Upper Pigeon River | Class II, III, IV: Just 45 minutes from Gatlinburg, the upper Pigeon River may be the best family adventure in the Smokies. The five-mile trip packs two-dozen distinct rapids into an hour-and-a-half of paddling, allowing a morning river trip that leaves time for an afternoon hike along nearby Big Creek. The run includes two Class IV drops (“Lost Guide” and “Accelerator”), but is fine for children as young as eight or weighing 70 pounds. It’s also perhaps the most scenic trip in the area, offering unique vantage points of the Smokies along the water, which is notably warmer for swimming than others deeper into the range.
Nantahala River | Class II, III: With eight miles of Class II rapids before reaching the Class III Nantahala Falls, the family-friendly Nantahala offers an ideal first-timer experience that’s still exciting for whitewater veterans. For those ready to try guiding, it’s an excellent river to rent your own raft and take the helm, or choose a “guide-assisted” trip, with guides present but not on every raft. The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers a combo-trip that begins with a scenic morning train ride through the Nantahala Gorge.
Ocoee River | Class II, III, IV,V: Rafters have the opportunity to challenge the same rapids as the world’s best on the Ocoee, whose upper section hosted the 1996 Olympics. The Tennessee Valley Authority releases water at set times Thursday through Monday, providing one of the most continuous and consistent river trips in the country. Options include running the slightly friendlier middle Ocoee, or combining with the upper for a full day on the water. Due to big drops, the Ocoee is for children of at least 12 years of age. For those seeking constant action, this river, nicknamed the “Ocoee Coaster,” is unparalleled in the South.
French Broad River – Class II, III, IV: Unlike the dam-controlled Pigeon, Nantahala, and Ocoee, the French Broad’s water levels can be fickle, but when it’s running hard (spring is best), it’s a fantastic half or full day family raft trip. In the summer, it’s an ideal river to try out inflatable kayaks (“duckies”) for a more one-on-one experience with the whitewater. Full day trips include lunch along the riverbank and the river-wide Class IV drop, Frank Bell’s Rapid.
Nolichucky River – Class II, III, IV: Passing through remote wilderness, the Nolichucky combines the best of both for adventure and nature lovers. The free-flowing river runs strongest in the spring, traveling through a remote gorge on the full-day paddle. Challenge the Nolichucky’s signature rapid, “Quarter Mile,” a Class IV series of seven drops laced with boulders and hydraulics. At high water, the rapid is among the biggest ridden commercially on the East Coast. After three miles of consistent Class IV rapids, the remaining six miles settles into a pattern of Class II and III drops that keep energy high as paddlers pass through the pristine canyon.