Rushing rapids, cool water and stunning scenery are just a few of the ways to describe the experience of paddling a raft on the Nantahala River in North Carolina.
The Nantahala, a Cherokee Indian term meaning “the place where only the noonday sun can shine,” starts southwest of Asheville near the border between Georgia and North Carolina. From there it flows forty miles north through Nantahala National Forest, which covers more than a half million acres. At one point, the river cuts a scenic gorge eight miles long with sides up to two thousand feet high.
Whitewater rafting in North Carolina is an exhilarating experience and this soggy spring has contributed to an amazing display. The shimmering Nantahala offers rafting through mild but exciting rapids. There are eight miles of practice on easy Class II rapids before splashing through the Class III whitewater of Nantahala Falls.
Close to the Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina borders, the area is awash in natural beauty and a myriad of activities. Visitors also take part in fly fishing, horseback riding, swimming, hiking the Appalachian Trail, mountain biking in the Tsali Recreation Area, and navigating the Dragon’s Tail – one of the world’s best motorcycling and sports car roads.
But the main attraction for us remains the river. Plan your trip using the Nantahala Outdoor Center as your contact point for all things white water. NOC, one of the oldest and largest companies, is one of ten outfitters in the area.
Barbra Rodichok, NOC spokeswoman, said most visitors come from Georgia and Florida, but because of the long rafting season they also draw adventurers from across the country. NOC is open March through October, but the busiest months are June, July and September. The NOC also offers trips on eight other area rivers: French Broad, Nolichucky, Chattooga, Pigeon, Tennessee, Gauley, Ocoee, and Cheoah.
The Nolichucky, Ocoee Combo and Chattooga IV provide plenty of Class III-IV rapids excitement for the high thrill seeker. Expect turbulent water, tight maneuvers, steep drops and lots of fun. The Cheoah offers some of the most high-adventure rafting in the U.S.
Nantahala rafters range in age from kids to elder hostel groups, with the majority being families. The Nolichucky and Pigeon offer float trips for children as young as four. All the other rivers require that a child be seven years old or weigh at least sixty pounds. Make sure to wear synthetic clothing (bathing suit material) and avoid cotton and jeans as they don’t dry quickly. Make sure to pack an extra set of clothing to change into after the trip and keep your valuables and jewelry at home.
Options abound from renting your own raft or inflatable kayak to taking a guided raft down the rapids. “If you want to float along and make sure everybody has a good time you can do that as well,” Rodichok said. While it’s helpful to know how to swim before you row your boat, it’s not necessary. “Our guides are trained in rescue and wilderness first aid,” she added.
At the end of the day, we recommend you lay your head down to the sounds of the river. We have camped near the Nantahala several times in the last ten years and every experience is different.
Our first trip was with a group of young thirty-somethings interested in adventure, thrills and a few beers around the campfire. We rafted during the day, and camped next to a rushing brook at night.
The Lost Mine Campground is a personal favorite, but there are a number of campgrounds in the area. Lost Mine is also steps from the Outdoor Center. Wherever you pitch your tent it’s the fun and thrills the Nantahala provides that makes the tales around the campfire a perfect ending to a perfect day.
Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 W
Bryson City, NC 28713-9165
Call for available trips on the various rivers they serve, reservations and information on lessons, as well as help with choosing nearby lodging, dining and campgrounds.
Swain County Chamber of Commerce
Chris Reinolds is a freelance journalist based in the Southeast. She has explored tame and thrilling rivers in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Georgia. Amazingly, she has yet to (accidentally) fall out of a raft.