The Light At The End - An Adventure In the Gauley Canyon / by sam taylor

The Gauley River has an almost mythical standing amongst outdoor enthusiasts in the US.  It’s known for giant, raft-swallowing white water, adventure rock climbing, and providing a playground for folks looking to “play their own way” all along its 105 mile trip from the mountains in Pocahontas County to where it meets the New in Gauley Bridge.  Growing up in Nicholas County, the Gauley has always been a feature in playing outside for me.  We lived a few short miles from the “top Gauley”, upstream of Summersville Lake, and we have had adventures and camping trips, too many to count, on this section of river.  

It occurred to me a while back that other than rafting trips, there is a whole section of the Gauley that I haven’t explored – the section from the dam to Swiss – and as I started planning a trip, I wondered why that might be.  As it turns out, the reason is that the “Gauley Canyon” is as wild and inaccessible as other, more well-known canyons in the state.  There are few roads into the canyon, a rail trail that is blocked at the northern end by a closed tunnel, and is lined with cliff faces and fortresses of rhododendron along its entire length.  

Into The Canyon

My adventure started on Ramsey Branch Road, near Leander.  The drive across this high plateau is quintessential West Virginia, with farms and fields, and small churches, and all of them seeming placed for the highest scenic beauty.  At Ramsey Branch Road, I drove along the ever-narrowing road until I reached a point that was as far as I dared go in my car.  It was a 25F morning, and I was well stocked with snacks and layers, and loaded up my pack to start the trip.  Dropping into the canyon, Ramsey Branch Road quickly became suitable for high-clearance only, with evidence of landslides and washouts from the enormous, "1,000 year flood" from last Summer apparent all the way down. I came round a bend and got my first glimpse of the Gauley; I realized that I was in for a gorgeous day in the woods.  

My goals for the day were to connect three waterfalls – Ramsey Branch, Laurel Creek, and Peter’s Creek into one, roughly 10-mile hike through the canyon.  My route traced an old railroad grade, a line of the Nicholas, Fayette, and Greenbrier Railroad for most of the trip.  Owing to the short winter days, I made up my mind to head for the furthest point first, and then start working my way back – taking photographs and exploring along the way.

The Koontz Tunnel and Peters Junction Trestle

The hike along the grade was incredible.  The river on one side, cliff lines and falling water on the other.  Mileposts from the original railroad are still present along the river, and provide a historic and interesting way to judge your progress.  After about 3 miles, I came to one of the most interesting and mysterious parts of my trip – the Koontz Tunnel.  

There are a few tunnels along this grade, and in my research for this trip, I kept coming across news that the Carnifex Tunnel had been closed by the National Park Service due to the danger of collapse.  This effectively closes the northern end of this trail – and I had some concern that this may be true for the Koontz Tunnel, but thankfully this tunnel was still in good condition and open.  

The Koontz Tunnel is roughly 3,100 feet long, and straight as an arrow.  You can see the other end of the tunnel from the start.  This makes it a bit misleading, as you start walking through the tunnel thinking the other end is closer than it actually is!  Somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, it became so dark I couldn’t see where I was going, and pulled my headlamp out of my pack. 

I was also glad for this tunnel, to follow the river all the way around Koontz Bend would have been quite the detour.  As soon as you exit the tunnel, you launch onto a trestle across the mighty Gauley.  Stepping back into the light, what you notice is the sound of the river running beneath your feet.  Looking up river, you can see cliffs ending right in the water, as if the mountains wanted to further emphasize the suddenness of the terrain. 

Peters Creek Falls

From the trestle, you can see Peters Creek emptying into the Gauley.  This was my first waterfall of the day, just ⅔ of a mile up the drainage from the river.  There is an active rail grade that one could follow at your own risk, or work your way up the drainage from the bottom. I went up the creek and arrived at Peters Creek Falls.  

I was surprised at the size of the falls, having grown up in the area and only now seeing them for the first time!  I worked along the base of the falls, taking some care to keep my camera from the spray at the bottom, and taking extra care on the extremely slippery rocks lining the creek – I can’t over emphasize this, these rocks are SLICK!  The rocks were so slippery that navigating the bank needed both hands and feet to keep from slipping and landing in a pile of rocks.  I used all my points of contact (including sitting down) to make my way out to a small point to take some photos.  This was a good point to sit down, and have my lunch – as this was the turnaround point – roughly 4 ½ miles of hiking from my car. 

Laurel Creek Falls

Leaving Peters Creek, you start retracing your steps – back across the Gauley, and back through the tunnel.  I thought the approach to the tunnel from this side was incredibly picturesque, and noted the “1910” build date on the crown of the tunnel. 

Roughly 2 miles towards the car from Peter’s Creek Falls, you will arrive at the base of Laurel Creek.  The Laurel Creek Road definitely took damage in last year’s flooding. The climb from the rail grade up the first section was demolished.  It was possible to walk up it, but not a lot of fun.  Climbing up the road, you will arrive at what looks like an old campground or picnic site.  Just over the bank is Laurel Creek Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls (in this author’s opinion) in West Virginia.  If you just want to look at the falls, you can approach from the top, or from the main road – but if you want to get to the bottom, you need to be willing to get dirty, and you better have a rope or strap that can be used as a handline.  Rigging up the handline, I descended into the creek, and wow – it was putting on a show this day.  The sun was starting to set over the falls, and was casting beautiful light into the mist.  

I spent the better part of an hour photographing the falls, sitting on the bank having a snack, and watching the water flow.  Realizing that I was starting to chase daylight, I used my handline to ascend the bank, and started on the last leg of the trip.  

Ramsey Branch Falls

Back to the main grade, it was roughly 2 miles from the base of Laurel Creek back to the bottom of Ramsey Branch Road.  Dear reader, you may note that I don’t have any photos of Ramsey Branch Falls in this article – and that is because I simply ran out of daylight to photograph them.  The falls are located near the river, roughly 600 feet up-drainage from the rail grade, but I was already pondering needing my headlamp for the climb back to the car.  It is 500 vertical feet over about a mile from the river back to the top, and I was puffing pretty hard by the top of the hill.  The tale of the tape?  10 miles, in total, through some of the prettiest and least-hiked terrain in central West Virginia.  I saw things I have never seen before – and left with a desire to return, many things had only piqued my interest without time to fully explore them (including Ramsey Branch itself!).  A solid day exploring a beautiful part of the state – and I didn’t meet or pass a single other person all day.  Truly an underappreciated gem.