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Outdoor Disneyland; New Charlotte Whitewater Park Offers More Than World-Class Paddling

If getting a new boat is like getting a new toy, then getting a world-class whitewater park is like your dad building a replica of Disney World in your backyard. Paddlers across the Southeast are excited about Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC), which is scheduled to open in June. The park features four different channels of class III-IV whitewater and is poised to redefine what man-made whitewater means to the world. But the real beauty of the park is its location. The facility is within a three-hour drive of some of the biggest cities in the South.

“This is something we haven’t seen since the beginning of the skiing boom,” says Lance Kinerk at the USNWC, one of the local paddlers responsible for bringing the park to Charlotte. “The park is so convenient to such a high number of people that it’s gonna really grow the sport.”

But it’s not all paddling at the USNWC. The park will feature some of the most impressive man-made rock climbing in the country, and surrounding the whitewater are 11-miles of the sweetest singletrack Charlotte has to offer.

“The true joy of this facility is that it offers a chance for us to do everything we love in one spot,” Kinerk says. “Imagine going paddling for an hour, then mountain biking for an hour, then climbing for an hour, then capping it off with a beer.”

Road trip, anyone? Here’s what you can expect from this world-class facility.

The Whitewater

The USNWC “river” is entirely man-made and consists of a three-acre lower pond that pumps water to the upper pond. Gravity feeds the water to four different channels, which when combined, equal about a mile of class III-IV whitewater. Former Olympic paddler turned whitewater park designer Scott Shipley picked his favorite rapids from around the world and scattered them throughout the river.

“Some sections will be geared toward the beginner,” Shipley says, “but overall the river is built for excitement. When you’re in the water, you’re in something wild. There are no breaks in the action.”

The designers are a bit closed-lipped about the specifics of the whitewater and want the buzz about the river to develop organically from the boaters themselves, but rest assured, there should be plenty to look forward to. Rumor has it there’s some tough water directly in front of the café patio so people can watch the carnage while sipping beer.

Highlight: Exploiting the man-made nature of the river. Operators can adjust specific features of each rapid to change the characteristics of the water, which will keep things fresh for repeat boaters. For instance, Kinerk says they can change one surfing wave from three feet to seven feet with the push of a button.

The Climbing

Over 40 different routes ascend the 50-foot high climbing wall overlooking the river. Two large spines curve toward the sky, and man-made boulder fields sit just behind the main towers. At 50 feet, it’s the highest man-made wall in America, but what’s really impressive is the material. The main climbing wall and boulder fields are built from imprint and freeform, a polymer cement composite that looks and feels like real rock.

This wall was custom designed to take into account the user groups, the natural and architectural surroundings of the site, even the character of local climbing crags like Crowders Mountain.

Highlight: Weatherproof. While the entire wall is outside, part of the main climbing structure is covered by an awning, so climbers can send the wall in the rain.

The Mountain Biking

The USNWC incorporates 11 miles of singletrack and doubletrack that were originally designed by the Tarheel Trailblazers, a club renowned for building and maintaining fast and technical courses. It consists mostly of tight, fast singletrack that’s split between gut-busting climbs and screaming downhills. A good portion of the trails follows the Catawba River. You can do smaller loops that hit the highlights or combine all the loops for a longer, more punishing experience.

Highlight: The downhill course. The Catawba trail system is a popular spot for races, and the downhill course sits in an open field and features large rolling mounds, tabletops, and hits.

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