Rafting in the Smokies – Everything You Need to Know

Rafting in the Smokies

Rafting in the Smokies – Everything You Need to Know

White water rafting in the Smoky Mountains is a thrilling and exhilarating outing that just may be the highlight of your vacation to the region. Conquering the rapids and battling the waves is both challenging and thrilling and the Smoky Mountains offers some of the best white water rafting in the country.

The Great Smoky Mountains, so named for the natural fog that hangs over the ridges, are the part of the Appalachian Mountains that extends along the Tennessee and North Carolina border. With breathtaking vistas, deep gorges, tranquil forests, and abundant rivers, the Smoky Mountains are a popular tourist destination, particularly to the outdoorsy person. A portion of the Smoky Mountains has been set aside to form the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which welcomes more than 11 million visitors every year, making it the most visited of all the national parks in the U.S.

The combination of the rugged, beautiful outdoors and the proximity to some really cool cities, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville in Tennessee, and Bryson City and Cherokee in North Carolina, make the Smoky Mountains a great vacation spot for a wide spectrum of outdoor adventurers. In the cities, tourists can enjoy live music, casinos, winery and distillery tours, historic architecture, charming shops, and fine dining. Hiking, camping, horseback riding, fishing, and boating are among the favorite outdoor activities for visitors. Adrenaline junkies in particular are drawn to the fast-moving rivers that cut through gorges in the Smoky Mountains.

Home to more than two thousand miles of fast-moving mountain rivers and streams that cut through mountains, gorges, and valleys, the Smoky Mountains has become a mecca for white water adventurers. Water needs just two things in order to become a fast-moving cascade of white water…elevation changes and plenty of water.

The Smoky Mountains have both. Elevations in the Smoky Mountains are quite varied. Some places are rather low, with elevations of around 800 feet, while other spots soar to more than 6,600 feet in elevation. Additionally, the Smoky Mountains are wet. The region receives an annual rain fall of more than 85 inches, so the rivers are constantly fed with rushing water, to the delight of rafting enthusiasts.

Although it is easy to think that the Smoky Mountains are ‘settled,’ with plenty of residents living in the area and thousands of visitors flocking in each year, in fact the Smoky Mountains contain more large-tract wilderness areas than any other region east of the Mississippi River. What that means for white water rafters to the Smoky Mountains, as well as hiker and campers, is that you will have the chance to see some of American’s most well-known wild animals in their natural habitat. White-tail deer, turtles, owls, coyotes, groundhogs, foxes, and even the American black bear all make their homes in the Smoky Mountains.

Rushing white water, soaring mountain cliffs, quiet forest glens, an abundance of wild animals…the setting is ideal for a white water rafting vacation.


What to Look for When Booking a White Water Rafting Trip in the Smoky Mountains

Wherever there is a perfect river for white water rafting, you will undoubtedly find a plethora of white water rafting guide businesses that offer experienced river guides to escort you and your group through the fast-moving water. Instead of picking a white water raft tour at random, you should do a little bit of research to make sure that you are selecting a reputable outfitter that is committed to safety and to providing their customers with a memorable experience. Here are a few of the points to consider before booking your white water rafting adventure in the Smoky Mountains.

Safety First

White water rafting is an inherently dangerous activity and comes with risks that should not be taken lightly. Rafters expect to have a fun and exciting time, but they don’t expect to encounter any danger. It is the task of the river guides to make sure that each person finishes the river run uninjured. When selecting a white water river guide, seek out companies that put a focus on customer safety.

How Long Has the Company Been in Business?

Ask the white water rafting company how long they have been in business. Although new businesses are founded every year that can provide you with an outstanding trip, there is no substitute for experience. If the company you are looking at is a newcomer to the industry, ask some questions to gauge the experience level of the business owner and the river guides. What happens in most cases is that an experienced river guide who has worked for another outfitter for a number of years decides to branch off to start their own river guide company. The company may seem new, but they really bring years of experience to the table.

Are the River Guides Certified?

Find out how the white water rafting company hires their river guides and what type of training and certification each river guide is required to have. Are all the river guides CPR certified? Are they trained in providing first aid? What is their protocol if an emergency occurs?

What Safety Equipment is Provided?

Ask about the safety equipment that will be provided to all rafters. Will there be helmets and life vests, for example? It is important that life jackets fit well so ask if the river guides will help to make sure that each rafter is wearing the right sized life vest and it is properly secured. You could also inquire about gloves to protect your hands.

What Instructions are Given?

The majority of the people booking white water rafting tours have never white water rafted before. Will there be a safety lecture or demonstration before setting off in the boats? Will rafters be instructed about how to handle the boat and about what to do if they pop out of the raft? Are there certain areas of the river that are more problematic and require additional focus?

Will There be Weather Concerns?

Most white water rafting tours in the Smoky Mountains still run in the rain, knowing that all the rafters were going to get wet anyway. Weather can change quickly in the Smoky Mountains, so it may rain for a short time and then the sun will come out. If there is lightning or high winds, the river guide may postpone the trip until the weather clears. If the weather turns foul while you are on the river, the guide may pull the boat to shore to ride out the storm. You should ask about the storm policy when you book your trip.

How Many Tours Are Offered?

Before booking your white water rafting trip, ask about the number of tours the company offers and the skill level and age requirements for each one. Some people are looking for a little more excitement and adventure than others, so ask plenty of questions to be sure you know what to expect on your tour.

Are There Additional Attractions Onsite?

In addition to the white water rafting excitement, ask the outfitter if there are other activities available on site. Many white water rafting companies are taking advantage of the elevation changes in the Smoky Mountains by offering ziplining and canopy walks through the trees. There may be picnic sites, hiking trails, kayak rentals, and other activities. The white water rafting outfitter you are using may also have agreements with other local attractions, such as horseback riding, bike trails, and more.

Has the Company Received Awards, Recognition or Customer Feedback?

Find out what, if any, awards and recognition the company has received. In the white water rafting industry, many outfitters are recognized as providing outstanding safety and customer experience. Some of the accolades may even come from travel and tourism organizations. Also take a look at customer feedback. Is it mostly positive or mostly negative? Do previous rafters refer them? Reading through actual customer feedback can help you to weed out some rafting companies, and it certainly should give you more questions to ask when booking your white water rafting guide…questions you probably didn’t think to ask.


What follows is a ranking of some of the white water rafting companies based in the Smoky Mountains that have developed a reputation for providing their customers with a once in a lifetime memory while keeping them safe on the river.


1   Smoky Mountain Outdoors

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to smokymountainrafting.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 45 minutes from Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: Ages 3 and up for the Lower Pigeon River tour; 8 years old or 70 lbs. for the Upper Pigeon River tour.

Tours: 3 different tours to choose from, plus combo deals

Additional Attractions: Zip line, inflatable kayaks

Smoky Mountain Outdoors has been guiding adventurers down the Pigeon River Gorge since 1993. Safety is a top priority. All of the river guides at SMO have years of experience on the river so they not only keep rafters safe, but they ensure that they all have a great and memorable  experience. SMO has a 5.5 mile Lower Pigeon River rafting trip that is a bit calmer and ideal for families with children. The Upper Pigeon River rafting trip has a little more excitement to offer, with class 3 and class 4 rapids and a few big drops over the 6.5 miles. The guides at SMO will even take you on their Extreme Upper River rafting trip if thrill seeking is more your style. You can even book a combo package for more fun on the river. SMO rafting tours make a fun date for an adventurous couple or a memorable family outing. They even book group rafting tours for corporate team building, family reunions, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and youth groups.


2   Rafting in the Smokies

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to raftinginthesmokies.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 30 miles from Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 8 years old or 70 lbs.

Tours: 2 rafting tours to choose from

Additional Attractions: Ziplining, rock climbing wall, Family Adventure Island, rope suspension bridge, rope challenge course.

Mark and Brenda Shultz started Rafting in the Smokies in 1978 as one of the Smoky Mountains’ first white water rafting outfitters on the Big Pigeon River. Ever since, they have been treating their guests like family. They employ certified, trained, and experienced river rafting guides to keep the focus on safety. But they make sure that each raft trip is packed with excitement, memories, and insider stories about the Smoky Mountains. The friendly, personable guides delight in sharing stories of their adventures with rafters. Rafting in the Smokies offers Lower Pigeon River float trips and Upper Pigeon River white water rafting tours so there is something for every level of adventure. The Upper Pigeon River tour gives rafters twelve class 3 and three class 4 white water rapids during the 5.5 mile, hour and a half adventure.  The Lower Pigeon River tour is perfect for the less adventurous person. Rafting in the Smokies welcomes groups, including scout troops, church groups, family reunion, company outings, and others who want to take in the spectacular scenery of the Pigeon River.


3   Smoky Mountain River Rat

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to smokymtnriverrat.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 35 miles outside of Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 8 years old and up for Upper Pigeon River tours; 3 years old and up for Lower Pigeon River tours

Tours: 6 rafting and kayaking tours

Additional Attractions: Fishing tour, kayaking adventure

Smoky Mountain River Rat has been guiding white water tours through the Pigeon River Gorge since 1995. The experienced River Rat guides specialize in guiding rafters through the Upper Pigeon River through the thrilling rapids and beautiful scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains. Two different white water rafting tours through the Upper Pigeon River are offered, and both take rafters through class 3 and class 4 rapids. The Extreme Upper Pigeon Adventure provides more thrills and challenges because, for this tour, River Rats takes people on smaller rafts that hold four rafters plus the guide. The small rafts mean a faster, more exciting trip through the rapids. Both of the Upper Pigeon River tours cover about five miles and will take between an hour and a half and two hours. The Lower Pigeon River is much calmer and better for families with young children, and River Rats allows children ages three and up to participate in the excitement. For rafters who want to spend the day on the river, River Rats has a Daycation Rafting Adventure that includes white water rafting on both the Upper and Lower Pigeon Rivers, with a lunch break in between.


4   Raft Outdoor Adventures

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to raftoutdooradventures.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 30 miles outside of Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 8 years old and up or more than 70 pound for the Upper Pigeon trip; 3 and up for the Lower Pigeon trip

Tours: 2 tours

Additional Attractions: Ziplining, combo deals

The experienced river guides at Raft Outdoor Adventures will show rafters an amazing and memorable tour through the Upper Pigeon River, whether you are an experienced white water rafter or a total novice. You don’t need to be a seasoned veteran; just willing to learn and embrace the experience…even as you work your way through class 3 and class 4 rapids. A more relaxing, leisurely tour is possible with the Lower Pigeon River tour, a two hour float through the scenic and breathtaking gorge. This option is perfect for families with young children and people who may be a bit intimidated by the faster water and rapids of the Upper Pigeon River. No matter what tour you choose, you will hear fascinating tidbits about the Smoky Mountains and thrilling tales of other white water adventures from the entertaining veteran tour guides who know the Pigeon River well. The river guides want to make sure that you and your group have the best adventure you can imagine. They welcome your questions, concerns, and feedback.


5   Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft

Credit to cherokeetubeandraft.com

Location: Cherokee, North Carolina

River: Ocanaluftee River

Age Restrictions: 5 years old and up

Tours: Tube and raft trips

Additional Attractions: tubing, rope swing, Native American craft shop

Todd and Pooh Lancaster have owned and operated Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft since 1999. They offer a safe and scenic way to experience the Ocanaluftee River and the splendor of the Smoky Mountains. Depending on the water levels, the trip down the river will take between 2 and 3 hours, giving rafters plenty of time to take in the sights while cooling off. In fact, there are a few ideal stopping off points — charming swimming holes and a rope swing — that help to make the rafting trip even more memorable. The Lancasters welcome groups to Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft and the set up there is ideal for church groups, clubs and organizations, family reunions, and corporate bonding. Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft is governed by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.


6   Big Bear Rafting

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to @bigbearexpeditions via facebook

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 45 minutes outside of Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 8 and up for the Upper Pigeon River tour

Tours: 2 tours

Additional Attractions: Inflatable kayaks

Big Bear Rafting’s trained, certified, professional river guides keep the focus on safety while also making sure that the rafters have a once in a lifetime experience rafting down the Pigeon River. Families, groups, and individuals are welcome to experience the thrilling white water and class 3 and class 4 rapids during their tour. The owners and guides at Big Bear Rafting are all native to the area and know the Pigeon River well, so they can provide a rafting experience that makes rafters feel like they are getting an insider tour of the river. The experienced guide will take you and your group safely through the class 3 and class 4 rapids and rushing water of the river while maintaining all the excitement of the adventure. If you think a little rain will mean that your tour gets cancelled, think again. Big Bear Rafting’s philosophy is that you are going to get wet anyway, so they run their river tour rain or shine.


7   Big Creek Expeditions

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to bigcreekexpeditions.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 30 miles outside of Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 3 years old and up for the Lower Pigeon River; 8 years old and up for the Upper Pigeon River

Tours: 2 tours

Additional Attractions: Ziplining, combo packages

When you book your rafting adventure with Big Creek Expeditions, you have your choice to take a leisurely and relaxing float down a nearly two mile section of the Lower Pigeon River or a fast-paced and daring hour and a half adventure through a five and a half mile stretch of the Upper Pigeon River that boasts numerous class 3 and class 4 white water rapids. Whichever you choose, you can be assured that you will have an adventure that you will remember for years to come. The guides at Big Creek Expeditions believe that the best way to enjoy the spectacular beauty of the Smoky Mountains is to view them from the river. Experienced, professional, certified river guides accompany every rafting tour to ensure the safety of the rafters and to enhance the experience with humorous anecdotes and tales of adventures on the river.


8   Rapid Expeditions

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to rapidexpeditions.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, 30 miles outside of Gatlinburg

River: Pigeon River

Age Restrictions: 3 years old and up for the Lower Pigeon River; 8 years old and up for the Upper Pigeon River

Tours: 2 tours, plus a combo tour

Additional Attractions: Stand-up paddleboarding, biking, kayaking

With more than a decade of experience on the water, Rapid Expeditions has earned a reputation for putting customers first. The certified river guides understand that, often, a visitor’s white water rafting trip with them is the person’s first introduction to the exciting sport of white water rafting, therefore they want to make sure it is a positive and memorable first impression. Rapid Expeditions has consistently earned rave customer reviews and praise for their focus on customer service since 2006. Rapid Expedition is committed to safety. All of the river guides are CPR and first aid certified and begin each rafting tour with a safety talk so that all of the guests are prepared to handle an emergency.

The Upper Pigeon River tour takes rafters through more than sixty rapids, many of them categorized as class 3 and class 4 rapids. The Rapid Expedition Upper Pigeon tour spans about 4.2 miles of the river. The Lower Pigeon River tour takes rafters through 5.2 miles through the Cherokee National Forest at a much slower and more relaxing pace, better-suited for families with children under the age of 8. Can’t decide which tour to book? Do both! Rapid Expeditions offers a combo tour that combines both the Upper and Lower Pigeon River tours for a 9.4 mile, 4 hour adventure. For this tour, the guides will make plenty of stops so rafters can get out of the boats and dive into the river.


9   Wildwater Rafting

Rafting in the Smokies
Credit to wildwaterrafting.com

Location: Hartford, Tennessee, Long Creek, South Carolina, Ducktown, Tennessee, Bryson, City, North Carolina

River: Pigeon River, Chattooga River, Ocoee River, Nantahala River

Age Restrictions: 4 years old and up

Tours: 4 tours

Additional Attractions: Onsite lodging (cabins, campsites, and yurts), ziplining, Smoky Mountain jeep tours

Wildwater Rafting has multiple locations and is able to offer white water rafting excursions on four different rivers…the Pigeon River, the Chattooga River, the Ocoee River, and the Nantahala River…so rafters can see different parts of the Smoky Mountains and add to their rafting experience. The Chattooga River in Long Creek, South Carolina, not far from Atlanta, became famous when it was used as the backdrop of the film Deliverance. The river has 26 miles of wilderness white water rafting, and visitors can choose which section they want to complete, based on their skill levels.

The Ocoee River near Chattanooga in Ducktown, Tennessee, boasts some powerful rapids and a few big drops to delight rafting enthusiasts. But don’t worry…the experienced guides can handle taking you through the class 3 and class 4 rapids. You can find more class 3 and class 4 rapids along the Pigeon River in Hartford, Tennessee. A popular spot for white water rafting in the Smoky Mountains, the Pigeon River has a calmer, slower section for the less-daring and a thrilling white water section for the adventure-seekers. Wildwater Rafting also operates on the Nantahala River in Bryson City, North Carolina, near Asheville. The Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina are stunningly beautiful. The Nantahala River takes it easy of rafters…with nearly three hours of class 1 and class 2 rapids…but gives them some excitement to end their trip with a class 3 drop.


We hope these suggestions for companies to help you plan your rafting trip in the Smokies has been helpful. No matter what type of experience you’re looking for, there is a company that can help you make your white water rafting dreams come true.