Who knew that white water rafting in North Carolina was so popular? I can tell you for sure that I didn’t until I met my husband a few years ago.

Imagine this:

You’re leisurely floating down the river enjoying the beauty of the trees or boulders lining the banks beside you. The people in the boat with you are all goofing off and laughing, having a good time.

You start hearing a low rushing noise.

As you float down the river that rush gets louder and louder until it’s like it’s coming from inside your head. If you have a guide then you must follow his commands to a T and everyone has to work together at the same time to prevent some (or all) of you from landing in the river.

If you’re in your own boat, then it’s up to you to look at the lines and figure out which route you’ll take through this rapid.

Adrenaline shoots through your body and your little arms (well, little in my case) paddle in overdrive just trying to get to the calm water on the other side.

You are constantly splashed in the face with cool mountain water and for a few seconds it’s like you’re on a roller coaster with no seat belt. Finally you make it to flat water and when you look back you can’t believe you made it through without your raft acting like a ping pong ball between the rocks (or maybe it did and you got lucky).

Oh and if you’re wondering what to wear, don’t worry! I put together a guide on exactly what to wear whitewater rafting!

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White Water Rafting in North Carolina

In State Lines

Cheoah – Class IV-V. With some of the steepest rafted miles with commercial outfitters, this is not a river for beginners. They actually have strictly enforced guidelines that you must have previous Class III-IV experience. On this river you’ll navigate boulder fields and many vertical drops.

French Broad – Class I-IV. There are multiple different sections of this river to paddle all with varying difficulty. This may be one of the most accessible rivers in NC as it’s so close to Asheville.

Nantahala – Class I-III. This is the perfect river for entry level white water trips. The water is cold so in the summer it will feel nice but once fall hits you’ll need a wet suit. The majority of the rapids are Class II until you get to Nantahala Falls which is Class III.

Tuckaseegee – Class I-II. Another family-friendly river you can take a fully-guided trip here or choose to rent a raft or duckie (inflatable kayak). They allow kids as young as 4 to go on these trips.

Just Over State Lines

Chattooga – Class II-IV+. Section 3 of the Chattooga is an easier trip with mostly Class III rapids and one Class IV at the end. Section 4 is a beast. With five Class IV rapids one after the other, it is not for the faint of heart. Fun fact – scenes for the movie Deliverance were filmed here.

Nolichucky – Class III-IV. This river takes you through Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests from NC to TN. You paddle through canyons with steep rock walls and fun technical rapids. Rafting the Nolichucky was a highlight of my Johnson City, TN weekend trip.

It’s one of the best Tennessee whitewater adventures.

Ocoee – Class III-IV. The Middle Ocoee features many Class III+ rapids while the Upper takes you to through III and IV rapids. Most outfitters offer trips on the Middle or full-day excursions where you do both sections in a day.

Pigeon – Class II-III+. The Pigeon may be one of my favorite rivers. We took a guided trip with Smoky Mountain Outdoors and the rapids were the perfect mix of adventure, gorgeous scenery, and easy rapids.

Man and woman rafting the Nantahala River.
Tyler & I coming through Nantahala Falls. Photo purchased from Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Nantahala River Rafting

We usually love going pretty early in the morning because there are less people and the scenery is stunning. There are multiple ways you can book from a guided trip in a raft to a single or double duckie.

Each time we’ve gone whitewater rafting the Nantahala we have chosen a double duckie because I’m not quite confident enough to take a boat by myself. If you don’t have white water experience, then I highly recommend a guided trip.

When you arrive at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for the first time it can be pretty surprising because it’s a huge campus with ziplines, and rope course, multiple restaurants, and an NOC Outfitters Store.

One thing to note: all this info is based on pre-COVID-19 trips. The process may be a little different these days.

You’ll park in a gravel lot and check in at the front desk and they’ll tell you when to meet back at the picnic decks. Be sure to get there early and if you want to change into different clothes there are spacious, clean bathrooms for men and women with changing areas.

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Once you change you can put all your belongings that you won’t be carrying with you in your car and treat that as your locker. The NOC will hold on to your keys while you’re on the river. Be sure to bring a dry bag for anything you’d like to take with you down the river.

After watching a quick safety video, they’ll distribute gear like Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs), paddles, and splash guards. They also have wet suits available if you prefer because the water is so cold.

During the summer you should be fine without one, but once the temperature starts to dip in the fall that wet suit comes in handy.

Finally, you’re loaded up onto the bus and headed out to the put-in spot.

You do have to carry your raft, duckie, or kayak from the gravel lot down to the river. Once you put in, the first rapid – Patton’s Run – is just a short ways upriver!

This one is easy as you just hug the right bank of the river. After this you get to enjoy the ride. The banks of the river are covered in lush green trees for the most part and you can see mountains rising in the distance in front of you.

Bridge on the Nantahala River seen while white water rating in NC
Bridge over the river a little while after Patton’s Run.

There are also some beautiful homes on the left bank when you’re maybe halfway through the trip. Though I’m terrible with guessing distance/timing.

Near the end of the trip before you get to Nantahala Falls you’ll see PBR (Pizza By the River) where you can stop off and grab some food and drinks if you’d like. Your rentals are good for four hours so just keep that in mind.

On your way through Nantahala Falls, they’ll take your photo and you’ll have a chance to purchase it back at NOC. Once you go through the falls you are pretty much back at the Outdoor Center.

The trip takes about 2-2.5 hours depending on how much you paddle, the water height, and whether or not you stay in the boat.

I love this river because as long as you pick the right lines then it’s an easy ride but still pretty fun with the smaller rapids. The biggest ones are Patton’s Run at the very beginning (Class II) and Nantahala Falls at the very end (Class III).

It’s too easy for Tyler so he doesn’t love it, but he’s the type of crazy person that white water kayaks the New and Gauley Rivers (West Virginia) which are Class IV-V. For me, it’s fun and a low risk river for whitewater rafting in NC.

What Do You Need For White Water Rafting in NC?

This can serve as your packing list for the trip.

  • Quick dry clothing – During summer you’ll likely want to wear a tank top or quick dry shirt and shorts. I wear this Lululemon tank and Lululemon shorts. They are a bit expensive but SO worth it.
  • Bathing suit – Wear this under your quick dry clothing.
  • Wet suit – If you’re visiting in fall then you can either bring your own wet suit or use the one included in your rental.
  • River shoes/old sneakers – I LOVE my Chacos for anything water related. I don’t have to worry about being barefoot in the river but my feet don’t have to stay in nasty wet socks.
  • Splash Guard – Nantahala also gives these out before your trip so don’t worry if you don’t have one.
  • Towels & Change of Clothes – There is definitely a chance of falling in (trust me from experience) so if that happens you’ll be thankful you came prepared. Even if you don’t fall in, you’ll be splashed all day and look like you did.
  • Plastic Bags – These are for wet clothes, just in case.
  • Dry Bag – If you want to take anything on the river then bring a dry bag. Just bring them at your own risk, there’s always a chance of losing it. This is one of the perfect gifts for outdoorsy women!
  • Waterproof Camera – If you’re brave enough you can bring your camera and video the adventure. Make sure it’s strapped in tight.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Nantahala Outdoor Center

What can I do other than raft?

There is so much to do at the Nantahala Outdoor Center! There is a zip line and ropes course for those of you who don’t mind heights. Mountain biking is offered on the Flint Ridge Trail. If you’re looking for a more relaxing day then rent a flatwater kayak or SUP and take it to Fontana Lake.

Big Wesser and River’s End are two riverside restaurants that are absolutely delicious. We love going to Big Wesser after getting off the river because the burgers, BBQ, or quesadilla really hit the spot when you’re hungry and it’s quick.

The view while eating at Big Wesser.

The atmosphere is also super laid-back since it’s open air and you can sit right next to the river. Not to mention they have a great selection of local craft beer.

For those who want to just hang out and wait on their group to finish up with their adventure there are plenty of picnic tables and chairs by the river. You can also check out the NOC’s Outfitter’s store.

Another fun option that I’ve been wanting to try is the package deal with the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. You get on in Bryson City and they bring you to NOC where you’ll have lunch at Big Wesser’s. You’ll white water raft in the afternoon and then take the train back to Bryson City.

Is White Water Rafting Safe?

There is risk in all white water rafting. While the Nantahala River has smaller rapids than others like the Chatooga or the Gauley it is still important to follow all safety precautions and pay attention.

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What is the Best Time to Go White Water Rafting in North Carolina?

This varies for every river. For the Nantahala the most popular time is during the summer. If you’re able to, I highly recommend going on a weekday instead of the weekend.

We also love going during the fall. You need to wear a wetsuit during this time, but there are less crowds and the changing leaves are stunning.

I’ll never forget how the steam rises off of the river because during the fall season, the water is actually warmer than the air.

What is nearby the Nantahala Outdoor Center?

The NOC is the best white water rafting near Bryson City, NC. Bryson City is a fun little town to explore that even has a Railroad Museum.

One of our favorite spots is Nantahala Brewing Company where you can try a flight or have a glass (or two… or three) of craft beer. Right next door at the Burger Bar they serve burgers, tacos, and more to compliment your drinks.

Flight of beer from Nantahala Brewing Company. Perfect place to stop after white water rafting in NC.
Flight from Nantahala Brewing Company.

Fontana Lake is also close by where you can take your SUP or kayak rental. There are also plenty of hiking options at the lake as the Appalachian Trail goes right over the dam.

It’s the perfect spot for a lunch picnic and hanging up a hammock to just chill out for a while.

Where are good camping spots near Nantahala Outdoor Center?

Nantahala offers it’s own lodging and camp sites that you can rent directly from the NOC. Other privately owned campgrounds include Nantahala Tiny Homes and RV Park where you can rent tent sites, 30A or 50A hook ups, or two adorable tiny houses.

Another great option is Turkey Creek Campground where all sites have fireplaces and picnic tables. At the bathhouse you can take a hot shower and most of the tent sites have raised tent pads.

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Whitewater rafting in NC on the Nantahala River is an epic adventure! The perfect summer travel destination in North Carolina is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. #adventuretravel #NantahalaOutdoorCenter #whitewaterraftinginNC

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  1. This sounds so fun…I would need the tamer waters as I’ve never tried whitewater rafting. And would be especially beautiful in the fall.

    1. The Nantahala is perfect for first-timers! You are right, NC boasts gorgeous fall colors.

      1. Did you go recently? I would love to take my son today or tomorrow but not sure if we have waited too late in the season with it being mid October.

        1. We did not make it out there this year but we have gone in October before. It was chilly but we acclimated quickly in our wetsuits. At the NOC the wetsuit is included in your rental!

  2. I have been white water rafting a few times in Pennsylvania. It was incredibly fun every time. I think we were more in danger from fighting about how to steer the raft then from the rapids themselves. We will definitely go again sometime.

    1. I’ve heard PA is a great place to raft too. Funny about arguing, in high school my volleyball team did this as a “team building” exercise. 🙂

  3. I LOVE water rafting! It’s so much fun and such a great way to be outdoors in nature. I already told my husband this needs to be a future vacation with our kids. Loved your photos and thanks for sharing!

    1. Ahh I know!! I’m sure it would be an amazing family adventure! Thank you so much!

  4. What a fun trip! I’ve never been white water rafting and I don’t know if I could handle it hehe. Sign me up for the brewery afterwards though!!

    1. It can definitely be nerve-racking on the bigger rivers but this one is so fun. Yes, the only person I know that loves food/drinks as much as me is you Lannie! I love it! 🙂

  5. I’ve always wanted to go white water rafting! Looks like a really good spot

    1. You should try it! It’s so fun. The Nantahala is the perfect spot for first-time rafters.

  6. Not sure I’m brave enough for rafting but looks like a great place for it!

    1. It really is! This river isn’t that hard so it’s great if you’re a little nervous about trying it. 🙂

    1. Oh I’m sure that was amazing! I’ve done guided trips before and they are hit or miss for me. All depends on the group you’re in. I bet Jasper was gorgeous though.

  7. This looks so much fun if not a little scary. Good to know there are other things to do for before, after, or in case I chicken out of this

    1. This river isn’t too scary, but I’ve definitely been on some where all I did was pray to make it back! There are lots of fun things to do around here though if you really don’t want to raft.

  8. Love the Nantahala. I’ve rafted and kayaked it a few times. Would go back in an instant. Great post for all the important details.

    1. Thank you Karen! Pretty cool that you’ve been here a few times. It’s such an amazing spot.

  9. I just moved to the Raleigh-Durham area in Feb and can’t wait to get out and explore, I had NO idea you could whitewater raft here – SO COOL!

    1. You can raft at the whitewater center in Charlotte too! So excited for you to explore this state, there are so many cool things to do!

  10. This is my kind of White Water rafting. Not overly challenging. I love rafting but I have a fear of rapids. Long story. So this is perfect for me.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly why I love this river! I get pretty nervous with the big rapids now too.

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