When spring and summer temps begin to rise, and the mountain waters turn to raging rapids, you know it’s time for one of the Smoky Mountains most popular outdoor activities – whitewater rafting! The Maggie Valley area has some of the most exciting rafting trips you could ask for, with everything from heart-pumping Class IV rapids to relaxing and family-friendly adventures.
Every meandering stream, creek, and river in Haywood County is a headwater that comes directly out of the mountainside. These waters spout right from the Appalachian ranges that encircle Maggie Valley and flow downhill, bringing life to everything they touch. Even Jonathan Creek, which runs past the cabins on the back of the Meadowlark Motel’s property, is part of the natural headwaters.
So, if you’re looking to experience nature in a truly up close and personal way, then use Maggie Valley as your home base to explore everything from Olympic-level rapids to relaxing stretches of calm ripples. Try whitewater rafting on any of the area’s six major rivers for an unforgettable day of outdoor fun.
French Broad River
The French Broad River is located deep inside the Pisgah National Forest, which also has some of the best wildflower hikes in the area. The world’s third-oldest river features spectacular mountain views and runs with warm water that carry you over fun and easy Class II and III rapids, like Big Pillow, S-Turn, and The Ledges. Or you can challenge yourself with its Class IV Frank Bell’s rapid.
In addition to the gorgeous scenery, your river guide can teach you all about the history of the river and point out wildlife like kingfishers, herons, bald eagles, and maybe even a black bear if you’re lucky!
About 40 minutes from the Meadowlark Motel, you’ll find the Pigeon River with two very different whitewater rafting options. It all depends on what you’re looking for. Beginner paddlers or families with young children can opt for the calm and tame rapids of the Lower Pigeon River. It’s a great introduction to rafting that gives you a fun sample of what it’s all about, while still serving up the breathtaking sights of the Smoky Mountains.
On the other hand, if big water and even bigger thrills is on the agenda, then the Upper Pigeon River is where you want to be. Paddle down five adrenaline pumping miles of Class III and IV rapids with intimidating names like Roller Coaster, Big Rock, Powerhouse, and Lost Guide. It will be an adventure you won’t soon forget.
Located about an hour from Maggie Valley near Robbinsville, NC, lies the Cheoah River. This 20-mile long river is known by adventurous paddlers as one of the most demanding rivers in the world. Its fairly constant gradient, with the exception of a few select half-mile sections, gives you a steady and continuous paddle.
There’s a nine-mile section between the Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood that used to be dewatered but now has 18 release days every year. And on those release days, you’ll get the thrilling whitewater experience that every brave paddler seeks. Get ready for Class IV and V rapids with classic drops that have been known to reach up to eight feet!
The Ocoee River, located in Polk County, TN, is one of the premier whitewater rafting experiences in the entire country. It’s so popular among whitewater enthusiasts that it was even home to the 1996 Summer Olympic Whitewater Games. Skilled paddlers flock to these rapids for exciting currents, epic surf opportunities, and adrenaline pumping thrills.
Local Tip: Put in at the base of the dam, where you’ll immediately hit your first major Class III rapid, and then it’s non-stop from there. Take on whitewater that ranges from Class II to Class III+, with names like Staging Eddy, Broken Nose, Double Trouble, Flipper, the Doldrums, and Surprise Ledge.
The Tuckasegee gets its regular rapids from the Lake Glenville Dam. When it releases water into the west fork of the river, you’ll get relentless rapids of the course of a 5.5-mile run. But novice paddlers can check out the tamer waters on non-release days with gentle Class I and II rapids. It’s a great place where beginners can learn to paddle or hone their skills. Practice your eddy turns, ferries, and peel outs in safer waters where you can easily get back in the boat. It’s also really easy to get to “The Tuck,” as it’s locally known, with up to 13 convenient public access areas at various spots along the river.
The Nantahala Gorge is probably the most well-known of all the Smoky Mountain whitewater rafting spots. Located in North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest just at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the river’s clear cool water is filled with a steady current that serves up consistent rapids.
When you raft the Nantahala, you’ll carve a path through the deep and narrow gorge with breathtaking scenery. The river’s nine-mile course is scattered with stretches of flat water that give you a moment to rest in between the over 20 class II and III rapids before it cascades into the peaceful waters of Fontana Lake. It’s no wonder whitewater lovers flock to this amazing river year after year.
For more tips on whitewater rafting near Maggie Valley, listen to the Gateway to the Smokies podcast, where our very own Joseph McElroy interviews Olwen Claiborne from Smoky Mountain Outdoors Rafting. She shares her experiences as a rafting guide, plus you’ll hear a local’s tips on some of the best places for swimming in the Smokies – like Sliding Rock, a natural waterslide about 20 miles south of Maggie Valley with tons of water propelling you down a smooth rock. Then check out our blog for more exciting things to do in Maggie Valley!