There are plenty of great whitewater rafting destinations in Tennessee and North Carolina — in fact, here are the best 50 rivers in the Southeast. However, we wanted to highlight some of our favorite spots right here in Tennessee (or places so close that they’re nearly Tennessee) that are great for those who are new to whitewater rafting or kayaking, are too young to venture into the larger rivers, or simply like to take it easy. To help you find a great river for your whitewater rafting trip near the Smokies, we’d like to feature some of the easier whitewater rafting runs…that is, Class I and Class II rapids.
Before we begin, here’s a breakdown of what each rapid classification means. In essence, whitewater rapids are classified according to the challenge they present, and are as follows:
Class I: Easy
Class II: Novice
Class III: Intermediate
Class IV: Advanced
Class V: Expert
Class VI: Extreme and Exploratory
For more information on whitewater rapids and your safety, visit American Whitewater. Also, keep in mind that rapids on free-flowing rivers aren’t as dependable as rivers with dam-controlled, scheduled releases; free-flowing rivers’ rapids are subject to heavy rains, drought, and more.
French Broad River, West North Carolina & East Tennessee
The French Broad River is a family-friendly river that runs 218 miles from North Carolina into Tennessee. Along this journey, the French Broad picks up and enters many of the area’s other surrounding rivers. After crossing into Tennessee, the French Broad receives the waters of both the Pigeon River and the Nolichucky River just northwest of Newport, Tennessee. Near Sevierville, Tennessee, it receives the flow of the Little Pigeon River before joining the Holston River in Knox County — at the place known as “Forks of the River” — to form the Tennessee River.
Rapids will depend on where your journey begins and ends, but most rafting trips with outfitters from North Carolina and Tennessee will range from Class II-III — possibly a Class IV drop if your journey includes Frank Bell’s Rapid. “Proficient Class II paddlers should consider the Barnard to Stackhouse section of the French Broad, where the wide river provides paddlers with easier lines to negotiate some of the Class III rapids.”
Hiwassee River, East Tennessee
This Tennessee State Scenic River is located in the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park. Those wishing for a gentle, family-friendly journey down the river will find Class I-II rapids (with some sections of Class III) on the 23-mile section from the North Carolina state line to Highway 411. With plenty of outfitters located on the river — along with state park amenities — there are plenty of opportunities for guided river tours, rentals, and more.
Little Tennessee River, East Tennessee & West North Carolina
The free-flowing Little Tennessee River is a tributary of the Tennessee River that flows through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. While the river drains into portions of three national forests, it also provides the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the journey along the Little Tennessee will be Class I-II rapids, but the end can produce Class III rapids, especially if there has been a hard rain.
Lower Pigeon River, East Tennessee
The Pigeon River is one of the most popular rivers for whitewater rafting — in fact, it was ranked No. 3 by the American Outdoors Association for the top destinations for whitewater rafting in the United States. It’s close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Tennessee resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, make it an easy destination for many. However, the river itself is what brings people back time and time again.
The Pigeon River is dam-controlled and split into two segments: the Upper and the Lower Pigeon River. Rafters looking for a gentle river ride and Class I-II rapids will want to opt for a Lower Pigeon River rafting adventure. Lower Pigeon River rafting adventures are designed for thrill seekers as young as 3 years old, and children ages 3-7 can even ride for free, as long as they’re riding with another paid trip. Make sure to call Smoky Mountain River Rat to schedule your family-friendly rafting adventure in the Smokies.
Lower Nolichucky, East Tennessee
The Nolichucky River is a 115-mile free-flowing river that flows from western North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell into East Tennessee. The upper part of the river passes through a deep gorge — the South’s largest, in fact — and produced Class III-IV rapids. However, there is a family-friendly section of the Nolichucky River — the Lower Nolichucky! The Lower Nolichucky River offers a calmer rafting experience with Class I-II rapids. Outfitters around the river offer trips to riders as young as 4-5 years old.
Nantahala River, North Carolina
The Nantahala is considered “the classic Southeastern run for beginner paddlers” — it’s relatively safe, offers opportunities for boat play, and water is dependable, thanks to scheduled water releases from the dam. These factors, along with being a great training ground for those who are new to river sports, make the Nantahala one of the most rafted/paddled rivers in the United States. On this Class II river, rafters and kayakers will find 20+ mild but exciting rapids over the course of 8 miles, including Nantahala Falls (Class III) just before take-out. Be sure not to miss this take-out spot, as dangerous Class V rapids at Lower Nantahala Falls begin just downstream.
While the river itself runs along the road, there’s still plenty of beautiful scenery thanks to the surrounding views of the Nantahala Gorge. While enchanting, this gorge’s height blocks the sun until around noon, and forty-five degree, dam-released waters make this a chilly run. Be sure to dress warmly — even in the summer. The Nantahala River is within the Nantahala National Forest and near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For fully-guided white water rafting trips, raft rentals, duck rentals and guided rafting, zip-line adventures, and more, be sure to check plan your visit with the local outfitters.
Obed River, Middle Tennessee
The Obed River is located in the Cumberland Plateau — just south of Crossville, TN. While it’s considered one of the best whitewater rivers in the Southeast for Class II-IV rapids, there are no commercial outfitters to take visitors on guided rafting tours. That’s due to the fact that the river is designated a National Wild and Scenic River and is operated by the National Park Service.
Due to the range of rapids that can be experienced here — and a lack of experienced guides — only experienced boaters should venture to the Obed River. While it is scenic and quiet — the river trip flows some 400 feet deep through a sandstone gorge — water levels and conditions can vary drastically due to rain and other conditions. Experienced Class II rafters and kayakers will enjoy putting-in at Potters Ford and paddling to Obed Junction where Daddy Creek flows into the river. You can find more information at the Obed Visitor Center in Wartburg, TN or on the National Park Service’s page dedicated to experiencing the wild and scenic Obed River.
Oconaluftee River, Western North Carolina
At the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies the Oconaluftee River — or “Luftee” for short. While many stretches of the river are used for tubing, swimming, and other outdoor activities, there is an opportunity for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Look into the Smokemont Campground to Birdtown stretch of the Oconaluftee River (11.5 miles long and classified as Class II-III rapids), or there’s a short 3.2-mile run along the river with one Class III rapid named “Elbow,” thanks to its zig-zag-like shape.
Watauga River, East Tennessee & Western North Carolina
The Watauga River, which runs 78.5 miles between western North Carolina and East Tennessee, offers another great opportunity to experience family-friendly, Class I & II+ whitewater rafting in the Southeast.
Depending on where you are located and how far you want to travel, there are plenty of outfitters offering guided white water rafting tours (and more) between East Tennessee and western North Carolina. However, a popular put-in is in Carter County Tennessee, just downstream of the TVA Wilbur Dam, and a popular take-out is downstream in Elizabethton, TN. Make sure your trip includes the scenic Bee Cliff Rapids (a.k.a the Anaconda Rapids). Another option for easy Class II rapids (with plenty of time between rapids) is the upper section of the Red Roof Run, just above the dam. Keep in mind that there are sections below the dam in which the river drastically changes to continuous Class IV-V rapids — something that requires expert technical experience. Please plan your trip accordingly.
Get Out and Play
Whether you’re visiting Tennessee or the Southeast with hopes of trying whitewater rafting for the first time, or you’re looking to try a new activity on your thrilling staycation in your home state, we hope that we’ve helped you find an easy, novice, and family-friendly river with rapids you can manage — right here in Tennessee. Stay tuned for more whitewater rafting rivers in (and near) Tennessee — including Class III-V rivers! In the meantime, discover the many other great rivers you could be rafting, kayaking, paddling, SUPing, etc. in Tennessee!