Interested in finding the best places for tubing and paddling in Bryson City and the Smoky Mountains? Our short guide to the best paddling areas in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the details on some great paddling options, whether you’re looking to go whitewater kayaking or take a stand up paddleboard out for a quick lap around a local lake, we’ve got you covered.
169 Main St, Bryson City, NC
Paddle Fontana Lake (N 35.4502, W -83.8089): With 240 miles of shoreline, 90 percent of which is owned and protected by the National Park Service or US Forest Service, Fontana Lake is a fantastic place for flat-water paddling. Portions of the 29-mile lake offer unobstructed views of the Smoky’s highest peak, Clingman’s Dome. Birds like blue herons, kingfishers, osprey, and falcons are abundant around the deep blue water. Although the lake is popular with motorized boats during the summer, its many tucked away waterfalls and quiet coves offer ample escapes for the self-propelled explorer. The lake has many backcountry campsites on islands and along its shores, making it possible to combine hikes and paddling into a multi-day adventure. Of note are the ruins of a thousand person logging town at Proctor campsite at Hazel Creek.
Directions: In addition to several private landings, the sprawling Fontana Lake has four public boat access areas. The most convenient from Bryson City is the Old 288 ramp. Take US 19 S from Bryson City to SR 1323 (Slope St., by the Kerr Drugs in town). Go .2 miles down Slope St. to a left at the blinking light onto SR 1321, called Bryson Walk. Go 1.6 miles to a left, following the river to continue on Old 288, which dead ends into the ramp after 0.8 miles.
Float the Lower Pigeon (N 35.8191, W -83.1568): Downstream of the river’s typical rafting section, the Pigeon’s calmer stretches offer perfect introductory whitewater for children as young as three years old. In between mild Class I and II rapids, calm stretches allow for swimming and relaxed reveling in the mountain scenery. The lower Pigeon is a no-stress way to get wet for the first time in a whitewater kayak. The scenic river is a fantastic fall paddle to take in the striking colors of the Smokies’ autumn foliage.
Directions: From TN, take I-40 E to exit 447, just before the NC border. Turn right off exit ramp onto Hartford Rd. Drive ¼ mile and turn left at the NOC sign into the driveway.
Paddlers on a guided paddleboarding trip with Bryson City Outdoors enjoy the views of Fontana Lake. For more information, click the ad above to visit their site and book your next Bryson City adventure today.
Inflatable Kayaking on the French Broad (N 35.8427, W -82.7265): One of the oldest rivers in the world, the French Broad is one of the area’s most paddled waterways. With a perfect mix of action and relaxation, a full day on the “FB,” complete with a riverside lunch, can easily be the most memorable day of a Smoky Mountain vacation. Keep an eye out for the Bald Eagles commonly seen perched in the tops of riverside trees. After your float, be sure to head in to nearby Hot Springs for a sampling of a quaint NC mountain town and the nearby Appalachian Trail.
Directions: From I-240, north of Asheville, take exit 4A onto US 19/23 North. Continue 9 miles to exit 19A onto Hwy 25/70, toward Marshall, NC. After 8.5 miles, the road narrows to two lanes. Continue 6.5 miles to the NOC buildings on the left.
Tube Deep Creek (N 35.4485, W -83.4409): With your hands as your paddles, there’s no way to get closer to the water than tubing. Tube rental companies border Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering rides to put-ins or easy directions to the one-mile walk upstream. Deep Creek offers two sections — the narrower whitewater of the upper creek, or the calm and wide lower section. Take your time and stop to explore swimming holes and waterfalls along the ride. Tubing is inexpensive and a great first introduction to a bit of whitewater.
Directions: From downtown Bryson City, head north on Depot St. 0.2 miles to Collins St. This turns into Deep Creek Rd. — follow it 1 mile to the first of several tube rental outlets.
Canoe the Nantahala (N 35.3310, W -83.5918): With its higher center of gravity, canoeing whitewater can seem more daunting than kayaking or rafting, but it was in canoes that the first adventurers took on the Smoky Mountains’ rapids. Whether you try out the newer sit-in-the-center solo whitewater canoes or a traditional two-seater, the Nantahala’s friendly learning curve offers a fantastic place to hone your skills. Paddle in the footsteps of both Native Americans and canoeing pioneers, perfecting your j-stroke around boulders and down gentle drops.
Directions: From Bryson City, head west on Hwy 74. After 8 miles, the road splits into two 2-lane roads — stay on 74 (left lane) and continue 5 miles. On a descent, look for a yellow caution sign indicating you are entering the Nantahala Gorge. The NOC’s Outpost will be immediately on the right.