White Water West Virginia

By Ben Long

My Zimbabwean river guide’s eyes lit up when I told him where I was from. “I dream of going to West Virginia,” he blurted out. When he finished his rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he told me he’d always wanted to raft the Gauley River. I would’ve inquired further, but I was quickly dumped into the foam of a class V rapid on the Zambezi – the mecca for whitewater enthusiasts around the world.

I survived the river that day, but was left wondering why a river guide in Central Africa would want to visit my home state.

The ability to view places and cultures objectively is one of the unexpected byproducts of traveling — and something that lingers in you when you get home. And, so, after spending fifteen months falling in love with the rest of the world, I returned to West Virginia to find that most of what I loved about other places had been right in front of me all along.

Yup, people base jump from this bridge. (Photograph by Ben Long)

When people ask me how I’m coping with being stateside, they expect me to return a forlorn look. But I just smile because I haven’t stopped traveling.

Even though my travels are confined to West Virginia at the moment, I find exploring these hills and hollers all the more fulfilling because they are mine.

My love affair began in Lewisburg, my hometown, a place recently voted the “Coolest Small Town in America,” but I couldn’t get my African river guide’s dream out of my head.

So I turned my sights on Fayetteville – the home of the Gauley River.

Fayetteville is a small town filled with paddlers, bikers, hikers, and climbers — a place where adults morph into Lost Boys, rekindling their youthful spirit on a playground of rock faces, trails, and rapids.

Adventure towns have an excitement that’s hard to describe. And, during Gauley Season, when whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world descend on Fayetteville, that excitement is multiplied tenfold.

While most rivers are only navigable during the spring and summer, the Gauley is dam-released for six weeks in the fall (starting tomorrow, September 7), creating one of the most challenging whitewater courses in the world.

Pick your poison. (Photograph by Ben Long)

With river folk, climbers, and adventurers all thrown into the same pot, the “play hard, party hard” mantra is taken to the extreme.

Rafting companies host great bands each weekend and the town bookends the season with two festivals: Gauley Fest (the world’s largest whitewater festival) and Bridge Day (the biggest extreme sports event in the world where base jumpers leap off the 876-foot New River Gorge Bridge) on Saturday, October 20.

It’s the last hurrah of the whitewater season and everyone is determined to go out with a bang.

When I went last year, I was filled with a bizarre mix of pride that West Virginia — a state that is all-too-often made the butt of a joke or the setting for a backwoods horror film — plays host to something so unique, and shame that I was just now discovering it.

Lesson learned: Your backyard can be just cool as far off exotic lands.

Here’s my recipe for a dream day in Fayetteville:

Sunrise on Long Point

This is definitely the best nature moment I’ve found in West Virginia. It’s an easy two-mile walk to the lookout from the parking lot. Grab a map at the park ranger’s office.

Breakfast at the Cathedral Café

After sunrise, head to this converted Methodist church, with original stained glass windows for great coffee and to-die-for sweet potato pancakes.

Try the Cathedral Cafe’s sweet potato pancakes. (Photograph by Ben Long)

Let Your Inner Kid Run Wild

Whatever your poison — rafting, zip-lining, hiking, biking, climbing — you can’t go wrong. A plethora of tour companies can lead the way to great adventures, but if you’re looking for no-frills relaxation, take the winding Fayette Station Road to the bottom of the gorge and jump in the New River.

Dinner at Pies and Pints

There are loads of great restaurants in town, but this one has a great craft beer selection and unique pizzas that satisfy any adventurer’s appetite.

Dance and Camp at Cantrell’s Pub

This joint has great live music on the weekends and a big open field where you can set up your tent (call ahead to reserve your spot for $10 a night), which eliminates any worries about drinking and driving. And its proximity to the Long Point parking lot (about a mile) will make your sunrise commute much easier, too.

Ben Long is a writer and photographer who grew up on a cattle farm in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley, and is currently finishing up his law degree at WVU. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.

Comments

  1. Claudia
    Washington, D.C.
    September 6, 2012, 3:04 pm

    Wild and wonderful and within reach!!! Great recommendations!

  2. Kelly
    WV
    September 6, 2012, 5:26 pm

    You’re awesome, Ben Long!

  3. Chad
    DC
    September 10, 2012, 4:58 pm

    Truth

  4. Nikole Fairview - ExploringLifesMysteries.Com
    Washington, DC
    September 10, 2012, 5:22 pm

    One of the reasons that I love stopping by this blog every week is these gorgeous images you give us. What a collection of truly beautiful natural-scapes that you guys features. West Virginia really isn’t that far from me and this picture alone has made me consider making a trip here. My goodness this is so beautiful and accessible. This is always a great combination. Thank you for the list of stopping points as well. That breakfast with the sweet potato pancakes sounds amazing.

  5. Gen Cambridge
    Tallahassee, Florida
    September 10, 2012, 10:04 pm

    By far, the most beautiful and mysterious land…

  6. Suzanne Humphries
    NY
    September 11, 2012, 11:57 am

    fantastic ben. great words and beautiful images….now i just need to get down to WV and see this all in person!

  7. Tank
    Lexington, Va (Center of the Universe with a great back yard)
    September 12, 2012, 9:50 am

    Great piece. You have enticed me to book my next vacation in West Virginia! Did you really describe the pancakes as
    “to-die-for” sweet potato pancakes? Look forward to reading your next piece and seeing you in Lexington.

  8. anna
    WV
    September 12, 2012, 4:39 pm

    I took it somewhat for granted for 20 some years I travelled and lived elsewhere. Now back “home” and totally in love with this wild, wonderful place I live.

  9. dre
    Fort Wayne, IN
    September 12, 2012, 4:44 pm

    “wild and wonderful” west virginia. thanks for showcasing another reason this is true.

  10. Sarah Spencer
    Charleston,WV
    September 12, 2012, 5:35 pm

    WONDERFUL tribute to our home state, thankyou! And I am proud to say you were right on, I’ve been there, done that!

  11. Mendy Haver
    Simpsonville, SC
    September 16, 2012, 8:30 pm

    Ben, you are making me homesick!!! I was born and raised in Fayetteville, and grew up running the river. You are so right, you don’t realize what you have in your own backyard. My family is still in Fayetteville, so I get back there to visit often. Thank you for reminding me of my roots!!

  12. Photo master
    Bangladesh
    October 17, 2012, 1:06 am

    You have a done a fantastic job. I am impressed of your work. Keep it up.

  13. Inez ( Stephenson) Ard
    McKinney, TX
    November 2, 2012, 11:02 pm

    I was born and raised in Clay County, WV and never knew Fayetteville was considered home to the Gauley River. The Summersville Dam releases water for the rafters on the Gauley, I have been there and watched the Rafters leave. It is a very beautiful state, and if anyone has an opportunity to visit it go, you won’t be sorry.

  14. S. Young
    Craigsville, WV
    March 15, 2013, 6:59 am

    Had to move away years ago but our family always kept our home. I returned and attended college. I stayed and never looked back! West Virginia is the best kept secret, east of the Mississippi, and we don’t mind sharing with the world. Come and enjoy!!
    Ben, thanks for your beautiful words and pictures of our state.

  15. SGK
    United States
    March 19, 2013, 1:48 am

    As a native of Parkersburg, WV, I can say I agree with all that’s been said.

  16. James Reynolds
    United States
    April 18, 2013, 10:21 am

    Great article! I used to hate visiting family in WV until I realized how much there is to do there. As a beginner in rafting, I am very apprehensive about attempting anything bigger than a calm stream; would you recommend rafting the Gauley River? Or should I gain a little bit more experience?