Best Whitewater Rafting Trips in the South
The Southeast is full of epic rivers that offer some of the best whitewater rafting trips in the country.
There are plenty of thrilling rides through bouncy, class V rapids with big drops but also mellower floats through scenic Appalachian forests and remote canyons. To help you find the right adventure, we’ve rounded up some of the best-guided rafting trips in the region.
Photo: Rafters bounce through the rapids of the Nantahala River. Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Nantahala River – North Carolina
Just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in southwestern North Carolina, the Nantahala River is a scenic gem. The classic run is eight miles through the overhanging foliage of the Nantahala Gorge. Along the way expect splashy class II and II+ rapids culminating in the beefy Class III Nantahala Falls, where spectators often gather to watch the action. If you’re new to rafting, the Nanty makes for a perfect first-time experience. Those with prior experience can even rent a raft and self-guide the rapids. It’s also a great river to try an inflatable kayak, aka ducky, or take a lesson on hard-shell kayaking. Aim for a hot summer day because the dam-released river is icy cold.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a rafting and adventure-sports complex located on the river just below Nantahala Falls. After your rafting trip, hang out at the riverside pub or restaurant, watching kayakers playboating in the whitewater park and gung-ho backpackers passing through on the Appalachian Trail. NOC also offers rooms, cabins, and land activities like zip lining, mountain biking, hiking, and more.
To mark the anniversary, NOC is planning several celebrations throughout the rest of 2022. The marquee event will be the 50th Jubilee, an all-day party on June 11th with live music, giveaways, family-friendly activities, and more. Later in the fall, the popular Guest Appreciation Festival from September 23rd to 25th will be amped up anniversary-style with live entertainment, vendor booths, and end-of-the-season gear sales.
Pigeon River – Tennessee
A step up from the Nanty, the Pigeon River is a great introduction to class III rafting. Located north of Asheville along I-40, it’s easy to drive in for a day trip or you can stay at one of the many raft outfitters along the river in Hartford, Tenn., including Big Creek Expeditions (bigcreekexpeditions.com) and another NOC outpost. Despite its proximity to the interstate, the river is set among a sweet stretch of Smoky Mountains scenery. The classic run is the five-mile upper Pigeon River Gorge with challenging but fun rapids like Roller Coaster and Accelerator. There’s also a mellow class II lower run that’s perfect for family floats.
French Broad River – North Carolina
Just east of Pisgah National Forest, the French Broad is a big, wide river offering several trip options, mostly on the eight miles of Section 9. The upper part is a popular half-day trip with many class II and III rapids. Full-day trips continue onto the lower half of Section 9, which includes a class IV climax at Frank Bell’s Rapid. Many trips on this warm water river stop at swimming holes along the way, making the French Broad a great summertime choice close to Asheville. French Broad Adventures (frenchbroadrafting.com) offers guided rafting trips on the river, and French Broad Outfitters (frenchbroadoutfitters.com) offers shuttles and canoe and kayak rentals.
Ocoee River – Tennessee
One of the best class III+ rivers in the country, the Ocoee is a must-paddle for all diehard rafting fans. While the scenery is classic Appalachia, the focus here is on rapids—and lots of them. The main trip is a half-day run on the Middle Ocoee with five miles of nearly continuous whitewater starting right from put-in and continuing through favorites like Broken Nose, Double Trouble, and Tablesaw.
For a longer day, some weekend trips tack on the Upper Ocoee, a slightly harder but less continuous four miles with several class IV pool drop rapids. This run passes the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which sadly burned down in April. Early word is that the upper river will remain open for rafting during the season. One highlight has long been the man-made slalom course through rapids where events were held for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Ocoee Adventure Center (ocoeeadventurecenter.com), based in Blue Ridge, Ga., offers a 10-mile full Ocoee trip, and a half-day Middle trip.
Chattooga River – South Carolina/Georgia
The South’s premier wilderness river experience, the Chattooga is a National Wild & Scenic River featuring two free-flowing all-day trips that can be run separately or consecutively for a full weekend of adventure. The 1972 film Deliverance was famously filmed on the Chattooga, but today the chills are all related to whitewater.
Section III is the mellower upper run, with 12 miles of class II and III rapids culminating with a final class IV at Bull Sluice. Section IV is a big step up, with over eight miles of legendary rapids like Seven Foot Falls, Raven’s Chute, and the Five Falls—a thrilling half mile of drops through five consecutive class IV-V rapids. By the time your raft spills into Tugaloo Lake, you’ll be sad it’s over but ready for the break. Wildwater (wildwaterrafting.com), the oldest outfitter in the Southeast, has been guiding trips on the Chattooga since 1971.
Photo: Rafters at the Lower Keeney Section of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Photo courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge
Nolichucky River & Big South Fork – Tennessee
If you’ve caught the bug for rafting free-flowing wilderness rivers, then take a close look at two other remote and lesser-rafted options in northern Tennessee. Big South Fork of the Cumberland (ky-rafting.com) is a National River and Recreation Area, and the Nolichucky River, which can be rafted via guided trips from USA Raft (usaraft.com), has been proposed as a new addition to the National Wild & Scenic Rivers system. Both rivers have a mix of fun but challenging rapids, including a class IV section, plus calmer sections to float, and excellent forested scenery. Because these sections are undammed, trips are water-level dependent.
New River – West Virginia
There are several excellent whitewater trips on West Virginia’s legendary stretch of the New River. One favorite is the seven-mile class IV section from Cunard to Fayette Station, typically called the Lower Gorge. This run has some of the best rapids on the river, including a set of three drops called the Keeneys, a technical boulder slalom called Double Z, and the punchy holes of Fayette Station. Because of its large watershed, the New River often runs high and offers a great introduction to bigger volume whitewater—a great precursor to the class V Gauley. ACE Adventure Resort (aceraft.com), based in Oak Hill, offers multiple trip options on both the Upper and Lower New.
Gauley River – West Virginia
The big dog for whitewater rafting in the Southeast, the Gauley is considered by many paddlers to be one of the best rivers in the world. While the river may run from rainfall at other times, most paddlers descend during fall Gauley Season. Beginning the Friday after Labor Day, and continuing for 6 weeks, the river runs high from the annual drawdown of upstream Summersville Lake. The result is big-water class V on the nine-mile upper section with infamous rapids Pillow, Lost Paddle, and Sweet’s Falls. The Lower run is eleven miles of class IV with rapids like Upper & Lower Mash and Pure Screaming Hell. Many rafters will plan a full weekend of whitewater at the Gauley, often staying at one of the riverside outfitters, like Adventures on the Gorge (adventuresonthegorge.com), which offers a variety of Gauley trip options.
Cover photo: Rafters bounce through the rapids of the Nantahala River. Photo courtesy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center