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6 Southern Whitewater Rafting Classics

Ready for some rafting? Not so fast, partner; you better know where you’re headed first. Here’s 6 of our favorite Southern whitewater rafting classics to get you started.

Hiwassee

Intensity: *

What to expect: The Hiwassee River is an approximately 140-mile long, broad, clear and scenic waterway that flows through Tennessee, with ample opportunities for various water sports. Its class II rapids make it one of the tamest whitewater rafting areas, perfect for families and beginners. While it may not be the best for adrenaline-seekers, what the river may lack in thrill, it makes up for with tranquility and faultless surroundings.

Fun fact: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) oversees all whitewater recreation on the Hiwassee, for flood control and hydroelectric power purposes. TVA has implemented three dams — including the Chatuge, Hiwassee and Appalachia — to help provide power to varied regional locations, as well as regulate water flow.

When to go: Summer is preferred for all whitewater rafting; however, conditions are ideal any time between May and October, and when the Appalachia Dam releases. Be sure to check the water release calendar, as well as guide service timetables if you intend to go with a river guide.

Guide services: Hiwassee Outfitters is a one-stop spot for guiding, camping, and retail. Located in Reliance, TN, the company offers secluded campsites, as well as cabins.

Tellico Grains Bakery, a must-visit whenever you're near the Cherokee National Forest.
Tellico Grains Bakery, a must-visit whenever you’re near the Cherokee National Forest.
Aldo Zavala

Where to eat: Because of your close proximity to Tellico, stopping at Tellico Grains Bakery is a must. Located off the historic downtown square, off of Cherohala Skyway, this quaint bakery serves fresh, daily-made pastries, breads, and pizzas, using a wood brick oven.

Where to stay: Consider overnight camping at the Hiwassee-Ocoee State Park’s private campgrounds, or in the Cherokee National Forest.

The Gee Creek Campground is a second home to many river users. With campsites close to the river, you can fall asleep to the sound of flowing currents, waking up with fishing, swimming, and hiking at your fingertips. The campground offers fire rings and grills, as well as showers and commodes. Reserve one of the ground’s 47 sites online prior to arrival.

The Laurel Mountain Cabins are an alternative option, with upscale cabins nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. All of these amenities are equipped with kitchen needs, Jacuzzis, stone fireplaces, porches, grills, wifi, and more. Nearby are numerous trailheads, leading to some of the area’s best and most easily accessible waterfalls.

The Hiwassee River Cabins are located just five miles from Murphy, North Carolina, with fully stocked and secluded six-person cottages that include covered decks, a fire ring, a screened in gazebos, and lovely views over the mountains. Here, migrating Canadian geese fly overhead, and deer can be seen in your backyard at dusk. Additionally, the property rents tubes and kayaks for unlimited trips down the river, upon arrival.

Nantahala

 

Intensity: **

What to expect: This North Carolina river combines mild and exciting elements, making whitewater rafting here excellent for families. Because the river features eight miles of easy class II rapids prior to its class III Nantahala Falls, you have time to adjust to the experience and ease your way into the thrill!

Fun fact: The Nantahala also serves as headquarters for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), which was founded in 1972, at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail, inside of the Nantahala National Forest. Today, the NOC is one of the largest outdoor recreation companies in the country, hosting over one million guests annually! Here, families can partake in additional activities aside from rafting, such as ziplining through the aerial forestry, mountain biking on private trails, and paddleboarding on Lake Fontana.

When to go: While you can go between spring and fall, the water can get super cold here, so try going between June and September! Trust us, your kid won’t want 45 degree water splashing in their face!

Guide services: Dubbed “One of the Best Outfitters on Earth” in National Geographic, the NOC is your best option, no doubt.

Where to eat: Check out the Big Wesser BBQ and Brew for weekly live music and homemade southern grub. (Every Tuesday is Taco Tuesday, with weekly specials!) The River’s End Restaurant serves mouthwatering classics, such as trout cakes and Sherpa rice.

Over 21? Make a stop to the Nantahala Brewing Company, an eclectic brewery in Bryson City, NC, with phenomenal beers and live music.

Where to stay: With two riverfront restaurants close by, supreme whitewater guiding, and diverse housing options, the NOC is a great central location for outdoor adventure and all your vacation needs. Consider staying at one of NOC’s newly renovated cabins, located just off the Appalachian Trail. The center also has an eight-person cabin motel, several bunkhouses, and campsites.

There are also primitive campsites on the Nantahala, near White Oak Falls, with secluded, woodland car camping opportunities that are based on a first come, first serve basis.

French Broad

A typical section of the French Broad: wide open, easy rapids, with occasional rocks and downed trees.
A typical section of the French Broad: wide open, easy rapids, with occasional rocks and downed trees.
anoldent

Intensity: ***

What to expect: The French Broad River — the third oldest river in the world — is located within the rugged Pisgah National Forest, just 30 minutes outside of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. There is no experience necessary to explore its exciting class III and IV rapids and its endless natural beauty.

Fun fact: While venturing downstream, you’ll learn about the area’s rich history, in regards to its early native American settlers, as well as possibly witness the flourishing wildlife that thrive on the river’s existence: black bears, kingfishers, heron, elk and bald eagles.

When to go: Tours normally run daily from April to October. Spring and fall are great times to go, usually with lesser crowds. In summertime — because there’s less rainfall — the tours normally take place in duckies rather than rafts. For a legitimate rafting experience with better currents, come during rainy seasons (April to June or after August.)

Recommended guide services: French Broad Adventures offers a variety of whitewater trip options, ranging in distance and group size. They also offer some awesome ziplining packages.

Blue Heron is another great option, offering diverse packages suited to your intent. Slow and peaceful or fast and adrenaline-pumping? They’ve got you covered either way. Co-owned by three partners who have guided rafting trips on this particular river for over 25 years, Blue Heron is committed to making sure you are in good hands.

Where to eat: With Asheville just a half an hour away, finding great food won’t be a problem. Asheville is an incredible “foodie” town, with countless options — ranging from farm-to-table burgers, Indian food, exceptional Mexican meals, and Asian cuisine.

Iron Horse Station is a landmark inn, restaurant and tavern, situated directly on the Appalachian Trail in the historic, mountain town of Hot Springs, NC. The restaurant and tavern offer a well-rounded, diverse menu of delectable foods, in a casual dining environment.

Accommodations at Iron Horse Station feature fifteen welcoming guestrooms, each having its own private bathroom. Every guestroom contains comfortable new furnishings, handcrafted beds, and other amenities including Jacuzzi tubs, transom windows, original sky-wells, and mountain views.

Where to stay: Again, with Asheville and the Blue Ridge Mountains in such close proximity, there are countless Bed & Breakfast options near downtown, as well as campsites dotting the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you want ultimate convenience post-rafting, consider camping at the French Broad campsite, which is open all year, with RV pull-ins, cabin rentals, and tent spots.

If you choose to dine at the Iron Horse Station, consider also booking a room. This inn features fifteen guestrooms, each with its private bathroom, handcrafted beds, quality furnishings and lovely views. (Note: While in Hot Spring, definitely try checking out the hot springs for a nice soak. There’s camping and hiking trails with incredible overlooks as well!)

Don't miss the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America's most scenic roads.
Don’t miss the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America’s most scenic roads.
David Joyce

Chattooga

Intensity: ***

What to expect: The Chattooga River is the Southeastern mecca of whitewater rafting. In fact, Southern Living named rafting the Chattooga “The #1 Thing Every Southerner Ought To Do”. Set in an unparalleled wilderness setting, white waters here are primarily comprised of class III and IV rapids.

There are generally two options along the Chattooga: Section III or Section IV. Section III is known as “Mild and Scenic”, with numerous swimming holes and one grand finale class IV rapid at Bull Sluice. Further downstream is the Section IV portion, where things get a bit more action-packed. In this segment, participants generally start at Seven Foot Falls, before heading on to a set of five consecutive class IV rapids, dubbed Five Falls.

Fun fact: Since the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act vowed to federally protect the river in 1974, its rugged beauty has forever been preserved.

Also, have you ever seen The Deliverance? The river was perhaps made famous by this 1972 film, bringing tourist dollars in like crazy ever since.

When to go: Most guiding services anywhere only run trips between late spring and fall. Summer is always best, but can oftentimes be packed with tourists. Similarly to the French Broad, rainier times of year are best. During the summer, most trips convert to duckie-style tours, rather than on legitimate rafts. The Tallulah Dam releases for three consecutive weekends in the late fall, causing the Tallulah to fill to the brim. Though not related to whitewater rafting, the site — with nearby hiking trails and easily accessible waterfalls — is beautiful and worth seeing!

Guide services: The Wildwater Rafting company also offers excursions, including half-days, as well as substitute ziplining and paddleboarding activities. Here, you can also book a yurt or the Chattooga cabin. Not only do they lead great rafting trips, but the campus itself is awesome. Originally a single-sex school, and now co-ed, this historical campus is home to quilt makers, leisurely lake tours, cabins, and a neat little outpost station.

Where to eat: The Chattooga Bell Farm’s distillery is worth a sip! Additionally, the Bistro serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays between May and October. These meals include signature soups, salads and sandwiches.

If you head into Clayton, GA, be sure to check out the Universal Joint Bar for diverse dinner items (including some delicious juicy burgers) and their live music on Friday nights. Or, check out Formage, with freshly made lunches: wraps, salads, and homemade cakes.

Where to stay: If you book your trip with the Wildwater Rafting company, and you’re with a large group, consider staying in the Chattooga Corkscrew cabin. Otherwise, take advantage of their on-site yurts and cottages.

For a higher-end choice, check out the Dillard House — a stunning and centrally located destination, with cottages, inns and luxury rooms. It’s got excellent food, as well as stunning views over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Ocoee

You can't help but smile going through rapids like these on the Ocoee.
You can’t help but smile going through rapids like these on the Ocoee.
McClearen

Intensity: ***

What to expect: The Ocoee River is considered the premier of whitewater rafting river in the United States. Home to a multitude of class III and IV rapids, the river here is challenging and exciting. Located in the Cherokee National Forest, this beautiful gorge is surrounded by breathtaking scenery and 20 continuous rapids, making it truly the most popular whitewater destination in the country!

Fun fact: Most people know the Ocoee for its role in the 1996 Olympics, when it hosted athletes from around the world for whitewater events.

When to go: Ocoee Rafting trips generally run on weekends only in the months of April, May, September and October. During June, July and August, there are daily trips, excluding Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For more information, click here. Ocoee Outdoors is similar, with trips available between April and October, depending on their calendar schedule. For more information, click here. (Note: Generally starting the first week of October, the dam is released daily for a full week. Known as “secret season” for a reason, trips run every day during this time frame.)

Recommended guide services: With over 20 outfitters leading trips on the Ocoee, it’s hard to pick “the one”. That said, here are some of our favorites:

The Ocoee Adventure Center (OAC) on the Ducktown end of the river, closer to the put-in is a great choice. The OAC promises 33% more river time than other rafting companies, as well as superior gear and incredible river guides. With lake kayaking, mountain biking and more, you can spend weeks with OAC without boredom!

The Ocoee Inn is super neat as well, with a great marina and lodging opportunities. Here, you can rent SUP paddleboards, boats, and book a cabin or motel.

Big Frog Expedition uses modern rafts and is located closer to Chattanooga. Similarly to the Inn, Big Frog offers diverse outdoor activities, including mountain biking, hiking and kayaking. And they’ve got diverse lodging — from luxurious bed and breakfasts, to simplistic motels.

Where to eat: Dam Deli’s all-you-can-eat catfish on Friday nights are a hit! This family-owned restaurant prides itself on country cooking, serving up some of the area’s best local fish and chicken.

If you’re on the Ducktown end, check out Habanero’s Fresh Tex Mex in Copper Hill, TN. This family-owned and operated Mexican restaurant makes everything from scratch. Their extensive menu is sure to have your mouth watering!

Where to stay: Like with the Hiwassee, consider overnight camping at the Hiwassee-Ocoee State Park’s private campgrounds, or in the Cherokee National Forest. You’re also only a day-trip away from Atlanta, GA or Chattanooga, TN, both with various hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, and nearby camping.

New/ Gauley

Passing under the New River Gorge Bridge is a highlight of any New River paddling trip.
Passing under the New River Gorge Bridge is a highlight of any New River paddling trip.

Intensity: ** or ****

What to expect: West Virginia’s New and Gauley Rivers offer diverse rapids, both tame to extreme. Its exhilarating rapids, stunning scenery and rich history make this a great spot for family-friendly getaways.

Fun fact: Unlike some of the other whitewater destinations, the New is not solely geared for rafting. Climbers, hikers, and all-around outdoor enthusiasts flock to this area throughout the year for related activities and its remarkable beauty.

The New River is also one of the oldest rivers in the world. Scientists believe that when the Appalachian Mountains were formed, the New simply rose with the mountains. Some say, for this reason, the New may be the world’s oldest. Others aren’t so sure. Regardless, what we do know is that its surrounding mountain range is comprised of 1 billion-year-old rocks.

When to go: Rafting, per usual, is ideal in the summer months; however, if you’re trying to combine a longer trip, focused on diverse outdoor activities, we recommend coming towards the end of summer or early fall. Be sure to check rafting guide calendars beforehand. The New is another free-flowing river, meaning that normally fall or spring — the rainier seasons — are better for whitewater rafting. Generally, during the summer months, water is too low, and tours use duckies rather than rafts.

The Gauley is not free flowing, however, and the dams release in fall months, making it a prime rafting destination in the months of September and October.

Rafters on the New River
Rafters on the New River
Rory Finneren

Guide services: Class VI at Adventures on the Gorge provides numerous services, with rafting just being a fraction of their quality dedication to visitors. With single or multi day excursions on both the New and the Gauley, Class VI is your best option for rafting in West Virginia!

Where to eat: The New River Gorge is a fantastic getaway location, not just for whitewater rafting. Because the area reels in so many visitors, restaurant quality here is to no surprise on par. Buffler’s BBQ and Pizza serves continental breakfasts, savory smoked briskets and ribs, fried chickens and assorted home-style a la carte menu items. Oh, and don’t forget the 16-inch whole pies, available for dine in, carry-out or delivery to your campsite!

Another great option is Rendezvous, which serves chicken and burger sliders in a live bluegrass music bar environment.

In Fayetteville, you’ve got to head to the Cathedral Café, known for its hippie-esque atmosphere, superb coffee and homemade foods.

Lastly, Smokey’s On the Gorge is a must. Featured on Food Network’s “Best Of” show, this restaurant serves gourmet buffet breakfasts and dinners on its spectacular porch patio. Some menu items include grilled quail, wild boar ribs, and carved hams.

Where to stay: Camping in the “New” is great. Set up beside the rushing water, look up at the towering mountains, and enjoy a starry night!

Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.

Featured image provided by anoldent