When it comes to an adrenaline-packed outdoor adventure, North Carolina whitewater paddling is hard to beat. The top choices for North Carolina whitewater paddling include classic rivers like the Nantahala, the French Broad River, the Pigeon River and nearby rivers such as the Ocoee and Chattoogas. When it comes to summertime adventure, there is nothing quite like hitting the river in a raft, although there are some important safety guidelines that people should always remember (more on that below). Here are our top picks for best whitewater rafting trips in North Carolina. For more info on North Carolina whitewater paddling, check out our interactive map of outdoor adventures in western North Carolina.
Rafting The French Broad River
The French Broad River Gorge is hands down one of the best intermediate whitewater rafting destinations in North Carolina. It provides a fantastic challenge for those looking to test their skills and abilities before gearing up for a trip on a Class V river such as the New River Gorge, Ocoee River or Gauley River. According to many guides, the river is only slightly harder than the Nantahala River (Class III) if one sneaks the two most difficult drops, Kayaker’s Ledge (III at all but high levels) and Frank Bell’s (IV- at all but high levels). Both are easily sneaked, but why would you want to do that if you’re planning on bombing down the rapids in a raft or whitewater duckie? For those not interested in the biggest rapids on the run, head to the left sides of the islands and you’ll miss them entirely.
The highlight for most on the trip will likely be the first major rapid of the day: Big Pillow. The long rapid offers boaters a chance to hit some big waves en route to a large hole that is the most fun when punched straight in the mouth. A number of other fun rapids await downstream, along with a wide range of great lunch spots, swimming holes and even a rock to jump from.
Rafting The Nantahala River
The Nantahala River in western North Carolina runs alongside the two-lane highway of U.S. 74, but from the river you’d be hard pressed to tell. The river flows clean and cold thanks in large part to its proximity within the Nantahala National Forest and nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. According to Cherokee history, the name Nantahala means ”Land of the Noonday Sun,” which is likely due to the fact that the river runs through a narrow and steep gorge where in some areas the sun only reaches the ground when it is directly overhead during the middle of the day.
While people flock to the river for fly fishing, kayaking and hiking along its banks, the river is most popular with whitewater rafters who come in droves to the icy-cold river each summer to take on some of the exciting rapids on the 8-mile-long stretch most commonly paddled. The Lower Run of the Nantahala River has numerous Class II rapids and culminates with the exhilirating rapid of Nantahala Falls where spectactators often line the river’s banks to watch as boaters try their hand on the large waves of the five-foot drop. Other notable rapids include Patton’s Run, Quarry, Whirlpool, Surfers, and Bulls Run. After the trip, a must-see rapid is the Lower Nantahala Falls, also known as Wesser Falls. The Class VI rapid drops off at about a 45 degree angle with many sharp rocks and appears un-runnable, but it is often run by modern-day kayakers.
Rafting The Pigeon River
Although highly polluted for years, the Pigeon River has made a remarkable turnaround and is now home to some of the most beautiful and exciting whitewater rafting in western North Carolina. The river features a number of great Class III and Class IV rivers along both the Upper and Lower sections of the river. This 5-mile run offers a number of big water Class 3 to 3+ rapids, including Powerhouse, Roller Coaster, Lost Guide, Double Reactionary and Accelerator. The river has a number of popular playspots for surfing in rafts or duckies in the first mile of the river at rapids such as Snap Dragon, Lost Guide, below Double Reactionary. Although the I-40 flanks the run on river right, boaters paddle through a scenic gorge flanked by the eastern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Rafting the Ocoee River
While not technically a western North Carolina river, the Ocoee River’s close proximity to the mountains of North Carolina make it a top trip for those looking to sample some of the southeast’s finest whitewater. The dam-released whitewater of the Ocoee River offers southeastern whitewater enthusiasts the opportunity to sample reliable whitewater even during the hottest and driest summer months. Middle Ocoee’s numerous rapids and river formations offer a wealth of currents and surf for creative and skilled paddlers.
Boaters often launch from the put-in at the base of the dam, which offers a powerful display of the whitewater that is soon to follow. Nearly immediately paddlers encounter the first major rapid on the Ocoee, known as Grumpy. Grumpy is a long and pushy Class III that puts rafters straight into the action without even the slightest warm up. The nearly relentless Class III whitewater of the Ocoee is sure to keep paddlers smiling and having fun, even as the current then slows before rafters drop into the rapid known as Staging Eddy.
Other rapids such as Broken Nose – a benchmark Class III+ rapid that cannot be seen from the road – the Class II-III, Double Trouble, Flipper, the Doldrums and Surprise Ledge await paddlers.
Without a doubt, the Ocoee River is one of the premier whitewater rafting rivers in the entire U.S. and its close proximity to western North Carolina make it a must-do whitewater adventure for all who seek the thrill of adventure that comes with whitewater paddling.