Rushing, bubbling rapids probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when thinking of North Carolina. The Tar Heel State is most notable as the location for the Wright brothers’ first flight, its sprawling Atlantic beaches, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In an already scenic state full of outdoor recreation opportunities such as hiking and tubing, whitewater rafting ranks as one of the most thrilling.

Read on for the best spots for whitewater rafting NC, trusted outfitters, and more.

Group of people in a raft going off a wave
North Carolina’s rivers are ripe for whitewater adventures. | Photo by: Flickr // Torrey Wiley

Best whitewater rafting in North Carolina

Asheville

The most popular rafting river near the tourist-laden city of Asheville is the French Broad. Running 218 miles from the southern part of the state north into Tennessee, the class II and III rapids accessible within a short driving distance of the city provide a fun trip for beginners and intermediate whitewater rafters alike.

If you’re looking for a guided trip along the French Broad, here are a couple of the top outfitters in the area.

Nantahala Outdoor Center

NOC is a short 30-minute drive from Asheville and boasts being the longest-running outfitter on the French Broad. Try their half-day tour out if you’re bringing the family and enjoy class II and III rapids as you paddle through the beautiful Pisgah National Forest. This tour lasts between 3.5 to five hours, includes lunch, and begins at $65 (age 8+).

French Broad Adventures

This local outfitter located just 25 minutes from the city also offers a couple of fun tour options on the French Broad. Choose from a five-mile, three- to four-hour trip (one option includes lunch) along calm class I to III rapids, or a nine-mile, five- to six-hour trip that runs along some class IV rapids as well. The minimum age for all trips is 8 years old and prices start at $53.

Charlotte

Although this major North Carolina city in the southern part of the state has some great museums to visit, there is not much in the way of whitewater rafting in the area. Charlotte lies in the Piedmont portion of the state, mostly consisting of small, rolling hills and plateau.

However, funnily enough, the city is home to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Whether you’re looking for a comfortable introduction to whitewater rafting or wanting to practice some techniques for tackling more technical rapids, you can do so here on the world’s largest manmade river consisting of class II to V sections. People ages 8+ can try out the Family Rafting experience or super thrill-seekers the Big Water Rafting (age 16+). This is a great place to do some whitewater rafting in an area where it is otherwise unavailable, as well as try it out under controlled conditions.

Boone

Rafting opportunities abound near Boone, NC with the Nolichucky River and Watauga River. Nolichucky typically offers class III and IV rapids, making it a better option for older kids and adrenaline junkies. If you’re looking for something a little tamer or more appropriate to take younger kids on, the Watauga River is the way to go with its class I to III rapids.

High Mountain Expeditions

For a trip down either of these local rivers, check into the trips offered by High Mountain Expeditions. Choose from an 11-mile, full-day adventure on the Nolichucky and experience class III and IV rapids on the deepest river gorge east of the Mississippi. Or, for a true wilderness immersion trip, take the two-day trip and enjoy some hiking as well on day two of your trip or take a dip in Devils Creek. Prices start at $85 and $249, respectively. The minimum age is 9 for both options.

Edge of the World

For those with younger children or who are looking for something less intense, take a trip down the Watauga River with Edge of the World. Traverse fun, splashy class I to III rapids with a trusted outfitter that has been in business for 38 years. Ages 4+ are welcome on this three- to four-hour trip. You’ll have the option to rerun the biggest rapid as many times as you want, and you can enjoy delicious home-cooked meals for lunch! Prices depend on group size. Groups ranging from one to nine people are $64 for kids, $74 for adults.

Bryson City

Bryson City in the southwestern corner of North Carolina is arguably one of the most popular areas in the state for whitewater rafting. The Tuckasegee River offers mild class I to III rapids in the area, making it the perfect location for families and beginners.

If you don’t mind a little extra driving, there is also the Ocoee River in Southeastern Tennessee, offering a little more excitement for adventure-seekers with its numerous class III and IV rapids. The 1996 Olympic whitewater events were held along this river, so you know it will be a good time!

Rolling Thunder River Company

For a challenging half- or full-day trip on the Ocoee, head out with Rolling Thunder River Company. One of the premier whitewater rafting locations in Tennessee due to its popularity gained with the Olympics and boasting the longest continuous stretch of class III and IV rapids, these trips are described as “exciting but not extreme.” Beginners are welcome, but you must be 12 or older. Prices range from $36 to $96 per person.

Tuckaseegee Outfitters

For ages 4+, Tuckaseegee Outfitters offers families and novices a milder, but enjoyable, ride in the area. Take in the views of the scenic mountain valley as you paddle across such rapids as the Double Drop, Slingshot and Sharkstooth. This is a fun way to cool off on a hot summer day and trips generally last two to three hours, making it perfect for groups with young kids.

Cherokee

Located just 16 minutes from Bryson City, the enchanting town of Cherokee also hosts a number of rafting trips along the Tuckasegee River. Rapids are even milder here, ranging around class I and II, making for another beginner- and family-friendly river.

Smoky Mountain River Adventures

The 2.5-hour guided trip down “The Tuck” offers not only 5.5 miles of alternating calm waters and rapids, but jumping rocks, pool swimming and wildlife viewing along the way as well. With the docile nature of the river here, ages 4+ are welcome and prices begin at $30 per child (12 and under) and $35 per adult. If you have prior whitewater rafting experience, you can opt to rent your own raft instead for $20 per adult and $15 per child.

Dillsboro River Company

This outfitter offers two family-friendly trip options down the Tuckasegee. If you’d like to experience some tame rapids, but aren’t really up for doing a lot of the work, look into the Fully Guided tour. This one is great for first-time rafters and those with young kids (4+). Tour starts at $27 per child (12 and under) and $37 per adult.

If your group thinks it’s ready to take the next step to rafting alone, check out the Guide Assisted option. A guide will still be with you on the water to lead you and help you with proper paddling and steering techniques, but they will be in their own craft. Prices begin at $22 per child (12 and under) and $32 per adult.

Nantahala River

One of the most popular whitewater rafting NC destinations is the Nantahala River, located in the southeastern part of the state near Bryson City and Cherokee. Like many other whitewater rivers in the state, the Nantahala offers novice-friendly class II and III rapids.

Nantahala Outdoor Center

Head down an eight-mile section of the Nantahala with one of, if not the, most trusted outfitter for the river. This fully-guided tour lasts about three hours altogether and is acceptable for ages 7+. You’ll enjoy getting wet on these splashy rapids, learning a little about the area from your knowledgeable guide, and soaking in the calming mountain and forest scenery in slower spots on the river. Prices range between $54 and $59.

If you have previous experience, you can also rent your own raft to navigate the same section of river. Prices begin at $30 for non-peak days.

Paddle Inn Rafting Company

If you seek a more customizable rafting trip, check out Paddle Inn Rafting Company. They offer fully-guided, guide-assisted, and “Be Your Own Boss” rental or self-guided trips. Once you’ve figured out which of these options is best for you, you can choose to do their 8.5-mile Full River trip, 7.5-mile Top to Campground trip, or four-mile Ferebee Park to Campground trip. As if that weren’t enough, Paddle Inn offers a wide array of boat sizes, ranging from two- or three-person to seven or eight.

What to wear whitewater rafting in North Carolina

As with any outdoor activity, what is best to wear depends on the weather. Here are some items to consider for both warm and cool weather whitewater rafting in NC.

Warm

  • Bathing suit
  • Quick-drying shorts and t-shirt or tank top (cotton is never advisable as it holds on to moisture)
  • Water shoes, strap-on sandals or old tennis shoes you don’t mind getting wet
  • Hat, sunscreen and sunglasses (with strap)

Cool

  • Wool, fleece and synthetic clothing, in general, is recommended
  • Some places will offer splash gear and diving booties for rent or sale, but you might want to bring a rain suit or coat
  • A wet or drysuit may be the best gear if temperatures are particularly chilly
  • A towel and a change of clothes for after your trip are a great idea for any season

When to go whitewater rafting in North Carolina

Rafting season in North Carolina generally runs from April to October. Average highs range between 68° and 85°F during these months. As far as avoiding crowds goes, it depends on what area you will be visiting, especially if it is a particularly popular vacation destination by itself. In general, though, tourism is highest from June through August. It can become very humid in North Carolina during these months, so if you must plan your trip during the summer, at least you will get cooled off on your rafting trip.

May, June, September and October are the best times to plan your trip as far as weather goes. However, the fall months are also prime “leaf peeping” time.

The rivers of North Carolina provide the perfect place for first-timers and families to try out whitewater rafting with the beautiful backdrop of rolling hills, mountains and dense forests. Where will you plan your whitewater rafting NC adventure?

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