals, advice, repairs, and great food and beer on their back patio after your ride.

Insider tip: Even if you have your own bike, stop by The Farm on your way to the trail for some local guidance and some surprisingly delicious-for-the-location fish tacos.

Get in some local history (and a workout). Historic sites surround the area near the Gauley, from a Civil War battlefield on the plateau above Pillow Rock Rapid to mining towns nestled in the New River Gorge. So, if you still have energy to burn after paddling on the Gauley all weekend, I recommend the Kaymoor Miners Trail where you can walk through the entrance to coal mines, its support town and its processing facilities. Overgrown with vines and brambles but still with large structures in tact, the National Park Service provides access to the site, but it still isn’t easy. A steep path leads down to the mine site, and from there it’s more than 800 steps into the depths of the gorge to see the rest of the town. The best part, of course, is the climb back out.

Insider tip: If you really want to get your workout in for the week, try running as much of the stairs as you can.

Hit the local restaurants. If you’ve made it up the Kaymoor Miners Trail, you deserve a reward. You can head to downtown Fayetteville to find a selection of local standards from sandwiches named after presidents at the Secret Sandwich Society to shrimp curry pizza at Pies and Pints. If it’s anywhere near the time of day when tourists are hungry—read: traditional meal times—be prepared for the restaurants to have a long wait and slow service. Crowds easily overload the small town restaurants and lines of people often end up standing on the street to wait for a seat.

Insider tip: If I’m hungry, I can’t stand waiting to eat. Instead, I make the 10 minute drive to Rio Grande in Oak Hill where within a minute of arrival I can be seated in a booth and presented with a basket of tortilla chips and a pitcher of margaritas on the way. Then, for cheaper than the average sandwich and a beer in Fayetteville, I can gorge on a sizzling platter of fajitas, all you can eat chips and salsa, and margaritas to boot.

Get your drink on. When it comes to drinks, Fayetteville has a host of bars with local West Virginia beers on tap and live music several nights a week. So whether you’re watching local bands at The Grove (located above the Secret Sandwich Society) or playing Beer Bingo at the Southside Junction Tap House on Thursday night, you’re bound to be surrounded by fellow paddlers, guides, and tourists. 

Insider tip: You can get a local craft brew anywhere, but for a uniquely West Virginia experience let me introduce you to Charlie’s Pub. Just outside of town, follow the black and white arrow that points you down a steep narrow driveway. A dark hallway leads to a locked door. Ring the buzzer. You’ll be welcomed into a dark, smoke-filled underground bar with $1 Old Milwaukees always on special, a jukebox, and a local crowd you won’t see anywhere in any of the hip, tourist-filled bars downtown.

On the road to the Gauley. The morning after Charlie’s Pub is a good morning to try Mabel’s Diner on your way back to the Gauley. You’ll notice a truck stop at the turnoff on your way to the river. Adjacent to the truck stop is a classic, greasy diner serving big-portioned breakfasts, homemade biscuits, and coffee with unlimited refills. Post up with a big appetite and fuel yourself for another weekend on the Gauley. When you leave the Gauley that afternoon, don’t miss a quick stop at Fat Eddie’s at the Dam, where you can replenish all the calories you lost paddling with hamburgers, onion rings, and shakes.

Insider tip: Fat Eddie’s names their shakes after local rivers, but don’t be tempted to order the Gauley just because of the name. The Elvis with hot fudge added is the way to go.

After six weeks of paddling, exploring, and late night shenanigans, I’ll forgive you if you’re ready to tumble home, dry out your gear, and sleep somewhere other than the back of your car for a change.

On the other hand, if you’re keen to keep getting after it and step up your paddling game, there are a few stops you can make on your way out of town. If you’re headed west, make a pit-stop at Kanawha Falls for the most accessible park and huck you could ever find. With more than four different waterfalls cascading into a huge pool you can launch either raft or kayak off the falls as many times as you want with just a quick hike back up in between. Traveling south instead? Hit the Russell Fork Rendezvous on the last weekend of October and from there continue on for releases on the Tallulah and Cheoah rivers.

If this seems like an overwhelming amount of action, don’t freak out. We know the Gauley will call you back again next year, and you’ll get a chance to live it all again.