Nantahala Gorge Whitewater Rafting

Rafting through the big wave at the bottom of Wesser Falls

The deep Nantahala gorge

Regulated by a hydroelectric dam that provides consistent rapids as well as electricity, the Nantahala River has become one of the most popular whitewater rafting destinations in the Southeast. It mixes a few exciting stretches with more leisurely ones that allow you to enjoy the beautiful Nantahala gorge.

A three-hour tour

Over a dozen rafting companies offer a variety of packages, some including lunch, wetsuits, photos, and guides. But even beginning rafters really need no more than raft, gear, and the bus ride to the start of the eight-mile section of the gorge. Most rafters dress as they would for swimming, but even in mid-summer the water temperature is a bracing 50 degrees. Some pack sandwiches (in waterproof containers, of course), interrupting the three-and-a-half hour trip to enjoy lunch on the banks of the Nantahala.

The Nantahala River launch site is about twenty-five miles south of the Cottage on US 129.

Is rafting the Nantahala for you?

You’ve never paddled anything

Whitewater rapids world-wide are rated by class from Class 1 (easy, fast-moving water with small waves) to Class 6 (extreme, dangerous conditions for experts only). With mostly Class 2 rapids (straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels that are evident without scouting), the Nantahala is ideal for the rafting novice. Just take along someone who’s experienced, or consider paying extra for a guide. Plan to get wet.

You’ve been in a boat, just not whitewater

If you’ve ever paddled a canoe, you’ll probably find a raft more stable if less maneuverable.  As with canoes, the person in the back of the raft has the most steering control, so that’s where the most experienced person belongs.

You’ve been whitewater rafting before

Consider trying an inflatable kayak or “Duckie.” It gets you closer to the action and provides more maneuverability than a raft, but is more forgiving than a true kayak and doesn’t require the training. Or, learn how to really kayak. A number of rafting companies offer kayaking lessons, and the Nantahala is the perfect place for beginners to practice.

River guides

For an additional fee, most rafting companies will provide a “guide,” usually a college student on summer break. We’ve never used a guide, and probably if you have any experience paddling you don’t need one on the Nantahala. However, guides can make you feel more secure, and the best ones stop along the way at places such as Picnic Rock.

A family jumps off Picnic Rock

River Safety

Nantahala has a very good safety record: even with 150,000 boaters a year there have been only a handful of fatalities in the last three decades. However, no one should be overconfident. Always wear tightly-fitting personal floatation devices and avoid hypothermia by keeping warm enough—most rafting companies will rent wet suits. When you get dumped out of your raft, float on your back and keep your feet up at the surface of the water, pointing them downstream. Don’t try to stand up in the current; wait until you’re pushed to the bank. And most importantly: heed the safety instruction your rafting company gives you when you rent the equipment—these suggestions are not meant to replace personal instruction.

Choosing a rafting company

If you just want to raft the Nantahala, then most likely any company will do. (See the list of some of the rafting companies below). We’ve used a number of different companies, based on which one was cheapest and available, and they all provided similar rafts and duckies, the option of wetsuits, places to change, parking, brief safety instruction, and transportation to and from the river. If you want to learn to kayak, the Nantahala Outdoor Center has a nationally recognized training program (I’m certain other companies’ training programs are fine, too).

Some of the sights and rapids along the Nantahala Gorge

Patton’s Run: Class 2+

Just after you put in, the river curves sharply right. Stay hard to the right, keep paddling, and avoid the large boulder on the left.

Nantahala Falls: Class 3 (aka “Wesser Falls”)

You’ll see the crowds and warning signs for this last rapid of the trip. You can scout it out on the right. Run this rapid by starting on the far left. After the first drop, cut diagonally right to the center of the river, and brace for the big wave at the bottom of the next drop.

Austin and Melita Matzko enter Wesser Falls from the top left