Rafting passengers ride Class III Nantahala Falls.  Copyright NOC. Used with permission. Nantahala Gorge, NC
(Beechertown to Wesser)



II+ (III) 3.5 feet / 586 cfs The Nantahala runs almost all the time except the month of November and -- for the past two (drought) years -- the month of December.  Water is frequently, but not always, released most of the day.  Release schedules are available on the NOC Waterline (828-488-2176, x426).  Except during floods, the Nantahala is either "on" (water is being released at 3.5 feet / 586 cfs on the gauge just upstream of Ferebee Park) or "off."
Character: The ultimate training run:  playable, relatively safe, dependable release and level
Scenery: Very pretty roadside run in a deep gorge.  Can get very crowded summer weekends.
Distance from Downtown Asheville (to take-out): 85 minutes
Length: 8.0 miles
Season: All (except month of November and sometimes December)
Other sections: Nantahala Cascades
Put-in: USFS put-in at Beechertown (on left just past the turn from US 19/74 onto SR 1442)
Take-out: On river left, just below the steel automobile bridge on the Nantahala Outdoor Center's property 
Directions from Asheville (to take-out): Take I-40 West to Exit 27 (US 23 / 74 / Great Smoky Mountains Expressway).  Stay on US 74 all the way to the Nantahala Gorge.  The take-out is on river left, just below the steel bridge you'll see on your right as you enter the Gorge.  Here's a map of the last part of the drive (the take-out is on the NOC's property).
Shuttle: Follow US 74 upstream eight miles, turning left onto SR 1442 and then left again into the put-in parking lot.  Even better, park at the NOC and catch a shuttle to the put-in.  The shuttles run every hour on the hour from 10-2 from April through October.  They cost $4 a ride or $20 for a season pass.
Other access points: Ferebee Park, three miles downstream from the Beechertown put-in.  Many others possible if needed from the road following the river.
Camping: Many options, including those described on the GreatSmokies.com website (look for campgrounds advertising their proximity to the Nantahala) and J. Mitchell's  mountain biking page.  The Tsali mountain biking trails are located approximately twenty minutes from the Nantahala Gorge take-out.
Gradient Nantahala Gorge elevation profile.  Copyright Chris Bell.  Click for larger image.
  Average: 36 fpm
  By mile: 8.0 miles:
33, 55, 48, 28, 20, 25, 30, 44
  Maximum: 73 fpm (over 0.55 miles)
  Maximum half mile: 73 fpm
  Maximum mile: 63
  Online: American Whitewater's Nantahala Gorge Page  Amy Walker's Nantahala Guide (from the NOC site)
  Print: Bob and David Benner's Carolina Whitewater:  A Canoeist's Guide to the Western Carolinas
Maps: Road map to the NOC.
Photos: Nantahala Photo Archive

Don't forget to pay the USFS use fee:  $1  for daily use or $5 for a season's pass.  Among other places, you can pay your fees at the NOC rental building or at the NOC Outfitter's Store.



Everyman's River
by Amy Walker

Nantahala Racing Club member Lee Sanders, Olympic Team Trials Qualifier.  Copyright NOC. Used with permission.

Lee Sanders

On any day in the height of summer on the dam-controlled Nantahala River in Western North Carolina, you'll see a colorful parade of rafts, kayaks, canoes and inflatable kayaks ("duckies") floating downstream.  Rafting outfitters began to offer commercial trips during the early 1970's.  Today, even with U.S. Forest Service permit restrictions, it's estimated that as many as 160,000 individuals float the river in rafts alone.  The Nantahala as we now know it, from its headwaters at Standing Indian Mountain on the Georgia state line to its mouth at Fontana Lake, is a nationally-recognized river of recreation, a river of play and sport.

The Nantahala, a Class II-III river, is considered ideal for both the first-timer and experienced rafter, as well as for private boaters of any skill level (novice to advanced).  With a wealth of rapids running the length of river, there's plenty of fun for rafters, kayakers, and canoeists alike.  Families particularly like this river since USFS regulations stipulate that participants can weigh as little as 60 pounds, enabling many children to participate.  Outfitters provide the equipment and safety gear needed for the trip down the river (lifejacket, splash pants, etc) and many also offer rental rafts or "ducky" trips, depending on water levels.

From put-in to take-out, the rafting stretch is eight-and-a-half miles, lasting about two-and-a-half hours on the water for a commercial trip.  Private boaters also use the Forest Service's commercial put-in and must pay a $1 fee for daily use or $5 for a season's permit.  The put-in is just downstream of a power plant, where a feeder pipe brings water from Nantahala Lake, high above the river corridor, down to the generator.  During power production, the discharge from the Nantahala plant, at 586 cubic feet per second, fills the Lower Nantahala Gorge and enables it to play host to fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts alike.

Downstream of the put-in, there's a historical plaque commemorating the botanist William Bartram, who traveled the area in the spring of 1776.  The tree-covered ridges of the Gorge are home to evergreens such as white and pine, and hemlock:  along the river are larger deciduous trees such as tulip, poplar, sycamore and beech.  Among the wildlife are black bear, wild turkeys, deer, kingfishers, cardinals and wrens, to name a few.  There are places along the Nantahala where high cliffs continue to shut out the direct sunlight until nearly noon, making the name "Nantahala" appropriate as a version of the Cherokee "Nundayeli", meaning "middle sun" or "midday sun."

With over 20 named rapids, the Nantahala has plenty of exciting fun for boaters, and calmer areas for simply floating and quietly appreciating the natural beauty of the river.  The fun begins with Class III Patton's Run followed immediately by Class II+ Tumble Dry.  Downstream of Ferebee Park is the well-known Delabar's Rock, featuring two Volkswagen sized rocks on river left, one after the other, and Delabar's Rock on river right, a diamond-shaped rock known for flipping rafts!

Whirlpool Rapid is marked by a large slanted rock on river left, behind which is the infamous whirlpool -- a powerful eddy known to many boaters.  Kayakers and canoeists can be seen surfing the wave that furls off the rock or getting enders if their playboats are small enough.  This is a huge mass of surging, squirrelly water, great for kayaker's squirts and play moves.  Seasoned raft guides sometimes take delight in playing here, using the eddy's powerful line to catch a corner of the raft and create some fast spins.  If a rafter falls in, they may take a few turns before the next boat picks them up!

A fitting climax to the run, Nantahala Falls is just above the usual take-out.  Some kayakers and canoeists prefer to break the Falls down into a few steps, eddy-hopping their way down using Truck Stop eddy and others.  At the base of the Falls is the area where kayakers and canoeists may spend much of their time perfecting play moves or practicing ferrying techniques.

A spectator's area on river right ensures that the Falls is a social spot where folks congregate to watch the action from above.  Outfitter photographers also set up their equipment here beneath brightly colored umbrellas, capturing the most intense action of the day.  For those who didn't successfully run Nantahala Falls, it is a short easy walk upstream to the top of the rapid, for another attempt!

Amy Walker (used with permission)


North Carolina's Nantahala:  A River of Riches
by Amy Walker

On any whitewater adventure down the Nantahala, there's ample opportunity to float on flatwater and gaze at the wealth of botanical wonders that line the river corridor.  Downstream of Patton's Run rapid near Tumble Dry, on the highway on river left, there's a historical plaque commemorating the botanist William Bartram. Bartram spent the spring of 1776 traveling through the Southern Appalachians in pursuit of new plants and traced the Savannah River to the Little Tennessee and then on to the Nantahala, encountering a forest of fast-growing evergreen species, black spruce and balsam fir, along with alder and birch.

In addition to Bartram's findings, botanists have since identified 1500 to 2000 species of plant life.  Today we continue to appreciate azalea and laurel in early summer, rhododendron in June and treasures such as wild tiger lilies in August.  Add to that floral palette daffodils, trillium and even kudzu!  From the vantage point of the water, trees dominate the steep ridges that create the Gorge -- evergreens like white pine, hemlock and yellow pine, while tulip, poplar, sycamore and beech are the larger trees directly along the river banks.

There are many ideal points while on the river to look up to the sky beyond the steep ridges that are characteristic of the area.  So steep are the ridges, anthropologist James Mooney writes, that the noted hunter Tsasta'wi would stand on a bluff overlooking his settlement and throw the liver of a freshly-killed deer down onto his roof.  Supposedly his wife would have it prepared for him by the time he descended the mountain!  Nantahala Lake and the surrounding area were home to the Cherokee one thousand years ago and there is evidence of settlers ten thousand years ago.

The geology of the Southern Appalachian mountain system is such that the terrain does not have the natural storehouses that are typical of the northern system -- lakes and glacial deposits.  Sudden rainfalls bring rapid rises and falls to the Southern Appalachian stream flows.  With the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, a system of dams and lakes were created to harness flood conditions and use Appalachian water power to produce electrical power.

On the approach to the put-in by road, the power plant comes into view, an imposing cage of steel and wire, as well as the feeder pipe that brings water to the plant from the Nantahala Lake high above the river corridor.  The Nantahala Hydroelectric Project -- Nantahala Lake (reservoir), pipeline and tunnels -- completed in 1942, today serves 50,000 customers in five Western North Carolina counties (Swain, Macon, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee).  As much as the Nantahala's known for recreation, it's also a river of utility.  Literally, a river of power.

Among the many unique natural features of the Gorge is below Patton's Run rapid, where the river surprisingly takes a 90 degree bend to the right.  Writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1992, Bryson City, NC-based writer George Ellison wrote "Few of the thousands of whitewater enthusiasts who set off from this area...realize that it's one of the most significant geological sites in the southern mountains."  It was proposed by geologist Arthur Keith that the river originally ran northwards from Georgia, but was hijacked by a resolute limestone strata and made to run in the easterly direction it follows today.  Put forth by Keith early this century, the theory continues to hold.

While the Nantahala is dam-controlled and it flows at the whim of a switch, it is by no means benign.  Its character can change swiftly, thanks to the heavy rains that grip the area from time to time.  Take, for example, the year 1990.  During the Nantahala '90 International Raft Rally, the river reached 10 feet in flood stage -- quite a departure from the typical 3.5 ft. The river was transformed into a raging torrent with well-known features blown out, race gates washed away, and the assembly area drowned.  A relief operation of dozers, gravel and whitewater enthusiasts kept the raft races on schedule as competitors from all over the world met the mighty(!) Nantahala, many for the first time.  Without question, a river of play!

Amy Walker (used with permission)


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Revised: November 12, 2003.

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