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An Insider’s Guide to the Gauley Fest

20160107 WestVirginia GauleyWhitewaterPaddling-000

Known as the Beast of the East, West Virginia’s Gauley River has some of the best whitewater paddling on the planet. From its first descent in 1961 to today, the history of this storied river is packed with tales of adventure and boundary-pushing, 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. Gauley season kicks off this September, with the biggest and baddest whitewater festival in the country: Gauley Fest.

About the Gauley’s Rapids

Early morning mist on the Gauley.
Early morning mist on the Gauley.


When most paddlers hear “Gauley”, they experience contrasting emotions of gut-wrenching anxiety and ecstatic gusto. Known for its powerful Class V runs, the Gauley is comprised of some of the nation’s most adrenaline-pumping rapids, separated into two sections—the Upper and the Lower. While both segments are mighty, the Upper is arguably much more intense, with a noticeably higher gradient and twice the amount of undercuts. The Lower isn’t quite as intimidating, yet you’ll find big waves and hydraulics in both sections.

(If you’re not quite ready to take on the Upper alone, there are plenty of outfitters in the area that offer guided trips. When unsure of directions, don’t hesitate to ask experts what route is best before each horizon line.)

The Fest

Gauley Fest—America’s biggest festival and fundraiser for whitewater sports—celebrates its 33rd year this fall, with thousands of attendees from all over the country (and other parts of the world) flocking to the river’s edge. As always, the fest takes place the third Saturday of September, in the gut of West Virginia’s Gauley River, with proceeds going towards supporting river conservation and access efforts nationwide. Every penny raised goes directly into funding river stewardship projects led by American Whitewater—a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect and restore the country’s whitewater resources.

Gauley Fest was first put on in 1983, applauding the abolition of a hydroelectric project that once disrupted the natural flow of the river. Since then, the festival has evolved into the largest paddling event in the world! Featuring live entertainment, a superior whitewater market, a raffle and silent auction, and, of course incredible paddling, Gauley Fest aims to bring like-minded folks together for a great time and an even better cause.

More About American Whitewater

Diving right in to the rapids.
Diving right in to the rapids.

Chris Amelung

Year-round, American Whitewater maintains a national inventory of the country’s whitewater rivers, monitors potential threats to natural whitewater resources, and publicizes information on river safeguarding. This particular nonprofit also partners with government agencies to enhance the public’s ability to voice opinions on water management, as well as advocates for legislation aimed to protect aquatic resources. American Whitewater avidly works full-time to assure that clean, safe, free-flowing rivers exist in a sustainable way. They are the primary advocate for preservation and protection of whitewater across the US, helping connect interests of river sports to ecological and science-based data.


Thursday : This year’s event officially begins on Thursday, September 15 at noon. (At 9am, vendor registration opens, followed by volunteer registration at 10am.) By 12pm the campground opens up, and thousands of river fanatics flood in, with whiskey and paddles in hand. At 7pm, an Appreciation Dinner for the Set-Up crew takes place, sponsored by Pies ‘N Pints. (Though Thursday evening is pretty mellow in comparison to weekend nights, it’s a good chance to set up camp and get a solid night’s rest. Also, keep in mind that camp spots are on a first come, first serve basis; so you may want to snag a slot early on.)

Friday : At 6am Friday morning the Gauley is released, sending colossal waters into spiraling, churning torrents down the river pathway. At 5pm, the famed festival marketplace opens up, with gear from the best of the best whitewater boating and outdoor retail in the U.S.. Many attendants come primarily for this reason: to view product demonstrations, interact with manufacturer reps and purchase goods. At 9pm things get a little rowdier, as the Dirt Bag Paddlers DJ Dance Party begins. This year’s featured artists include Terrence Young and Allen Rockhouse, both bringing you their turntable wizardry, combining hip hop, funk, dubstep, and indie. After a full day of Gauley shenanigans, good tunes are the perfect way to end an already epic day! (Keep in mind that midnight marks “Quiet Hours” every night.)

Saturday : Once again, the Gauley is released at 6am. A massive 4-H breakfast takes place at 8am in the Dining Hall; the market opens up at 2pm; and a silent auction takes place at 5pm. Live music begins at 6pm, first featuring River Funk, a groovy jazz band based in Ocoee. Following their set is Chestnut Grove, a funky and high-energy band of multi-instrumentalists. Sunday: Sunday morning attendants can enjoy another hearty breakfast at 8am in the Dining Hall prior to festival breakdown and cleanup, which starts at 9am. Campsites close at 3pm.

Additional Info

Get ready for a wild ride.
Get ready for a wild ride.

Michael Blow

Parking Notes : No vehicles can access the inner festival area after 8pm Friday. The same is true after 2pm Saturday. After these designated times, all vehicles will have to park outside of the festival area, just 50-100 yards away. (This is the same sort of park-walk system that you’d see at any other festival, and it’s implemented to ensure safety!)

Rates : A Thursday-Saturday pass is $40. For Friday and Saturday, cost is $30. Saturday only is $20. Bringing your furry friend along costs an additional $20, and dogs must be controlled and kept on a leash at all times. Kids under 15 get in for free.

Camping : Camping rules are fairly straightforward. No fires or glass bottles are allowed on the grounds. New this year is the “Quiet Hours” rule, which begins at midnight each night, to respect families and early-risers.

Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.

Featured image provided by Michael Blow