North Carolina offers numerous whitewater rafting options

Nearby rafting options provide cool fun on those hot summer days

CorrespondentJuly 11, 2012 

Weary of this summer’s white-hot heat? Cool off in a chilly-to-the-bone whitewater rafting trip.

Head to the mountains and take a bouncy ride on the Tuckasegee River or go for heart-thumping plunges on the Chattooga River.

To help select your rapid transit, here’s a guide to six whitewater runs in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Rivers are ranked from mild to wild. The International Scale of River Difficulty rates rapids from Class I (easy) to Class V (extremely difficult). Prices, except for the Tuckasegee, are for guided raft trips.

Stephan Hart, a Nantahala Outdoor Center rafting guide and instructor, has paddled and guided on all six rivers. He gives an expert’s view on white-knuckle whitewater:

Tuckasegee River

West of Asheville, the Tuckasegee flows past Sylva to Bryson City. The 5-mile-long rafting section begins at Dillsboro and winds through Tuckasegee Gorge.

•  Whitewater wow factor: This is a good choice for newbies and children. Most people go down the Tuck in inflatable kayaks (called ducks or duckies) or on large inner tubes.

The biggest rapid is Double-Drop, a splashy Class II. For the 2012 release schedule, see www.duke-energy.com/lakes/nantahala/nan-scheduled-flow-releases.asp.

• Stephan’s skinny: “It’s not something that would overwhelm people. It’s a lot of fun. I feel very comfortable taking friends there.”

•  Worth noting: Just downstream from the put-in at U.S. 441, look along the right bank for strewn railway cars from the train wreck shown in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive,” with Harrison Ford.

•  Outfitters are: Dillsboro River Co. (www.northcarolinarafting.com); Tuckasegee Outfitters (www.tuckfloat.com)

•  Prices: $20-30 for ducks; $15 for tubes

Nantahala River

North Carolina’s busiest whitewater river, the Nantahala lies 12 miles west of Bryson City beside U.S. 19 in Nantahala Gorge. On summer weekends, the gorge becomes jammed with outfitter buses and tourist traffic.

•  Whitewater wow factor: The 8-mile section starts fast with Patton’s Run, a stair-step Class II rapid, and finishes with Nantahala Falls, a Class III exclamation point. A bottom-of-the-dam-release river, the Nantahala may turn your feet into popsicles with water temperatures of 50-55 degrees.

•  Stephan’s skinny: “Your classic Class II-III river in the Southeastern states. It has great rapids. The water is typically clear. You can see the trout swim through the water.”

•  Worth noting: Last year the Nantahala drew 200,000 rafters and private canoeists and kayakers, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

•  Outfitters include: Nantahala Outdoor Center (www.noc.com); Paddle Inn Rafting Co. www.paddleinnrafting.com; Rolling Thunder River Co. (www.rollingthunderriverco.com)

•  Prices: $30-$50

French Broad River

The French Broad courses through Asheville on its northward journey through farmlands and the Pisgah National Forest. The river got its name in the 1700s because it was a broad river that flowed toward French territory. Outfitters near Hot Springs offer 5- and 9-mile trips.

•  Whitewater wow factor: Major rapids include The Ledges; Big Pillow (both Class III); Frank Bell’s Rapid (Class IV).

•  Stephan’s skinny: “It’s a great place to go if you want a large, wide-open river. It’s got some significant rapids. Frank Bell’s is a great rapid. Quite a forgiving Class IV. (The river’s) not crazy, tight and technical.”

•  Worth noting: Frank Bell’s Rapid was named for a young N.C. camp counselor who in 1923 paddled the French Broad with companions. The rapid smashed the bow of Bell’s wood-and-canvas canoe and, sans lifejacket, churned him underwater before washing him out unharmed 100 feet downstream.

•  Outfitters include: Blue Heron Whitewater (www.blueheronwhitewater.com); French Broad Rafting Expeditions (www.frenchbroadrafting.com); Huck Finn Rafting (www.huckfinnrafting.com)

•  Prices: $66-$75 for nine-mile run; $44-$51 for five-mile run

Pigeon River

Once notorious for its pollution, the Pigeon parallels Interstate 40 before leaving North Carolina at Waterville and flows north into Tennessee. Outfitters are located near Hartford, Tenn.

•  Whitewater wow factor: The dam release at Waterville creates lots of big-wave rapids like Roostertail, Roller Coaster (Class III); Lost Guide (Class III-IV).

•  Stephan’s skinny: “It’s a really great river if you’re looking to make that step to Class III and IV. You have some open spots to chat and to swim. A zip line crosses over the river.”

•  Worth noting: The Pigeon became a rafting destination after a mid-1990s cleanup of the coffee-colored water; releases are Tuesdays through Thursdays and Saturdays, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

•  Outfitters include: Outdoor Adventures (www.raftoutdooradventures.com); Rafting in the Smokies (www.raftinginthesmokies.com); Smoky Mountain Rafting (www.smokymountainrafting.com)

•  Prices: $40-$44 for upper run; $37-$44 for milder run

Nolichucky River

Another north-flowing river, the Nolichucky charges through one of the deepest gorges in the East in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest. Outfitters are in Erwin, Tenn., offer 9- or 11-mile trips.

•  Whitewater wow factor: The river drops a steep 66 feet per mile for the first four miles. As a result, the ’Chucky is front-loaded with big rapids such as Jaws (Class III), On the Rocks (Class IV) and Class IV Quarter-Mile, a near-continuous series of rapids.

•  Stephan’s skinny: “It’s a gorgeous gorge. I love the Nolichucky because it’s so remote. It has the distinction of being the only river with big rapids in the top half. Usually this is a crescendo that builds up.”

•  Worth noting: As water levels fall in late summer, outfitters shift to inflatable kayaks, which ride higher in low water.

•  Outfitters include: Cherokee Adventures (www.cherokeeadventures.com); USA Raft Co. (www.usaraft.com); Wahoo’s Adventures (www.wahoosadventures.com)

•  Prices: $60-115

Chattooga River

A National Wild and Scenic River since 1974, the Chattooga follows the South Carolina-Georgia line. Outfitters run Section III or the more difficult Section IV, or both.

•  Whitewater wow factor: The Chattooga remains at the top of rafting enthusiasts’ bucket list with rapids such as Bull Sluice (Class IV), Seven-Foot Falls (Class IV) and Sock ’em Dog (Class V).

At Seven-Foot Falls many years ago, I have a freeze-frame memory of our raft teetering on the edge before nose-diving into the turbulence and bouncing off the huge boulder on river left.

•  Stephan’s skinny: “The premier whitewater run and just a thrill ride. I love that river for the sheer beauty, just stunning scenery, (and) the big five waterfalls that you have to navigate.”

•  Worth noting: The 1972 movie, “Deliverance,” with Burt Reynolds, vaulted the river into national popularity. Outfitter shops today carry T-shirts with the movie-themed expression, “Keep Paddling/I Hear Banjo Music.”

•  Outfitters include: Nantahala Outdoor Center (www.noc.com); Southeastern Expeditions (www.southeasternexpeditions.com); Wildwater Ltd. (www.wildwaterrafting.com)

•  Prices: $85-$109 for Section III; $100-$124 for Section IV

Jack Horan of Charlotte is co-author of, “Paddling South Carolina/A Guide to Palmetto State River Trails.”

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