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 for rafting nearby in the North Carolina mountains. Outfitters at each river provide rafting guides, so no experience is necessary. One and two person inflatable kayaks are also popular. Canoes and regular kayaks are perfect for the calmer section of the French Broad River through the Biltmore Estate. Our favorite rafting rivers are:
Nantahala River: The busiest and most well-known whitewater rafting river in North Carolina is the Nantahala, a dam-controlled river with 20 class II/III rapids and sections of 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. It's the coldest water, perfect for hot summer days. About 1.5 hours drive from downtown Asheville.
French Broad River: 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. The world's third oldest river offers splashy rapids and mountain vistas from inside Pisgah National Forest. On a half day trip, there are a dozen class II and III rapids. There is a class IV rapid on the full day trip.
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 from Asheville in about an hour. Trips are timed with the release of water from the dam, so water levels are consistent. 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.
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.