Surfing is something that little kids dream about. At least I did back when ocean surfing was a new and exciting sport. I grew up in Atlanta, and with the closest beach over six hours away, it seemed surfing would simply remain a dream.
Boy, was I wrong. After many years and life experiences, I found myself on the banks of the mighty Gauley River watching a group of talented athletes standup paddleboard (SUP) surfing a standing river wave. I came to know this spot as The Perfect Wave.
While surfers tend to hit the beach in the summer, West Virginia’s surfing season is prime in the fall, kicking off in September when the Army Corps turns on the water on for Gauley Season. The guaranteed six-week flow gives river surfers The Perfect Wave and so much more.
The Perfect Wave has a wide range of personalities at different water levels. Its ease of entry, gentle nature, and easy recovery make it one of the best surfing waves on the entire Gauley. The low end of the wave is around 1,900 cubic feet per second (cfs), where you can short board and SUP surf a nice little pocket wave. At the normal Gauley release flow of 2,800 cfs, a beautiful, glassy 10-foot wide wave forms that is perfect for smooth SUP surfing.
As water levels rise in the late fall, winter, and spring, The Perfect Wave really starts to shine. High-end flows are in the 5,500 – 7,000 cfs range. You’ll enjoy a spectacular 30-foot wide wave with a glassy center leading into a 15-foot wide and 3-foot tall breaking wave that can even accommodate an ocean long board for those extended soul surfs.
There is a plethora of gear options. Your choice will depend largely on water level and your preferred style of riding. Because it takes a lot of time and practice to use ocean surf boards on rivers, stick with a larger volume river board. After all, you want to spend some time standing up—getting worked and swimming over and over is exhausting. Either way, you have to have a healthy love and respect for water. A PFD and a board leash are must-haves, but never attach yourself to a leash that doesn’t have a quick release. Also, a little whitewater experience goes a long way. Always take a friend in case things go south.
Requiring a truly adventurous spirit and a bit more commitment, Diagonal Ledges is the best surf on the Gauley River. It’s quite a trek: an hour drive down a broken railroad grade, tunnel, and rail bridge followed by a 45 minute hike down the tracks schlepping your gear. I know it sounds rough, but you can ask any surfer that has spent a day at Diagonal Ledges. I’d bet they say it’s worth every minute. It’s got a great shape with a glassy left side for goofy foot riders and a foam pile on the right to play in. There are two large eddies to swim to when your ride is over.
Most of us would go everyday of Gauley Season—all 22 days of it—if we could. But when the Army Corps starts to refill Summersville Lake, we get our shot at one of the prettiest spots on the Gauley: Canyon Doors. Best riding comes in at 850 – 1,000 cfs, and when it comes in during the summer, this is a great family spot to get your surf on with the kids.
Snow melt and spring rains bring the powerful New River to its seasonal rise, marking the closing runs of our surfing season. Welcome to the New River Dries—although it’s not so dry when we head there. The area below Hawks Nest Dam is typically a trickle, hence the name. But when the New is pumping and Hawks Nest Lake fills up, the flood gates open, and the Dries becomes one of the most epic river surfing spots in West Virginia. This advanced wave comes in around 10,000 cfs—yep, you read that right.
Surfers who come here to shred have to be prepared for this wave. To approach this monster, leap into the New 100 feet upstream and paddle out in the river to catch the wave. It’s do or die here—if you don’t catch it, the paddle back to shore is intense. Surfing this high wave with that amount of water moving by is an adrenaline peaked experience, and one that local river surfers live for.
As the water decreases through the dry months of summer, river surfers are Jonesing for fall waves to return. With a little research, the right gear, and some good friends, you, too, can go out and surf West Virginia.
Travis Hames is a Fayetteville local and river surf guru. You can probably find him ripping it up somewhere on the Gauley, all year long.