Nantahala rafting is more than just whitewater and excitement for you. It’s fun with family and friends. You can’t find or experience this kind of fun on Facebook, but you can sure share your photos there once your adventure is over! The Nantahala river runs through the Nantahala National Forest – the largest of the four national forests in North Carolina, and arguably the lushest and scenic of the four – because of the rhododendron there is so thick throughout most of the forest.
It’s not a secret rafting destination, so it’s wise to make reservations early. An average of 200,000 people a year ran the Nantahala over the last five years — most of that in the summer – a mere three months. Between 85 and 90 percent of Nantahala river traffic, according to the forest service, is with a commercial outfitter.
Nantahala River Rafting Surprises
Depending on the season, the cold water of the Nantahala River often meets the warm air of the surrounding forest. This creates a mystical fog that floats above the river, giving rafters great photos and a sense of excitement and magic as they approach and run through the fog. It’s an unexpected surprise for most first time Nantahala white water rafting beginners.
Are You a Nantahala White Water Beginner?
Are you a beginner rafter or kayaker? Not a problem. The Nantahala features 8 ½ miles of easy Class II rapids. By the time you hit the exciting Class III whitewater of Nantahala Falls, you’ll be an old hand at navigating rapids. If you’re not, it’s okay. You’ll learn by doing, and falling out of your boat, or somehow miraculously getting through the falls still in your boat and upright. If you’re with a guide, chances are excellent you’ll pass through quickly and smoothly, without having to “swim” (falling out of the raft). If you’re on your own, you’ll do fine as well. Rafts are very forgiving and stable.
The Nantahala River and Nantahala Rafting
The Nantahala is not only an amazing river, it’s also headquarters of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Founded in 1972, NOC is located at the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the Nantahala River in the Nantahala National Forest. The NOC center used to be small, having originally been a roadside inn. You could still sit inside and get a sandwich then. But now? Well, the company has evolved into one of the largest outdoor recreation companies in the nation, hosting well over one million guests each year. Who would have guessed! Now the NOC has two restaurants, Big Wesser BBQ & Beer, and River’s End. They also have a variety of retail locations if you want to shop for gear, souvenirs, or river clothing and accessories. NOC has retail locations in Bryson City, NC, Gatlinburg, TN and Asheville, NC.
If you want family fun, a trip with a friend, or a solo getaway, the Nantahala River offers something for everyone. From family whitewater rafting trips on the most popular river in North Carolina to ziplining and a scenic train ride through the NC mountains, there are a lot of reasons the Nantahala is the most popular river in NC. Although it’s only 40 miles long, and only 8 ½ of that is runnable, it’s still a very exciting river.
Nantahala Rafting Rapids –
The Nantahala’s runnable water is mostly class II, with a few class III rapids. It’s family-friendly, and rafting here does NOT require previous experience. The Nantahala is located in the scenic Nantahala National Forest near Bryson City, North Carolina, and near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The river has hosted many national and international paddling competitions, including the 2013 Individual Whitewater Kayak Competition. You won’t have to do worry about floating long stretches of boring flat water. The Nantahala offers almost continuous, class II and III whitewater on the famous stretch of river between the Beecher-town Power Plant and the take out site located just prior to Fontana Lake.
Before or after your trip there are hundreds of places to picnic, hike, bike and enjoy the outdoors. But the real excitement comes from being on the water.
Nantahala Rafting Sections
Officially there’s just the “upper” and “lower” sections of the 8 ½ miles runnable section of the Nantahala River, but we’ve broken it down into four sections of the river to make it easier to see what looks good. Each section comes with its own special challenges and rapids.
Cascades | 0.7 miles | Class IV-V
Forget running this if you’re a beginner. These are serious rapids for advanced to intermediate-advanced paddlers. The Cascades are a dewatered section of the Nantahala, meaning the river is only high enough to run when Whiteoak Creek is high from a hard rain, or during one of the few scheduled releases during the year. Less than a mile long, the Cascades are .07 miles of easily-lapped drops. The river channels well, allowing for a wide range of runnable flows (and some very big holes at high water).
The only part of the Nantahala that can be rafted extends from the Nantahala Powerhouse to the town of Wesser – about 8 to 8 ½ miles. If you’re a private paddler, you must pay a user fee. Most beginners choose to run the river with one of the twelve commercial outfitters that are legally permitted to run guided trips.
Launching: Depending on the outfitter you’re with, you’ll launch at one of two launch sites. The main access is just downstream of the Nantahala Powerhouse and upstream of “Patton’s Run,” the first rapid just around the corner from the put-in. (This is also the rapid that sometimes gives beginners a hard time.)
Nervous about Patton’s run? Watch this drone’s eye view of the famous Nantahala rafting rapid:
The second access point is at the Ferebee Memorial Picnic Area near where US 74 crosses the river. Just as there are two put-ins, there are two take-outs, one which is above and one which is below the “Upper Nantahala Falls.”
Notable rapids on the Nantahala include “Patton’s Run,” “Quarry,” “Whirlpool,” “Surfers,” “Bulls Run,” and “Upper Nantahala Falls.” Just beyond the main take-out point in Wesser lies Lower Nantahala Falls, or Wesser Falls, which drops off at about a 45-degree angle with many sharp rocks – someplace you don’t want to go through outside a kayak. Immediately after this point, the Nantahala flows into Fontana Lake.
Water Levels Nantahala Rafting River –
Duke Energy controls the flow rate of this section of the Nantahala. Water levels and good or non-existent rafting is dependent on Duke’s releases from Nantahala Lake. The Nantahala dam is a diversion dam. A diversion dam is a dam that diverts all or a portion of the flow of a river from its natural course. Diversion dams do not generally impound water in a reservoir. So, the water that normally flows through the river is diverted through a 5.5-mile penstock, which is an enclosed pipe that delivers water to hydro turbines. The river passes through Duke’s hydro system before flowing through the Nantahala Powerhouse and back into the original river channel far downstream. The river is “on” when Duke Energy is generating electricity and releasing water. From late spring to early fall Duke Energy follows a regular release schedule to help support commercial rafting.
You can’t really see the opening of the main penstock because it’s near the bottom of the Nantahala dam, and is underground for most of its length. This is why the water is so cold and is always at or near the average groundwater temperature, which is in the mid-50s (F).
Fishing The River –
Rafters may not love the temperatures, but fly fishers and the fish do. This clear, cold section of the river is popular as a fly fishing destination. Although it is regularly stocked with fisheries fish, it is also home to one of North Carolina’s healthiest populations of wild, stream-born Rainbow Trout. The river also has a self-sustaining population of fairly large Brown Trout. The current North Carolina state record Brown Trout, weighing 24 lbs 10 oz, was caught from the Lower Nantahala in 1998, and specimens of 10 lbs or greater are fairly common.
The upper section of the river extends from the Nantahala Dam to the Nantahala Powerhouse for a 3.1-mile run. The uppermost section just below Whiteoak Falls is known as the Nantahala Cascades. It’s an extremely steep and challenging whitewater route and not recommended for beginners, but it’s a very scenic – although busy – section. The upper run is a great way for aspiring advanced paddlers to get accustomed to more continuous whitewater. The entire section is road-scoutable. There needs to be rain or a scheduled release to run this. Your outfitter should be able to give you scheduled release days and times.
Once you each the bridge, the river becomes the Upper Nantahala and flattens out to become a solid Class III-IV run. The only water normally flowing through this section comes from tributaries like Dick’s Creek. However, during periods of very wet weather, or the rare long-term outage at the powerhouse, the river flows full. Not for beginners, this section of the channel is narrow, and best run by intermediate to advanced rafters, or by beginners rafting with advanced rafters. This section features several Class III+ to V rapids including “The Horns of God,” “Big Kahuna,” and “Chinese Feet.”
The Nantahala Gorge
The Nantahala Gorge is the 7.5 section of the river mostly intended for intermediate paddlers. There are hundreds of small surf waves, forgiving eddy lines, and enough rapids in class II to III range to challenge and entertain any intermediate kayaker. The entire gorge section is also road-scoutable nearly from top to bottom, so you can walk along the river and decide if it’s a section you want to run or not. Don’t hesitate, even if you’re a rank beginner. This section is a beautiful and stress-free way to get into the world of whitewater. Rapids along this section include Patton’s Run – the first rapid you’ll run after launching. Get past Patton’s Run and you’ll encounter favorites rapids like Delebar’s Rock, Whirlpool, Quarry, Surfing Rapid, The Bump, and Nantahala Falls. The Falls is a pretty intimidating class III rapid.
It’s intimidating to both intermediate and intermediate to advanced paddlers. Expect to swim it at least once, but don’t worry. The rocks on either side of the river are always lined with throw bags for a rescue, and photographers to record your rescue or your run.
Tips for Nantahala Rafters
- Unless you’re rafting on a hot summer day, consider a half wetsuit. The Nantahala most notable feature is its dam-controlled, cold water. The emphasis is on “cold.” Make sure to have lots of towels and a change of dry shoes and clothing for everyone in your group, back at your car.
- Instead of sandals or sneakers, wear wetsuit booties. They’re warmer, lighter, less likely to fill with sand and rocks, and tend to stay on your feet better than shoes. Sneakers tend to get wet, heavy and fall off if you’re tossed out. And, they’re hard to swim with.
- Bring along a fast drying, synthetic windbreaker. If you don’t have one, you can buy one at the NOC retail location. If the breeze kicks up, or a cloud cover passes over, you’ll be glad you have something to put on to stay warm.
- Check with Groupon.com before making your reservations. This popular river is also popular with Groupon and you may be able to save big with a coupon for your adventure from Groupon.
- Check your outfitters website for policies, rules, restrictions, and cancellation info before you make a reservation. If you have young children going, make sure they meet the age, size, or weight restrictions for the company you want to register with.
Nantahala Rafting Outfitters
There are 10-12 outfitters on the Nantahala River. All are licensed and certified by the state. Each has been in operation anywhere from 10 to 40+ years, and all are family owned businesses. The differences in outfitters are primarily in price but look at things like equipment, length of time, lunch provided (or not), and length of ride to and from the river to the outfitter when making your decision. Read their reviews on Yelp.com. Tripadvisor.com and other sites to see what other customers think. Smaller outfits tend to have more engaged, friendly, customer service, but with competition what it is, it’s hard to stay in business with surly guides.
Expect most outfitters to be very customer service oriented. Here, in alphabetical order are the outfitters we could find on the Nantahala. Visit their websites for more information and details. Compare wisely – not all outfitters offer the same thing, and they charge accordingly for the value they offer.
Types of Trips
There are several kinds of raft trips available on the Nantahala. Not all outfitters offer all options, but most do. Before renting or registering, ask the outfitter exactly what you get for the price you’re paying. Many amenities, like wetsuits, transportation to the access site, showers post trip etc. are extra.
Guided: a guide is in your boat during your trip down the Nantahala River. He/she will sit at the back of the raft & guide the boat.
A Guide Assisted Raft Trip: A guide assisted trip option is available for larger groups of 12 or more people, with one or more guide-in-boat rafts as part of their trip.
Unguided Raft Trip: An Unguided raft trip is one in which the outfitter rents customers all the equipment and transportation to and from the Nantahala River. Rafters go down the river on their own without the assistance of a guide on the river itself. A guide will assist with pre-trip instructions and get you outfitted with life vests, paddles, and boats before you go to the Nantahala River.
Nantahala Funyak or Ducky Trip: A funyak trip is a trip down the Nantahala River in inflatable kayaks or “duckies” rented from the outfitter. You may choose a one-man funyak or a two man-funyak. These boats are easy to maneuver and they are lots of fun.
One of the most affordable outfitters on the river, Appalachian Rivers doesn’t skimp on amenities. Like most of the big outfitters they offer a gift shop, covered picnic tables, a bunkhouse, wetsuits and protective gear, and the standard safety training all companies give at the beginning of each trip. And, they are also located very close to the put-in. There are one of the best rental companies on the river. Beginning in the ‘70’s with four boats, a van, and a trailer, the company now boasts a fleet of nearly 100 rafts and funyaks.
Adventurous Fast Rivers
Only six years younger than NOC, Adventurous Fast Rivers was ranked the number one Nantahala River outfitter by Tripadvisor in 2016. Family owned and operated, this outfit has been specializing in whitewater rafting adventures for almost 40 years.
You might have figured out by the name that Carolina Ocoee also runs Ocoee river trips as well as guided trips down the Nantahala. Billy and Brenda Dills opened up Carolina Outfitters on the Nantahala River in 1990. Armed with nothing more than a couple rafts, a van, and a big dream they started offering whitewater rafting trips. They’ve grown since then of course, and they also offer self-guided “ducky” rafts if you’re interested in a solo trip.
Carolina Outfitters, like most of the companies on the Nantahala, offers Guided, Assisted Raft Trips and Funyak or “Ducky” trips. The outfitter offers Splash Wear at no extra charge for cooler weather paddling or for those who get cold easily. You can combine your rafting trip with a horseback riding trip, a bicycle trek, or a gemstone mining adventure, or a scenic train tour with Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, or skip the rafting and do the off water adventure, or vice versa!
Rolling Thunder River Company
Rolling Thunder offers guided raft trips on the upper and lower Nantahala, as well as the full river. Groups with 15 or more rafters can spend one night in our group lodge free on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night. Who thinks about insurance when you’re rafting? Rolling Thunder River Company does. The cost to replace a lost paddle, for example, would be $20. You have the option of purchasing equipment insurance for $1.00 per person which will cover the loss of paddle or damage to a raft. It does NOT cover the loss of raft. A nice option to have.
Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC)
There are 10 outfitters currently running commercial trips on the Nantahala river – but the biggest, best, and oldest of the bunch is The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). NOC was founded in 1972 – and was only a year old when I started learning to paddle there in 1973. I’ve watched it grow and expand and can honestly say it’s the granddaddy of outfitters running the Nantahala.
Appalachian Rivers Outpost of Carolina Outfitters, Inc. has been providing affordable guided and unguided rafting excursions on the Nantahala since 1979. They’re known for reliable, competent service both on and off the river, quality equipment, and reasonable rates for individuals and groups seeking a memorable whitewater rafting experience in the Smokies.
Paddle In Rafting
Paddle In Rafting offers Fully Guided, Guide Assisted and “Be Your Own Boss” Self Guided White Water Rafting Rental trips. Family friendly, the company offers trips for beginners from 7 years old or 60 lbs, to “how young do you feel today?” If you think age is an issue stop by and see “Mom” at the outpost. She will be 80 years young on May 4, 2018, and getting younger by the day.
White Water Express
Whitewater Express is a professional river and high adventure outfitter with 38 years experience, and a great safety record. They offer trips on the Nantahala, but also on the Chattahoochee, and the Ocoee. In addition to rafting, they also have fly-fishing guides for those who want to do more on the river than a raft.
My first rafting, kayaking, and guide experience were with Wildwater Rafting, so I’m a bit partial to them. They were the first outfitter to offer ziplines, and have some of the best guides around. They offer three-hour fully-guided trips and rent rafts for both self-guided or “ducky” experiences. Duckies are more stable than a kayak and smaller than a raft, and allow you to go at your own pace down the river.