Ultimate Guide to Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking in Asheville, NC

With the highest mountains in the East as its backyard—strung with deep river gorges—and enough rainfall to promote the growth of genuine temperate rainforest up in those misty heights, Asheville, North Carolina is a fantastic jumping-off point for incredible whitewater rafting, kayaking, and tubing. From flat water floats spent soaking up the scenery and watching for ospreys to exhilarating rides down heavy-duty canyon rapids, Asheville’s river-running can hold its own with just about anywhere!

Here’s a look at some of the major whitewater (and calm-water) runs available in Asheville’s general radius, plus a roundup of some top area outfitters for making these dream river rides happen:

The French Broad River

Its upper tributaries rising off the Tanasee and Pisgah ridges—including via the dramatic, 50-foot tumble of Courthouse Falls—the French Broad River (or the “Long Man,” one of several Cherokee names) is the largest drainage of western North Carolina and among the most ancient rivers in the world. Flowing right through Asheville, it also supplies the city’s most accessible river trips and a lot of variety: from broad, calm, flat-water stretches to more tumbling whitewater with rapids up to Class IV.

Easy, leisurely floats can be had right around Asheville, while more adventurous runs await downriver toward Hot Springs, Tennessee, as well as upriver on the French Broad’s North and West forks.

The Nantahala River

Easily one of the most popular and celebrated whitewater rivers in the Southeast, the Nantahala rises below Standing Indian Mountain, Bearpen Mountain, and other grand Blue Ridge peaks on the margins of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, and flows northward to Fontana Lake in Tennessee. Its name derives from a Cherokee word roughly translating to “Land of the Noonday Sun”: a good description of the watershed’s deep, shady, heavily forested gorges.

As with the French Broad, the Nantahala—controlled by dam release in its lower, most popular portion—includes stretches suitable for both beginner and expert river runners. The most basic run is the eight-mile reach of Class II and III rapids through the Nantahala Gorge between the Natahala Powerhouse and Wesser, above Fontana Lake; its thrill-ride features include Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, Whirlpool Rapids, and Nantahala Falls. More challenging runs, including Class IV and V rapids depending on conditions, await upstream toward the Nantahala Dam in the Nantahala Cascades.

The Chattooga River

The Chattooga is just as legendary (maybe even more so) than the Nantahala. Running a steep and gorgeous course from Blue Ridge headwaters near Cashiers to Tugaloo Lake, the Chattooga was classified as a federal Wild & Scenic River in 1974, and part of its rapids-strewn course figured prominently in the classic film Deliverance. Among the main runs are the Chattooga’s Section III, a family-friendly reach of mostly Class II and III rapids with a Class IV finish at Bull Sluice, and then the rather epic Section IV below, which includes Seven Foot Falls and the Class IV lineup of the Five Falls.

The Nolichucky River

This is another exceptionally wild flow, a free-flowing tributary of the French Broad that rises north of Asheville in the Unaka and Bald mountains. (Its broader watershed extends to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the U.S. east of the Mississippi.) The Nolichucky Gorge of the upper river includes a couple dozen named rapids ranging up to Class IV, and presents quite the wilderness odyssey.

The Pigeon River

One of the great tributaries of the French Broad, draining into it out of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Pigeon is another super-popular whitewater drainage with plenty of crowd-pleasing variety. The Upper Pigeon between Walter’s Dam and Hartford serves up Class III and Class IV rapids, including such lauded wildwater as Powerhouse, Roller Coaster, Double Reactionary, and Lost Guide (the biggest). Downriver of Hartford, the Pigeon is a gentler, more kid-friendly ride spicing things up with Class I and II rapids.

Other Great Regional Whitewater Rivers

Other top-class whitewater rivers easily accessible from Asheville include the Ocoee River (called the Toccoa in Georgia), the upper reach of (up to Class IV) hosted the whitewater slalom events of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and the middle section of which includes fun Class III and IV rapids such as Broken Nose, Tablesaw, and Hell Hole. The Green River is another dam-release flow with an awesome spectrum of difficulty, ranging from the no-problem Class I and II float of the Lower Green and the Class III rodeo of the Upper to the highly regarded, Class V Green River Narrows. Then there’s the dam-release foam and spray of the Cheoah River in far southwestern North Carolina, a tributary of the Little Tennessee that includes Class IV and V rapids in its coveted course.

River Outfitters in the Asheville, NC Area

Just as you’re spoiled for choices when it comes to whitewater rafting and floating in Asheville’s hinterland, you’ve got no shortage of outstanding outfitters and guides to make those runs happen for you. Here are some of the region’s top river outfitters and the streams they serve:

  • French Broad Adventures (French Broad River)
  • Blue Heron Whitewater (French Broad River)
  • Asheville Outdoor Center (French Broad River)
  • Nantahala Outdoor Center (French Broad River, Nantahala River, Ocoee River, Chattooga River, Pigeon River, Nolichucky River)
  • USA Raft (Nolichucky River, French Broad River)
  • Carolina Outfitters (Nantahala River, Ocoee River)
  • Endless River Adventures (Nantahala River, Ocoee River, Cheoah River)
  • Wildwater Rafting (Chattooga River, Ocoee River, Pigeon River, Nantahala River)
  • Rolling Thunder River Co. (Nantahala River, Ocoee/Toccoa River)

Experience the Best in Southern Appalachian Whitewater Rafting With an Asheville Home Base

From the lazy “urban” roll of the French Broad to the remote and rugged recesses of the Chattooga and Nolichucky, you’ve got outstanding variety when it comes to whitewater rafting and kayaking in Asheville’s vicinity. Enjoy these top-grade Southern Appalachian flows—and some breathtaking scenery—on a river trip here!