The Gauley is run year-round by recreational boaters and from spring to fall by commercial rafting companies. During the majority of the year, boating is dependent on water level, which fluctuates dramatically depending on rainfall and the level of Summersville Lake. However, starting the Friday after Labor Day, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. These releases are collectively known as ""Gauley Season"" and are scheduled on six successive weekends, the first five of which are four-day weekends (Friday through Monday) and the last of which is just Saturday and Sunday. Typical release levels during ""Gauley Season"" range from 2,400 to 2,800 ft³/s (68 to 79 m³/s).
These releases are thanks to an act of the U.S. Congress, the first law passed in the U.S. to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases. The releases bring millions of dollars annually to the local economy, as paddlers travel from all over the United States and overseas for this event.
The Gauley has two commonly-run sections: the more difficult 9.8-mile (15.8 km) Upper Gauley (Class IV-V), and the easier 11-mile (18 km) Lower Gauley (Class III-IV, V). Portions of the 5.5-mile (8.9 km) Middle Gauley (Class III+, IV) are commonly run in conjunction with either the Upper or Lower Gauley, and it is sometimes run alone as a milder alternative.