The Great Smoky Mountains and its surroundings rank among America’s great playgrounds for outdoor recreation. Much of that outdoor recreation takes place on dry land, but not all of it: Boating is part of the adventure fabric of the area, and some of the most thrilling of all takes place on Southern Appalachian wildwater.
Whether you’re a beginner whitewater rafter or an expert at riding rapids, Gatlinburg is a great jumping-off point for getting on some gorgeous flows. Some of the most celebrated and best-known rafting in the area takes place a stone’s throw from Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Pigeon River, which rises in the North Carolina highlands, crosses into Tennessee, and empties into the French Broad River.
Rafting the Pigeon River
One of the reasons the Pigeon is such a fine recreational river is its variety. The gorge of the Upper Pigeon between Walter’s Dam (which forms Waterville Lake upstream) and the town of Hartford offers exciting whitewater with multiple rapids ranging in “muscle” as high as Class III and Class IV. Downstream of Hartford, the Lower Pigeon presents a more leisurely float on its gentler waters, riffled only by Class I and II whitewater.
Thus, folks seeking a rodeo ride often opt for rafting on the Upper Pigeon, tackling such famed rapids as Powerhouse, Roller Coaster, Lost Guide, Double Reactionary, and Accelerator. Families with young kids and anybody else more interested in kicking back at a lazier pace, meanwhile, have the Lower Pigeon to enjoy.
Scheduled releases of water from Walter’s Dam during the summer on certain days each week provide the most consistent rafting on the Pigeon, but the “natural flows” of spring and fall still offer river-running possibilities depending on the water level.
The two classic routes on the Pigeon River are easily reached from Gatlinburg, and multiple top-rated outfitters offer trips on them. Both the Upper Pigeon and the Lower Pigeon are beginner-friendly when you’ve got the knowledge, expertise, and equipment of these guides at hand. Here are a few rafting outfitters in the area to consider!
Rafting in the Smokies
Rafting in the Smokies has been offering rafting on the Pigeon since 1978, and indeed its guides helped name some of the river’s rapids. The outfitter offers a 5.5-mile, roughly 1.5-hour whitewater trip on the Upper Pigeon and a six-mile, roughly two-hour Lower Pigeon Family Float.
You can combine river trips at Rafting in the Smokies with the on-the-ground pleasures of its Pigeon River Outpost. Along with a playground and picnic ground, you’ve also got ziplines, ropes courses, a climbing wall, and other activities available to pursue.
Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) Gatlinburg
Another long-standing outdoor recreation company—and “One of the Best Outfitters on Earth,” according to National Geographic ADVENTURE—NOC also offers some great Pigeon River rafting trips. Its five-mile Upper Pigeon Gorge and four-mile Lower Pigeon Gorge outings cover the high-to-low-adrenaline spectrum. You can also blend a river ride on the Upper Pigeon with some awesome hiking in the full-day Smoky Mountain Adventure package.
Smoky Mountain Outdoors
Smoky Mountains Outdoors leads a number of whitewater trips on the Pigeon, including its basic 6.5-mile-long Upper River Rafting trip and its 5.5-mile Lower River Rafting float. Another possibility for more experienced rafters—and open only to those who can swim—is the Extreme Upper River Rafting experience, which maxes out at three rafters and a guide and utilizes a smaller raft, all of which means a more rough-and-tumble ride.
Experience the Joy & the Adventure of Whitewater Rafting in the Great Smokies
The Pigeon River is far from the only whitewater destination in the greater Gatlinburg region, but it’s certainly one of the most accessible ones and the perfect gateway for further river-running adventures!