Note: Some tour providers on this list may have limited or ceased operations due to COVID-19. Check with your tour operator about availability before you book.
Rivers like the French Broad, Nantahala, Nolichucky and Watauga provide a wide array of whitewater rafting options in North Carolina. After assessing both travels experts and consumer reviews, U.S. News determined that these tours are the best available. All feature experienced, informative guides willing to assist rafters of varying skill levels.
Rapids are rated on a scale of I to VI, with Class I being mild, Classes II and II somewhat more strenuous, Class IV involving some challenging passages and Class V extremely difficult. (Class VI rapids are dangerous and essentially impassible; they are not used on commercial rafting trips.) Tour companies often highlight the class of rapids encountered on their trips so rafters know what to expect. Trips typically take place in spring, summer and fall.
Note: Whitewater rafting trips have age and weight restrictions, which vary by company. Additionally, you will need to wear clothes that can get wet and shoes that stay securely on your feet.
French Broad Adventures – Whitewater
Travel the French Broad River through Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina on one of these trips. A 9-mile expedition featuring rapids ranging from calm to intense (Class I to IV) lasts about five to six hours, while a 5-mile course with mild to intermediate rapids (Class I to III) takes about three to four hours. Rafters find the guides both highly entertaining and very helpful. From March to October, the 9-mile trip takes place every day except Monday starting at 9:40 a.m. The shorter outing departs at 10 a.m. and there’s an additional 2 p.m. tour during the summer. Fees range from about $55 for the half-day trip (including snacks) to $80 for the full-day outing (including lunch). A morning-only 5-mile ride with lunch is available for around $60 and departs at 9:40 a.m. French Broad Adventures, based in Marshall (about 25 miles northwest of Asheville), also offers activities, such as zip lines and canyoneering, as well as rafting on calm water.
Nantahala Outdoor Center – Nantahala River Rafting: Fully Guided in North Carolina
Enjoy the mountainous scenery of the Nantahala Gorge while navigating intermediate-level (Class II and III) rapids during one of these adventures. Beginners will be happy to hear that no previous rafting experience is required. Rafters appreciate both the natural surroundings, including waterfalls, and the knowledgeable, personable guides. Tickets start at $54, which includes transportation from the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City (about 65 miles southwest of Asheville) to the starting point on the river. The excursion lasts three hours (with two on the water). Trips occur daily from March through October with several start times each day. The center also offers packages combining raft rides with zip lines. Prefer a self-guided trip? You can rent rafts and inflatable kayaks from the center.
Rolling Thunder River Company – The Nantahala River Experience
Raft the Nantahala River on rapids with names like the Isle of Dumping, Root Canal and Tumble Dry on this 8-mile excursion, which culminates at Nantahala Falls – the sole Class III rapid on the river. Along with the thrilling ride, reviewers praise the energetic, safety-conscious guides. Tours, which last approximately 3 1/2 hours, are offered daily from April through September. Tickets start at $36 per participant ages 7 and older. Prices are slightly higher during the peak summer season and on Saturdays. Tickets include use of all equipment and round-trip transportation from Rolling Thunder River Company’s base of operations in Bryson City. If you’d prefer a self-guided outing, you can also rent rafts and other gear. Trips on the Ocoee River in Tennessee and the Toccoa River in northern Georgia are additional options.
U.S. National Whitewater Center
Home to the largest human-made whitewater river, the U.S. National Whitewater Center offers four sections that cater to a variety of ages and experience levels. Family Rafting uses the Wilderness Channel, which has Class II and III rapids, making its suitable for beginners. Adventure Rafting uses both the Wilderness Channel and Competition Channel, and adds more intense (Class IV) rapids to the mix. The even more up-tempo Big Water Rafting also uses both channels (and is only available Thursday and Friday evenings from May to September). There’s also the Rodeo Rafting upgrade that adds swimming to rafting the Class III and IV rapids. All trips have guides, which patrons describe as fun and helpful.
Most hourlong trips have morning and evening start times, with particular times changing over the course of the year. To sign up for a rafting adventure, you’ll have to purchase a pass to the center. Day passes start at $59 for participants 10 and older and $49 for kids 9 and younger. The passes are good for one day and include access to other activities at the center, including zip lining, a climbing wall and mountain biking. The Charlotte-based center is open year-round, but available activities can vary depending on time of year.
Trips will offer spectacular scenery, such as the natural beauty of the Nantahala National Forest.Getty Images
Ride Class II and III rapids on this 8 ½-mile excursion through the Nantahala National Forest. Rafters can opt for fully guided (with a guide in every boat) or unguided trips. Guide-assisted trips are available for large groups, during which a guide is in some boats but not others. Prices vary by trip type. Unguided trips start at $35.99 per person, while guided trips start at $58.99. Many rafters recommend going with guides, who are regarded as knowledgeable, adept and personable. Carolina Outfitters hosts other activities like horseback riding and bicycling. You’ll find the company in Topton, about 85 miles west of Asheville.
High Mountain Expeditions – Nolichucky River Rafting
Start your rafting adventure in North Carolina and end your day in Tennessee on this excursion down the Nolichucky River. Along the 11-mile journey, you’ll tackle challenging Class III and IV rapids. Trips can last from four to seven hours (plus travel time), depending on weather and water levels. Participants meet around 7 a.m. at High Mountain Expeditions’ base of operations in Banner Elk, which sits in northwest North Carolina near Cherokee National Forest. This raft ride is available daily from mid-April to mid-September. Its guides consistently win praise from reviewers for their professionalism. The approximately $95 fee includes round-trip transportation to the company’s office, a buffet lunch and all necessary whitewater gear. High Mountain also leads rafting trips on other rivers, as well as hiking, caving and river tubing outings.
Edge of the World – Go Whitewater Rafting
Spend three to four hours navigating Class I, II and III rapids on the Watauga River during this family-friendly expedition. Rafters have the option to go through the river’s largest rapid, the Anaconda, multiple times if they want. Tour-takers describe the guides as friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Tickets start at $79 for adults and $69 for kids 4 to 12; prices include use of gear, transportation and lunch. Outings occur every day starting at 11 a.m. from late May to early September. Activities, such as kayaking and rock climbing, are also available via Banner Elk-based Edge of the World.
Blue Heron Whitewater – Full Day Trip
Ride the French Broad River from Barnard to Hot Springs through the Pisgah National Forest on this 8-mile excursion. The journey includes the intense (Class IV) Frank Bell’s rapid as well as calmer Class I, II and III rapids. The trip – including round-trip transportation to the river as well as rafting instruction – can take up to seven hours, with three to five hours on the water, depending on water levels and group size. Rafters regularly call the guides both expert and amiable. The approximately $75 fee includes a picnic lunch. Trips are generally available beginning in the spring until the early fall, but the exact calendar varies. Half-day rafting trips are also available. Blue Heron Whitewater is located in Marshall, about 25 miles north of Asheville.
If you’re new to whitewater rafting, you’ll enjoy this trip on the Nantahala River thanks to the mild to moderate (Class I and II) rapids and the skilled guides, who know how to accommodate inexperienced rafters. Including travel from Bryson City to the launch point, trips take about 3 1/2 hours (with two hours on the water). Tours are available from April through October in both the morning and afternoon, but exact times will vary depending on the month. Tickets cost around $50 per person. Wildwater also offers a variety of packages combining rafting rides with zip lines, scenic train trips and other activities. The company also rents rafts and inflatable kayaks.