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Is the Gauley River, West Virginia, Safe (or polluted)?

There are some famous rivers all across the country. The Rio Grande River and the Mississippi River are just a couple of examples of well-known rivers within our nation’s borders. However, have you ever heard of the Gauley River? You likely have if you’re adventurous and into water sports. If not, don’t worry; this article is for you.

We’re looking at West Virginia’s Gauley River and whether it’s polluted and safe for some intense water sports. Let’s dive in!

Where Is the Gauley River, West Virginia? 

The Gauley River runs for 105 miles throughout West Virginia. It flows through the counties of Webster and Nicholas before combining with the New River in Fayette County to form the Kanawha River, a tributary of the Ohio River.

What Is the Gauley River Known For?

The Gauley River has earned a reputation for being an excellent spot for its recreational whitewater areas. It’s no picnic for paddlers, and many in the whitewater community consider it one of the best whitewater rivers in the United States. These waters attract more than 60,000 adventurers each year.

The river drops 668 feet over 25 miles and has approximately 100 rapids with some tough technical runs. The massive volume of water that flows within its banks adds to its difficulty. The waters demand the respect of paddlers as they can be very dangerous. Paddling in the upper Gauley requires experience, and paddlers must be a minimum of 16 years of age.

Pro Tip: While in West Virginia make sure to check out The Mothman Statue. It is quite a unique road trip destination.

The Gauley River in the fall
The Gauley River unfortunately has a lot of pollution, making it not wise to swim in it.

Is the Gauley River Polluted?

Like many rivers, the Gauley River was a victim of industrial pollution. Railroad and lumber companies flocked to the wooded areas around the river to harvest the timber. As a result, pollution entered the river, killed many fish, and made the water unsafe for recreation. Many even referred to the Gauley River by the nickname “the River of Ink” because of its color.

Luckily, the West Virginia State Wildlife League took action. By 1922, they were able to clean up the river by pressuring the numerous industrial plants along the banks of the Gauley and its tributaries to safely and responsibly dispose of their waste. It took some time, but the Gauley River could get clean again.

Recently, the National Park Service (NPS) was able to secure $10 million in funds to help plug natural gas wells that remain in NPS units. They estimate there are between 150 and 180 wells throughout the country, some of which are in the Gauley River. This will further help reduce pollutants that find their way into the Gauley River system.

Can You Swim at the Gauley River?

The Gauley River is a beast and is harsh to anyone who steps foot in it. Swimming is not advised because the NPS describes it as “a high volume river with swift currents, deep holes, and a rocky bottom.” These are not the ideal conditions for swimming.

Anyone who steps near the river should wear a personal flotation device. NPS advises guests never to swim alone or underestimate the river’s power. You could slip on a rock in a split second and be swept away by the overwhelming current.

Family white water rafting down the Gauley River
Whitewater rafting is a great experience on the Gauley River.

What Class Rapids Are on the Gauley River?

Rapids on the Gauley River range from Class III to V. These can be rather intense and are not for inexperienced rafters. Know your limits and never attempt any rapids above your level. It’s better to err on the side of caution than unnecessarily endanger your life and the lives of rescuers who will have to save you. 

Which Is Harder, Upper or Lower Gauley River?

The Upper Gauley River is substantially harder than the Lower Gauley. Upper Gauley is where you’ll find the most intense rapids, such as Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, and Sweet’s Falls. This section of the river requires experience and skills to safely and enjoyably complete. If you don’t have the necessary skills or experience, you may get lucky and survive, but it’s likely won’t be very enjoyable.

Do You Need Experience to Whitewater Raft the Gauley?

The Gauley River is a intense and can be very dangerous. However, professional guide services offer whitewater rafting adventures ranging from mild to extremely wild trips. While experience can make it easier and more enjoyable, there are some rafting adventures for those new to rafting.

These typically stick to Class I, II, or III rapids, which are often suitable for all ages. Make sure you research and select a reputable rafting company for your adventure.

Misty morning over the Gauley River.
For angler fishers, the Gauley River is a great spot to cast a line.

How Long Does It Take to Raft the Gauley?

The Upper Gauley is a few miles shorter than Lower Gauley. However, they take approximately four hours. Many rafters make it a two-day trip, paddle one section the first day, and rest up before finishing the second section on the second day. This allows paddlers to enjoy the adventure and not race through it.

How Much Does It Cost to Raft the Gauley?

Rafting packages typically range from $79 to $399 per person, depending on the company providing your adventure. There are also adventures where you pay per boatload. The length of your experience and the amenities the company includes will significantly determine the trip’s overall cost. You can do them as expensive or inexpensively as you like.

What Fish Are in the Gauley River WV?

The Gauley River is not only popular with rafters, but also anglers. You can catch a variety of fish. Many anglers catch trout, smallmouth bass, walleye, and muskellunge. However, safety should be of the utmost importance for anyone fishing on the waters. 

Pro Tip: Want to give tubbing a try? Head to one of these 7 Best River Tubing Destinations in America.

Is Rafting the Gauley River, West Virginia Worth It?

The Gauley River is an incredible experience you’ll never forget if you enjoy rafting adventures. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many rafters that can be extremely challenging and demanding. Make sure you’re capable of completing the journey and not biting off more than you can chew.

The Gauley River has taken lives in the past and likely will continue if people aren’t careful. However, taking a calculated risk can be rewarding and worth it.

Have you ever experienced the Gauley River? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

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