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FLOAT TRIPS: Under-the-Radar Paddling Trips

These under-the-radar paddling getaways offer family-friendly river adventures without the crowds

It’s no secret the Blue Ridge is home to some of the country’s most scenic rivers, and, with the popularity of outdoor recreation soaring, beginner-friendly floats at iconic destinations are drawing big crowds. But if you prefer your family getaways to be a bit more secluded, this trio of under-the-radar towns pairs beautiful, easy-access paddling trips with great stays and post-float amenities. 


The Town

This 6,600-person mountain town occupies a 2,500-foot-high plateau in far southwest Virginia, about seven miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its namesake Old Fiddler’s Convention, the nation’s longest continuously held old-time and bluegrass music festival, made it famous. But the fact that the southern terminus of 57-mile-long New River Trail State Park sits in a railroad-station-turned-public-greenspace on the outskirts of town is our cause célèbre. 

The Float

 New River Outdoor Adventures is located about six miles northwest of Galax in the tiny, historic community of Fries on a waterfront lot bordering New River Trail State Park. It offers a quartet of great canoe, kayak, and tubing trips that range from two to eight hours in length and include all the equipment you need. The two-miler from Fries Park to the shop takes a couple of hours and is great for beginners. Those looking for something more adventurous will delight in a 14.5-mile paddle from the Barwood Boat Ramp in Independence to Galax’s Old Town Boat Ramp. The float meanders through sparsely populated farmland and forests and past wild islands and pebbly beaches. It features tons of wildlife viewing opportunities and fun but mild chutes and riffles. It can take up to eight hours to complete, depending on conditions.


Stay just outside of town on the wooded banks of Chestnut Creek at New River Trail Cabins. Take your pick from a dozen well-equipped, modernized log-home suites that sit within a stone’s throw of the designated rail-to-trail.

Eat & Drink 

A quick, three-block stroll from the cabins carries you downtown to Creek Bottom Brewing Company Tasting Room & Pub, which has a large, inviting taproom with a full-service menu of spot-on pub fare that includes brick oven pizzas, burgers, wings, tacos, salads, and smoked brisket platters. Live music on the weekends and 26 taps of regional and house-made brews and ciders round out the package. We like the delightfully crisp and citrusy—but at 6.5% ABV, not overly boozy—D28 Hazy IPA.


The Town

Mineral-rich thermal springs put the historic, 750-person eastern panhandle town on the map in 1747 and made it a celebrated early destination for adventurous recreators like George Washington. Find them amid a wealth of colonial and Victorian architecture in the heart of downtown at Berkeley Springs State Park, one of the only publicly owned hot springs in the U.S. Its restored 18th century bath house and manicured five-acre grounds are a can’t-miss, but for our purposes, the focus turns to nearby Cacapon River. 

The Float

The Cacapon meanders north for 81 extremely rural miles through the bucolic highland hills and valleys of northeastern West Virginia to empty into the Potomac about five miles west of town. Cacapon River Outfitters offers a fleet of full-service kayaking and tubing trips on this hidden treasure that offers access to some of its prettiest scenery. The company’s 2.25-mile flagship route begins with a shuttle to a private put-in and brings ultra-clear water, densely forested banks, steep rocky cliffs, loads of fun riffles, and beautiful gravel bars. It ends just past the Largent Bridge at the shop’s boat ramp behind the Stoney Creek Country Store.  

The Lodge at Cacapon Resort State Park. Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Department of Tourism


Six-thousand-acre Cacapon Resort State Park is located just 10 miles south of downtown Berkeley Springs. Book a room in the resort’s recently renovated, 120-room luxury lodge or upgrade to a revitalized Civil Conservations Corps era log cabin in the woods. The latter blends rustic ruggedness and modern amenities with features like hand hewn log beams, wormy chestnut plank floors and walls, vernacular stone hearths, and loft bedrooms.

Eat & Drink

If you dig craft beer, Cacapon Mountain Brewing Co is a must-visit. It’s housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century textile mill with a lovely new taproom and full-service kitchen that dishes out scrumptious burgers, wraps, and nachos. A rotating 10-brew lineup spans a surprising range that includes interesting takes on IPAs, hefeweizen, English pub ale, barley wine, Irish stout, and, our favorite, a fruited sour cherry ale aged for two years in wine barrels. All are brewed using water from the famed local mineral springs.

Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Department of Tourism


The Town

While northward ease of access has transformed Great Smoky Mountains National Park gateway towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge into tourist epicenters, Bryson City offers a great low-key alternative. It sits about an hour and a half west of Asheville, and just 13 miles from the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, in a small, lush valley sandwiched between the national park and Nantahala National Forest. The 1,450-person town brims with old-school mountain character and is bisected by a marvelously scenic span of Tuckasegee River, which is itself met by the smaller but equally beautiful Oconaluftee about six miles east of town. 

The Float

Families with small children looking for a more laidback adventure will love a three-mile tubing trip on the Oconaluftee from Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft. Catch a shuttle to a put-in a couple miles above town, then coast along a breezy, riffle-rich stretch defined by crystal clear water, densely forested banks, small boulders, drops, and gravel bars. You’ll eventually pass through town to end at Oconaluftee Island Park.

For something a bit more exciting, the Nantahala Outdoor Center is located about 13 miles west of downtown Bryson City and offers fantastic rafting and inflatable kayaking trips on the Nantahala. The swift-moving route winds through gorgeously isolated mountain forests, brings a near-constant barrage of fun, mildly challenging class II-III rapids, and takes about three hours to complete.


The Everett Hotel sits in the heart of downtown in a beautifully restored, historic three-story red brick building that dates to 1908 and once housed the Bryson City Bank. The boutique boasts 10 spacious, lavishly outfitted suites, a wine bar, and rooftop lounge.

Eat & Drink

The Everett is also home to a 28-seat eponymous Bistro with a farm-to-table ethos, mixologist, and Western-meets-1920s-speakeasy vibe. Expect upscale, chef-driven takes on Southern-style staples like creole shrimp and grits or pan-seared rainbow trout. Follow dinner with brews at Bryson City Brewing’s expansive outdoor terrace, lawn, fire pit, and bar area. The brewery is housed in a sharply overhauled RC Cola Bottling plant that dates to 1924. It offers 24 beers and ciders on tap, as well as a full menu of delicious smash burgers, barbecue, wings, salads, and nachos. 

Cover photo: A family runs the Nantahala River. Photo courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center

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