Wild and Wonderful wEst Virginia: Gauley National River

October 30, 2022…

After exploring The New River Gorge Bridge area at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, my mom and I decided to drive north via West Virginia backroads to the nearby Gauley National River area.

The area around the park is known as the Three Rivers – The Gauley, New River and Bluestone Rivers are all interconnected and created ‘blueways’ in southeastern West Virginia.

Like The New River, The Gauley River is known as a world class destination for whitewater rafting. Class 5 Rapids tempt adventurers to navigate rapids with names like ‘Heaven Help Us.’ I love to stand on the banks of a river to look and listen to the roar of rapids, but I will admit that I’m not a rafter. It terrifies me- but more power to the brave souls who take on these rapids each year.

About the Gauley River: A national protected river, The Gauley rises in the Monongahela National Forest on Gauley Mountain (north of Hawks Nest for perspective) as three streams, the North, Middle and South Forks converge. The river then joins the New River at the town of Gauley Bridge to form the Kanawha River, which is a tributary of The Ohio River.

Trusting the GPS we set our course for Cathedral Falls – a graceful waterfall near Gauley Bridge. The road twisted and turned, the autumn leaves falling on the windshield as we navigated each bend and break. Remnants of old railroad tracks served as a reminder of the industrial history in the area – from coal to transportation.

At Chimney Corners, a small unincorporated town, we veered onto Highway 60- also known as the Midland Trail National Scenic Byway, we continued a few more miles until we reached Cathedral Falls.

One of the prettiest and tallest waterfalls in WV, Cathedral Falls is right off of Highway 60 just before you reach Gauley Bridge. Cane Creek tumbles sixty feet over the rock strewn mountain face that resembles a cathedral.

Usually the waterfall is powerful and roars like thunder. However as we are at the end of the fall before the winter snows and run off returns – the waterfall was more a trickle…yet still angelic as a heavenly cathedral. A constant rainbow remained over the waterfall.

While in the Cathedral Falls area:

  • If you like a Mystery – the Mystery Hole is a popular tourist magnet. Similar to Mystery Hill in Blowing Rock NC – unique geology makes gravity shift in unique ways.
  • Town of Gauley Bridge

We continued on our Gauley River Wildnerness Adventure, exploring the backroads off Highway 39 before winding up at Summersville Lake.

En route, Civil War buffs can stop at the Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park. This area of West Virginia was hotly contested in The Civil War given it’s strategic location. A small detour will take you back in history to a time when our nation struggled for its survival. It commemorates the 1861 Battle of Carnifex Ferry, a major Union victory that led to the eventual Confederate withdrawal from western Virginia. Carnifex Ferry is one of the oldest state parks in the United States and is a popular site for Civil War reenactments.

  • West Virginia became a state in 1863, when it decided to break up with Virginia. Up to that point WV was part of VA, but given WV’s proximity to Ohio and other northern interests they joined the Union and did not want to remain part of VA.

Summersville Lake – The Bahamas of WV

Given propensity for severe floods, The Gauley was dammed in the 1960s to form Summersville Lake. The lake’s superb water quality makes it one of the clearest lakes in the eastern United States. The clarity of the water and depth of over 327 feet lures scuba divers to the area to explore the underwater secrets of Summersville. Like many resevoirs – towns were eliminated – with residents packing up and moving before their town was covered by the dam waters. The town of Gad is still in almost pristine condition on the lake floor…read more here.

The unique sandstone cliffs rising from the lake remind me a bit of the Missouri Breaks National Monument in Montana or even our recent voyage to The Apostle Islands.

Cliff jumping is banned from the lake for safety reasons, but you can enjoy a kayak or a paddleboard up close view of the towering cliff bluffs.

The dam is 390 feet tall and the second largest rock fill dam in the eastern US – another marvel of engineering.

At 2,700 acres, Summersville is so large it even has its own lighthouse – The Summersville Lighthouse, which is the only lighthouse in West Virginia (which makes sense given their topography). Click here to learn more.

The sun began to set as we headed south back to Beckley, WV and our hotel – I will always cherish my memories of The New River Gorge and cannot wait to return.

That being said…we’re not through with WV yet – next edition we’ll check out Camp Creek State Park and The Bluestone River!

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