Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking in Asheville and Western NC

Whitewater Kayaking in Western North Carolina

Whitewater boating in Western North Carolina falls into two categories, kayaking and rafting.

About Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is the sport of paddling a kayak on a moving body of water, typically a river. Whitewater kayaking can range from a laidback carefree recreational activity to a challenging, adrenaline-filled hardcore sport.

Whitewater kayaks are generally made out of rigid, high impact plastic; usually polyethylene. Traditionally, kayaks were made of animal skins which were stretched to accommodate wooden frames. In the early eighties, kayaks turned to fiberglass or Kevlar molding. Today's whitewater kayaks are shorter than other types of kayaks, ranging from 6 to 12 feet. Modern design has moved toward shorter boats, which make them very maneuverable but slow. This is ideal because with downriver current, maneuverability is preferred to inherent speed. Squirt Boating is the use of Ultra-low-volume kayaks that are designed to be paddled both on and below the surface of the water.

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Categories of Whitewater Kayaking

There are four 'sub-categories' in whitewater kayaking:
river-running, creeking, slalom, and playboating.

  • River Running is best described as a tour down a river, to enjoy the scenery as well as experience the challenges of whitewater. River running can be enjoyed as short day trips as well as longer multi-day trips. Multi-day kayak trips often entail the use of gear-toting rafts, which allows a more enjoyable whitewater experience without the bulk of a heavily-laden kayak. Whitewater Racing falls under this category and is what the name implies, competitively racing canoes or kayaks down a river as fast as possible.
  • Creeking while similar to River Running, can perhaps be best thought of as a higher level of River Running. It involves more experience and is very technical with difficult rapids, typically ranging from class IV's to the class VI range. Creeking normally involves a higher gradient, approaching or in excess of 100 feet per mile. They are also likely to include waterfalls, running ledges, and slides, and are relatively small and tight rivers. Larger water volume can also be accounted for in this classification of kayaking. The kayaks used for Creeking, usually have higher volume (more gallons of displacement) and more rounded bow and stern, as these features provide an extra margin of safety against the likelihood of pinning. They also resurface more quickly and controlled when coming off larger drops. Extreme racing is the competitive form of this aspect of whitewater kayaking.
  • Slalom Kayaker Rolling his Kayak
    Slalom is similar to Creeking in that it is another technical form of kayaking. Racers endeavor to make their way from the top to the bottom of a designated section of river as fast as possible, while correctly negotiating gates (a series of poles suspended vertically over the river). It is in fact like any other slalom sport, such as slalom snow skiing. There are usually 20-25 gates in a race, all of which must be sequentially navigated. Green gates are negotiated in a downstream direction, while red gates are negotiated in an upstream direction. "This is typically done on class II to class IV water, but the placement of the gates, and precision necessary to paddle them fast and 'clean' (without touching a pole), makes the moves much harder than the water's difficulty suggests." Some describe Slalom as performing at a class V level with only class III consequences. Slalom Kayaking is the only form of whitewater kayaking that is in the Olympics.
  • Playboating or Freestyling is just what you might imagine, using one's skill set to play. While the other varieties of kayaking generally involve going from Point A to Point B, playboaters often stay in one spot in the river, usually in a hole, hydraulic or on a wave, where they work with and against the dynamic forces of the river to perform a variety of maneuvers. These can include surfing, spinning, and various vertical moves (cartwheels, loops, blunts, and many others). Playboaters are only limited by the features of the spot and their imaginations. Aerial maneuvers have become more accessible, where paddlers perform tricks having gained air from using the speed and bounce of the wave. Kayaks used for playboating generally have relatively low volume in the bow and stern, allowing the paddler to submerge the ends of the kayak with relative ease. Competitions for playboating or freestyle are sometimes called whitewater rodeo.
Whitewater Rafting

About Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater Rafting is more simply classified than kayaking but can be just as enjoyable. Whitewater rafting is a group recreational activity using multi-passenger, inflatable rubber boats, typically steered by a professional guide, to travel down rivers with numerous rapids.

Nowadays, rafts are almost exclusively inflatable and consist of very durable, multi-layered rubberized fabrics with several independent air chambers. Their lengths vary from 11 ft to 20 ft., with an average width of 6 ft to 8 ft. WNC rafting is almost exclusively done in symmetrical rafts (4-12 persons) steered from the stern by a guide.

Safety Overview and Warning of Inherent Risks

Although whitewater boating fatalities have garnered increased attention in the last couple of years, the actual fatality rate for whitewater boating, (2.9 persons*), is not nearly as high as a few highly-publicized deaths would lead you to believe. In comparison with other sports, it is safer than scuba diving (3.5 persons*) and mountaineering (3.2 persons*). In fact, driving a car is arguably more dangerous than whitewater boating, as the fatality rate for driving a passenger vehicle is (15.2 persons*). *Fatalities are based on 1998 statistics and are per 100,000 participants.

There are certain things that a beginner boater should understand before jumping into the water. One should have the appropriate type of gear, basic whitewater safety knowledge, and an experienced guide until he or she has gained a basic understanding of the sport. NO EXCEPTIONS!

Kayaker Paddling Upstream in a River

Familiarizing oneself with potential river dangers is paramount to whitewater safety and there are many dangers on a river that one must become familiar with. Strainers, filters, sweepers, wood, log sieves, log jams, timber…do you have a chill running down you spine yet? At every blind corner or blind drop we paddlers shudder a little and worry about a hiding log. Logs give us nightmares. Logs are the predators of paddlers and we treat them how our ancestors in this county treated wolves and mountain lions, with a healthy fear. Although there are many dangers and pitfalls on the river, the rewards outweigh the obstacles, and properly instructed, one can learn how to "read water" and avoid such death traps.

The other bane of paddlers is the hydraulic (although to an experienced paddler this can be his/her "perfect wave"). A hydraulic is basically a section of the river that has come to the point of recirculation, and should be entered with caution and a healthy deal of respect. A good example would be to look at the base of a waterfall. The water at the bottom is stuck in a circular motion that holds anything that gets trapped in it. Hydraulics don't discriminate on what they trap, therefore proceed with caution when approaching a hydraulic.

For an excellent safety code explanation, as well as rapid classifications, visit American Whitewater.

Basic Skill Requirements for Kayaking and Rafting

Paddling is a lifetime activity. You can start at almost any age, and your progress is limited only by your adventurous spirit.

With some of the smaller rivers, where unguided trips are offered, these types of rivers are safe for the beginner. However, if one is looking to attempt anything more than these entry level type rivers, a whitewater safety course would be recommended. These courses will go over the proper way to swim in a river, the dangerous obstacles mentioned above, and it will give you an idea of how comfortable you will be on a river.

After you have entered the sport it is up to you to determine what level you are at and decide for yourself how adventurous you would like to become.

The Rivers we Paddle in Western North Carolinia

Clipart Image of a Canoe

Chattooga River (GA) - Get current river level.

The Chattooga wild and scenic river begins at the base of Whitesides Mountain in North Carolina and flows in a southwesterly direction to form the border between South Carolina and Georgia. One of the wildest and most beautiful whitewater rivers in the country, the Chattooga was the first river in the Southeast to be designated "Wild & Scenic" by Congress and was used as a location for the movie Deliverance. The Sumter and Chattahoochee National Forest will surround you while on this wilderness adventure river. The Chattooga has something to offer the beginner kayaker as well as the expert kayaker, and is fit for canoeing and whitewater rafting as well. The Chattooga is one of the few commercially-rafted class V rivers in the Southeast. In the springtime the banks of the river are lined with blooming pink and white Mountain Laurel. Also in the Spring the Chattooga is fed by spring waters resulting in a higher flow. This is important because the Chattooga is a free-flowing river, meaning there is no upstream dam to control the flow. This means that the river swiftly responds to rainfall or drought conditions. As a drop-pool style river, rapids are followed by calm pools.

The Chattooga is separated into several sections with Section 0 starting out near Cashiers.

  • Section III has Class II-IV rapids.
  • Section IV has Class III-IV+ rapids, including the famous Five Falls.

French Broad River (NC) - Get current river level.

The French Broad River offers great scenery and is the 3d oldest river in the world, the first and second oldest being the Nile and the New River (which is also in NC). The river is even older than the Appalachian Mountains that it flows through, and was known to the Cherokee Indians as the Agiqua or “Long Man.” The French Broad winds through Pisgah National Forest and the whitewater section, located near Walnut, N.C., is very convenient to Asheville. This river is a perfect introduction to kayaking and rafting and offers Class II-IV whitewater, suitable for beginner to intermediate boaters.

Green River (NC) - Call for daily levels: 828-698-2068

The Green River is too shallow for rafting, but for kayakers this river is something of a local legend. The Green River Narrows, which is less than three miles long, has drawn paddlers from around the globe to challenge its slides and precipitous drops. The Green River is split into three sections, the Upper Green, the Narrows, and the Lower Green. The Upper portion has Class II-III whitewater, the Narrows has Class V whitewater, and the lower part of the river is a great spot for beginner kayaking, canoeing, and even tubing (Beer Drinking on the river is in the process of being banned much to the dismay of locals). The upper portion of the river flows naturally but the Narrows’ and Lower Green’s flow is controlled by Duke Power. With reliable releases almost 300 days each year, paddlers are seldom disappointed.

Nantahala River (NC)

The Nantahala River is located West of Asheville NC, neighboring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is said that “Nantahala,” comes from the Cherokee phrase, “Land of the Noonday sun.” This name is an appropriate one seeing as how the sun only reaches the floor of the deep gorges and valleys of the Nantahala when directly overhead at midday. With spectacular scenery, easy access, and great whitewater it is easy to see why the Nantahala is so popular with whitewater boaters. This great river begins high in the mountains and flows into the Nantahala Lake, and then empties into Fontana Lake just below the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Below the lake, the lower section begins with 8 miles of class II-III whitewater. Duke Power controls the flow of the river, which is usually flowing during the daytime with consistently controlled levels. Sometimes, with heavy rains, or a need to lower the water levels of Nantahala Lake, the river flows 24 hours a day. It is in these times that experienced paddlers come out to enjoy the Upper Section of the river (above the dam). This steep and narrow section of the river, called the Cascades, boasts up to Class V rapids. In November Duke Power usually does it’s scheduled dam maintenance, and therefore the river is not flowing. The river’s average year round temperature is approximately 52 degrees, and is one of the most popular rivers in the world, with over 250,000 paddlers annually.

New River (NC/WV) - Get current river level.

The New River begins high in the mountains of Western North Carolina, crosses Virginia, and traverses West Virginia to join the Gauley River, and form the Kanawha River. Its name is misleading because The New River is actually considered one of the oldest rivers in the world. Although known to be a wild river for whitewater, the NC portion of the river consists primarily of long pools, and is ideal for family float trips, beginners, and those who desire a chance to swim and picnic more that tackle whitewater. The New River is almost always flowing and offers ample opportunity for fishing, camping, and swimming.

Nolichucky River (NC/TN) - Get current river level.

Formed from the drainage of the North Carolina and East Tennessee Blue Ridge Mountains, the Nolichucky River has become quite the popular whitewater rafting and canoeing destination. With both calm waters and exciting white water as well as very scenic wilderness stretches, the Nolichucky River is considered one of the most scenic rivers in the South. The river offers intermediate kayaking and canoeing, and beginner to intermediate rafting. The Upper Nolichucky (North Carolina region) has challenging whitewater, while the Lower Nolichucky (Tennessee region) presents a more serene experience. The flow of this river is controlled by the Nolichucky Dam.

Ocoee River (TN) - Get current river level.

The Ocoee River with big, closely spaced rapids makes it one of the most popular whitewater rivers in the nation. No other river in the East offers the degree of challenge, safety and consistent water flow that is found here. In fact, the Ocoee has been rated one of the ten best whitewater rivers in the country by Canoe Magazine. It has been chosen as the site of the national whitewater championships on several occasions as well as home of the 1996 Olympic Whitewater competition. The Ocoee's flow is controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority via three dams.

Pigeon River (NC/TN) - Get current river levels for NC portion, TN portion.

The Pigeon River of WNC and East Tennessee, begins above Canton, and then flows roughly parallel to Interstate 40 for many miles, before it is impounded by a Duke Energy dam in Waterville NC. Then it enters Tennessee, where it flows directly into the French Broad River. Named after the passenger pigeon (now extinct), this river has become a very popular boating destination for those who live in close proximity to Asheville. The Upper section begins at the powerhouse and features thrilling Class III-IV whitewater rapids, while the Lower section features calm waves and beautiful scenery.

Tuckasegee (NC) - Get flow schedule.

The Tuckasegee, like most rivers of Western North Carolina, was named by the Cherokee people that inhabited the region. The name Taskegi-agi, means "Place of the Taskekee People." The Taskekee (Woodpecker People) were a branch of the Muskogeans (Creeks) who resided in the region preceding the appearance of the Cherokees in the late 1600s. The Tuckasegee, now known simply as “The Tuck” is a great beginner river, with ample opportunity for some more advanced whitewater, as well as tubing and other leisure activities. With its close proximity to Asheville, it is a great family choice.

Watauga River (NC/TN) - Get current river level.

The Watauga River is well known for its challenging white water rapids, and its unspoiled beauty. This river originates on the edge of Grandfather Mountain, near Boone NC, and offers whitewater ranging from class I to class V. The upper portions of this river are perfect for tubing, with class I and II rapids. The pace and difficulty of the river progresses as the distance from Grandfather Mountain increases, providing a range of difficulty for almost anyone wanting to enjoy some whitewater. This river is Dam controlled and is considered a great river to raft with beginners and is perfect way to enter the sport of rafting for those who have never ventured on a whitewater rafting trip before.

Gear and Local Outfitters Near Asheville NC

For any one that steps into a boat of any kind two pieces of equipment are needed, a PFD (better known as a life vest) and a helmet. Any one who paddles without these two pieces of equipment is asking to have his or her life ended… quickly!

Rafting Equipment and PFDs (Personal Floatation Device)

There are other pieces of equipment that may be needed depending on what type of boat you are paddling. For example, kayakers need a spray skirt. This creates a seal around the cockpit of the boat preventing water from entering. Canoe paddlers need air bags to take up the majority of space in there boats once again preventing the boat from filling up with water. Most boaters carry a throw bag. This is a rope coiled up inside a bag in a manor that allows it to be thrown in a rescue attempt. Most boaters carry a knife for cutting themselves out of dangerous situations. On occasion a boaters own gear, such as a strap or string, can get hung on debris in the water and needs to be cut away. Some boaters have even become entangled in old fishing line left in the water.

Man Wearing a Wet Suit

Other gear is mostly base d around comfort. There are wet suits and neoprene tops and bottoms for colder weather, and polypro for extra comfort under gear. All of these items can be found locally at the following fine establishments:

Asheville Outdoor Center
521 Amboy Rd
Asheville, NC 28806

Black Dome Mountain Sports
140 Tunnel Road
Asheville NC 28805

Black Dome Outdoors - The North Face
1378 Hendersonville Road Suite D
Asheville NC 28803

Dimond Brand Outdoors
2623 Hendersonville Rd.
Arden, NC 28704

Diamond Brand Outdoors - Asheville
172 Charlotte Street
Asheville, NC 28801

Frugal Backpacker
2623 Hendersonville Road
Arden, NC 28704
Green River Adventures
1734 Holbert Cove Road
Saluda, NC 28773

Headwaters Outfitters River Adventures
PO Box 145
Rosman, NC 28772

Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 W
Bryson City, NC 28713-9165

REI - Asheville
31 Schenck Parkway
Asheville, NC 28803

Second Gear
415 Haywood Rd # A. Asheville, NC 28806

Guide Service Near Asheville in Western North Carolina

Adventurous Fast Rivers Rafting
14690 Nantahala River, Hwy 19W
Bryson City, NC 28713

Asheville Outdoor Center
521 Amboy Rd
Asheville, NC 28806

Blue Ridge Rafting and Resort
153 Bridge St
Hot Springs, NC 28743

Cherokee Adverntures Inc.
2000 Jonesborough Road
Erwin TN 37650

Dan River Company
1070 SouthwyckFarm Rd.
Lawsonville,NC 27022

Endless River Adventures
14157 US Highway 19 West, Box 246
Bryson City, NC 28713

Foothills Adventures
P.O. Box 511
Hot Springs, NC 28743

French Broad Rafting Expeditions
7525 Unit 2, US Hwy 25/70
Marshall, North Carolina 28753

Green River Adventures
1734 Holbert Cove Road
Saluda, NC 28773

Headwaters Outfitters River Adventures
PO Box 145
Rosman, NC 28772

High Mountain Expeditions
1380 Hwy 105 South
Boone, North Carolina 28607

Huck Finn Rafting Adventures
PO Box 366
Hot Springs, NC 28743

Mountain Adventure Guides
2 Jones Branch Road
Erwin, TN 37650

Nantahala Outdoor Center
13077 Highway 19 W
Bryson City, NC 28713-9165

Rafting in the Smokies
PO Box 592
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Rapid Descent River Co.
P.O. Box 89
3195 Hartford Rd.
Hartford, Tennessee 37753

Rolling Thunder River Company
10160 Hwy. 19 West
Bryson City, NC 28713

Tuckaseegee Outfitters
HWY 441/74
Dillsboro NC. 28725

Wahoo's Adventures
P.O. Box 3094
Boone, NC 28607

Wildwater Rafting
Multiple Locations:
  1. Nantahala Rafting Center
    10345 Highway 19 West
    Bryson City, NC 28713
  2. Chattooga Rafting Center
    1251 Academy Road
    Long Creek, SC 29658
  3. Ocoee Rafting Center
    Highway 64 West
    Ducktown, TN 37326
  4. Pigeon Rafting Center
    Hartford Rd.
    Hartford, TN 37753

USA Raft
Multiple Locations:
  1. 13490 US 25/70
    Marshall, NC 28753
  2. US Rt. 74W
    Bryson City, NC
  3. Hartford Rd.
    Hartford, TN

Web Resources for Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking

Rafting Equipment and PFDs (Personal Floatation Device)
American Whitewater - One of the best out there, this site has everything!

Boating Beta - This is a local site with great content and valuable information.

Chattooga River - Wonderful site all about the Chattooga.

USGS National Water Information System - Real-time water data for North Carolina.

Tennessee Valley Authority - Valley stream flow data for Tennessee.
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