Whitewater Paddling magazine named Asheville, North Carolina, as a "Top 10 Whitewater Town." ABC's Good Morning America and National Geographic Adventurer named NC the "#1 Vacation with a Splash" featuring the Nantahala River. It's no wonder with four rivers (French Broad, Pigeon, Nantahala, and Nolichucky) for rafting nearby in the North Carolina mountains. Since you have many choices for Asheville whitewater rafting, we recommend that you pick the river that most peaks your interest. After that, you can select the outfitter that operates on that river. All companies provide rafting guides, so no experience is necessary. One and two person inflatable kayaks are also available on many of the trips. Canoes and regular kayaks are only available on the calmer section of the French Broad River through the Biltmore Estate. Here is a brief description of each river:
French Broad River Rafting: In mileage, this is the closest Asheville whitewater rafting. Since you have some curvy mountain roads to drive, you should allow at least 45 minutes to drive the 25 miles from downtown. This wide river is free-flowing, so recent rainfall determines the intensity of the rapids. Recent heavy rain makes a quicker and more exciting trip. The French Broad, the world's third oldest river, offers splashy rapids and
expansive vistas from inside Pisgah National Forest.
On a half day trip (2-3 hours in the water plus 1.5 hours for orientation/shuttle/changing), there are a dozen class II and III rapids. There is a class IV rapid on the full day trip. Calmer float trips are available on the calm section of the French Broad River through the Biltmore Estate.
Pigeon River Rafting: This dam-controlled river has easy access from I-40 near the Tennessee line, so you can make the 50 mile trip in about an hour. Trips are timed with the release of water from the dam, so water levels are consistent. If your time is limited, this is the shortest trip (1.25 hours on the water plus an hour orientation/shuttle/changing time). The upper Pigeon River is filled with continuous waves and class III and IV rapids through a scenic gorge in the Cherokee National Forest. The lower Pigeon River is a more gentle ride with smaller rapids and areas of flat water.
Nolichucky River Rafting: This free-flowing river tumbles through one of the deepest gorges in the Eastern United States. Located off of I-26, just across the Tennessee line, the 50-mile drive takes about an hour. This is the longest trip with eight miles of class II and III rapids, so allow 3-5 hours in the water (higher the water, the faster the ride) and an additional hour for orientation/shuttle/changing.
Nantahala River Rafting: The busiest and most well-known whitewater rafting in the Asheville area is on the Nantahala, a dam-controlled river with 20 class II/III rapids and flat water. Self-guided trips are an option here, if you want to go alone on a raft for two. The eight-mile ride takes about 2.5 hours on the water and one hour for orientation/shuttle/changing. Allow 1.5 hours for the 75-mile drive. The river is very scenic, but can be quite crowded on peak summer days.
Asheville Whitewater Rafting Outfitters in NC Mountains
Wildwater Ltd. Rafting
Exceptional quality, safety, and personal service since 1971. Their Raft and Rail Excursion on the Nantahala combines a morning scenic train ride with an afternoon introduction to rafting. See our guides to their adventures on the Nantahala River and Pigeon River. Outpost on the Nantahala, Pigeon, Chattooga, and Cheoah Go to their Web site.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Named "One of the Best Outfitters on Earth" by National Georgraphic Adventure, NOC rafts four rivers near Asheville. See our Nantahala Outdoor Center Guide. Outposts on French Broad, Pigeon, Cheoah and Nolichucky -- with their main outpost on the Nantahala Go to their Web site.
Blue Heron Whitewater
Enjoy rafting trips (or inflatable kayaks) and calm water float trips on the French Broad River with a fantastic combination of white water rapids, swimming holes, beautiful scenery, history and wildlife near Asheville. Excellent, fun-loving guides and all the appropriate river equipment insure a great time, while experiencing the North Carolina mountains by river. Go to their Web site.
Asheville Calm Water River Raft & Kayak
Explore Biltmore Estate
While you are on the Biltmore Estate you can take a river float trip on a raft or paddle a kayak. Their outdoors center is located behind the winery. Spring-Fall with three trips per day, 2 miles south of downtown Asheville. Go to their Web site.
Raft & Soak
Hot Springs, NC
Located along the French Broad, this town has long been renowned for its healing mineral springs and scenic mountain setting. The Appalachian Trail runs through Hot Springs, and you will also find whitewater rafting, tubing, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing and more. Go to their Web site.
Click image once to watch a video of the rafting and kayaking fun on the Nantahala River. See more Asheville Travel Videos.
Asheville, North Carolina Whitewater Rafting Tips:
1. No experience is needed. You will have very experienced guides to lead you.
2. Bring change of clothes, towel and extra shoes for the trip to change at the outpost. During the summer, shorts, swimsuits, and t-shirts are fine. In the spring and fall, wear wool garments, a jacket, or sweater. Most outfitters have wet suits or spray jackets (may be an extra charge) if it's chilly. Don't wear jeans or all cotton clothing. Synthetic clothing is best.
3. Secure watersport sandles, tennis shoes, or wetsuit booties (cooler weather) are best for feet.
4. Bring sunscreen and sun glasses.
5. If you bring a camera, make sure it is waterproof. The one-time use, waterproof cameras are the best bet. There will be stretches of calmer water for photos. Many outfitters provide professional photo services on the river.
6. Some river trips only require a guide in every second or third boat. If you want a guaranteed guide in your boat, request one in advance (may be additional charge).
7. Most companies have one- or two-person inflatable kayaks called ducks or funyaks, if you prefer.
8. Rafting rates include a paddle and personal flotation device.
9. Call ahead of time (several weeks ahead is best) for reservations.
North Carolina Whitewater Classification: Class I (Easy). Small waves, just enough to make you want more. Little manuevering is required. Class II (Novice). The ride gets more interesting and waves may be up to three feet high. Hopefully, you will get a little wet! Class III (Intermediate). It's time to navigate larger waves, small falls, and/or rocks. Listen to your guide, and you will have a fun ride. It's time to anchor your feet in tight, so you won't fall out. Often, waves will crash into the boat, and you will be stopping soon to bail the water out! Class IV (Advanced). You will only find these rapids on the Pigeon River or the extended trip on the French Broad. For the more adventurous person, it's time to yell and enjoy. Turbulent waves, a swift current, and rocks require guided navigation. Be ready to work with your guide. A good soaking and excitement will be your reward. Class V (Expert). This is hardcore whitewater, and our rivers do not reach this intensity. Class VI (Extreme). Only the expert and a bit crazy go for these.
Freestyle Kayak World Championships
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) – the sanctioning body for all world championship and Olympic canoe and kayak events – has selected the Nantahala River Gorge as the site of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.