Route 66 Cities Beaches



Big South Fork

The Nantahala River on the North Carolina side of Smoky Mountain National Park is the best first rafting river out there. It's a forgiving enough river that new rafters can make their mistakes, but there are enough tricky stretches to develop their skills. Then it winds up with an adrenaline drop over Nantahala Falls which requires stopping, discussing with a guide how to approach, line across just above the drop, then shoot it at the proper angle. This is a dam controlled river so it flows well all year. A Nantahala trip is also a shakedown cruise for new rafters, who need to learn to get a good night's sleep, eat a good breakfast, get wet, stay wet, and learn about the whole whitewater rafting culture. This is a Class II river until the Class III final drop. A good paddler could bring a covered canoe filled with flotation bags, or a kayak, down with no problem. But it would be over the skill level of the average teenager, so we consider it a rafting river.

The Nantahala is worth the six hour trip (from Lexington) trip just for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (1-888-905-7238 or with a lodge, training complex and equipment facility. They've been taking new rafters down this river since 1972. They were one of the original commercial rafting companies, and they've developed most of the teaching methods now used on all the other rivers in the country. You'll receive an introductory lesson (shown here left) where they cover safety, paddling fundamentals and teamwork. They also teach canoeing, kayaking and river guide certification here. The Nantahala Outdoor Center is the premier whitewater education program in the nation. You can book your entire trip through them. They offer options like the Nantahala Inn (not Nantahala Village Inn, to be covered separately) at $84 per room per Spring or Fall night or $110 per Summer night, or a hostel at $17 per person per night. They can feed you, too. The two riverside restaurants offer soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees at reasonable prices and, up on the hill, Rella's offers fish and steak dinners at somewhat higher but still affordable prices.

If you or your kids are beginners, you should schedule a Guided Trip, which is $47 per person. If you have some kids who have come before, they can go on their own for $37 per person, but of course they take several rafts down the river in a group, so there will be a guide nearby if they need help.

You and your rafts will be bused to the top of the river, where you'll help unload the equipment and carry it to the water. These are small rafts for a small river, ideal for beginners mastering fundamentals. A typical crew is five members although one of these rafts could carry six. The trip down the river is half a day. You could make two trips in one day, but if you do you should mix up the groups for the second time so everyone can practice paddling with different partners.

Everyone needs sandles or "river shoes," sunglasses, bottled water or other beverage, sun tan lotion, and clothes they can get get wet. Cameras need to be in plastic baggies zipped shut. Notice in these photos the rafters are not wearing helmets. On the bigger rivers, they'll be required to. However, life vests are mandatory. We take a "dry bag," which we bought here at the NOC 30 years ago, to hold cameras, cell phones and valuables. We can clip it to one of the raft's ropes or metal rings. Be careful of watches; wear only waterproof, not just water resistant models.


On any rafting trip, you'll need to provide signed release forms. If you and a partner, or you and your family, and you and a group of friends are going, this is no problem. But if you're taking a youth group, have a form faxed or emailed, make copies, and make sure everyone's parents sign before you leave. We just collect them as we load the van. Then you can hand the stack to the guide at check in.

Our recommendation for lodging is Nantahala Village Resort, 1-800-438-1507, so called because it includes not only the lodge shown at left, but also cabins, treehouses, and other options. The best restaurant in the area, Thirteen Moons, is here. After a day on the river, you can enjoy Grouper, Salmon, Trout, Tuna, Crab or Sea Bass, or one of their excellent steaks. Sides include Horseradish Potatoes, Lemon Jasmine Rice, and Cheddar Grits. Nantahala Village also offers horseback riding, hiking, and a great spa. Nantahala Village was established in 1949 and was the most famous lodge and restaurant in North Carolina until it burned to the ground in 1997. It has been rebuilt, keeping the historical feel but adding modern touches. It retains the high location above the Nantahala Gorge with views in all directions. Come during the offseason (Spring or Fall) and rent a Fireplace or Loft Room in the Lodge for $100 a night. Both have hot tubs, and for families the Loft room has a special level for kids. We've kept youth groups here on many occasions, but it's also a romantic spot for couples. We know families who come here for their two week vacations and do something different every day.



If you raft for half a day and are staying overnight, a three hour activity you should consider is the Zip Line run by Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours, a subsidiary of Wildwater. Both kids and adults who still have a sense of adventure love this, which is basically a cable ride through the treetops. Contact them at 1-800-451-9972, or




Like Us On Facebook ( To Receive Daily Outdoor Adventure News and Notes And To Comment
This Year's Unique Visitor Tally : 1,003,492 Contact us at Meet our writers at Staff