A Day on the Nantahala River

If you take Highway 74 and drive for twenty five minutes or so, you’ll get to one of the most popular white water rafting/kayaking locations in the country—The Nantahala River.

The Nantahala River gets over 250,000 people annually who have fun paddling through its eight mile stretch of class II and class III rapids. There is no need to fret if you’ve never been on rapids before. The class II and class III rapids are great for beginners and families while still offering fun times to experienced Kayakers.

A Cherokee word, Nantahala means “land of the noonday sun,” and the Nantahala River, running deep through the Nantahala Gorge, really only sees, at most, a couple of hours of sunshine throughout the day. Despite this, the thin twisting skyline that follows along the river gives the area a cool yet adequately bright illumination allowing for one of the most powerfully peaceful ambiances that one could hope to come across.

The river flows from a dam that pumps water from 250 feet below the surface. This keeps the temperature of the water a brisk and consistent 48-50 degrees throughout the year. During the summer months or when wearing a wetsuit, most people find the temperature of the water quite pleasurable despite the perception of it being cold. The flow that releases from the dam is usually scheduled from 8:00am to 6:30pm, although in November there is a stoppage in the flow due to scheduled maintenance.

Recently, I put in with a ducky, which is essentially an inflatable kayak. My guide John from Blue Ridge Outing informed me it was more fun than a raft.

“With a ducky you can feel the current, unlike a raft. It’s a lot more fun, and you don’t have to worry about rolling it and not being able to flip over, like with a regular kayak.”

Getting the hang of paddling was no problem. The first few rapids are pretty kind to novices.

“Just point the nose and paddle hard,” was the advice I was given.
Also important, in case of falling out, I had to put my knees up to my chest and ride out the rapids on my back keeping my head above the water. DO NOT try to stand up in the rapids.

With that aside and the first couple of rapids dealt with, I was able to float around on calm water, of which there is quite a bit in between the rapids, and watch the greenery of nature silently roll by. To my left, for most of the way, were quiet tracks that carry the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad coming out of Bryson City. On my right was Hwy 19/Hwy 74 that carried a fair amount of traffic for a Sunday. Before being a road, it was a part of the Trail of Tears. I tried to imagine that atrocity while juxtaposing it with the beauty of the area. It caused a strange feeling and I dropped it almost immediately.

Going down the river John showed me how to surf the waves with a kayak. I had seen a few people in a seemingly unwinnable struggle against the current coming off high rocks. I didn’t know what they were trying to accomplish, but I soon found out that fighting the waves allowed kayakers to surf them. While I could never get the hang of it in my ducky, John, and others I saw, seemed to be able to get in a zone and really enjoy themselves.

After a few more rapids and places with names like Camel Rock and Quarry, one of the last rapids, and the most fun, was Nantahala Falls where there were higher drop offs and lots more chances to get wet. The whole trip, once you get in the water, is two hours.

After that, we got out of the water and went to get pizza at a little shack upriver called Pizza by the River. It’s a nice place where people sit outside, watch the river, and eat pizza. We ordered at the window, paid (cash only), and while John was talking to some of the people he knew, I was looking as the sizeable collection of license plates, and Marine Corps and Grateful Dead paraphernalia that decorated the outside of the shack.

If you are able, there is no good reason for you not to go rafting down the Nantahala River. It’s close and it’s fun. While it does cost money to rent gear and get a guide, the more people you gather up, the less it costs a single person. Plus, it’s fun with more people.

For rentals and guides call Blue Ridge Outing at 828-488-3316 or contact Base Camp Cullowhee at 828-227-3633