A River of Riches

North Carolina's Nantahala
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Rafting: Nantahala River, North Carolina
DUCK CALL: Ducky on the Nantahala River, North Carolina (courtesy, Nantahala Outdoor Center)
Nantahala River at a Glance
Price: $
River Rapid Class: II-III
Trip in Miles: 9
Trip Duration: 1 Day
Season: March-November Raft Types: Paddle Raft, Oar Raft, Inflatable Kayak
River Sections: Nantahala Gorge
Nearby Towns: Bryson City, NC
Gateway City: Bryson City, NC
Driving Times: Asheville, NC: 1 hour; Atlanta, GA: 2.5 hours

On any summer day along the dam-controlled Nantahala River, you'll see a colorful parade of rafts, kayaks, canoes and inflatable kayaks ("duckys") floating down to various take-outs. During the early '70s rafting outfitters on this paddling gem in western North Carolina began to offer commercial trips. Today, even with the permit restrictions implemented in 1983 by the US Forest Service (USFS), it's estimated by the Swain County Chamber of Commerce that as many as 160,000 individuals float the river annually. The Nantahala as we know it now, from its headwaters at Standing Indian on the Georgia state line to its mouth at Fontana Lake, is a nationally recognized river of recreation.

A commercial rafting trip on the Nantahala River typically consists of a half-day adventure through the Nantahala Gorge—some of the area's most scenic terrain. The Nantahala, a Class II-III river, is a fine trip for both the first-timer and experienced rafter, as well as private boaters of any skill level. With a wealth of rapids running the length of river, there's plenty of fun for rafters and boaters alike. Families are particularly fond of this river since, by USFS rules, rafters need only weigh 60 pounds. This lets most children participate in this unique family adventure. Outfitters provide the equipment and gear needed for the trip down the river (lifejacket, splash pants); 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. That's about two-and-a-half hours spent on the water for a commercial trip. A commercial outfitter will transport you by bus or van to the put-in. Private boaters must use the Forest Service's commercial put-in and pay a one dollar fee for daily use. A five dollar season permit is also available through the USFS. Rafters' USFS fees should be included in the outfitter's trip price.

Approaching the Put-In

On the approach to the put-in road, the power plant comes into view, an imposing cage of steel and wire. You'll also see the feeder pipe that brings water to the plant from the Nantahala Lake high above the river corridor. The Nantahala Hydroelectric Project—Nantahala Lake, pipeline, and tunnels—was completed in 1942 and today serves 50,000 customers in five North Carolina counties (Swain, Macon, Jackson, Graham, and Cherokee). Not surprisingly, the generator provides more than 40% of Nantahala Power & Light's total capacity. As much as the Nantahala's known for recreation, it's also a river of utility—a river of power.

The geology of the Southern Appalachian mountain system is such that the terrain does not have the lakes and glacial deposits typical of the northern system that provide natural storehouses for water . Sudden rains bring rapid rises and falls to the Southern Appalachian stream flows. With the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 (and its ensuing example), a system of dams and lakes were created to harness flood conditions and use Appalachian water power to produce electrical power. Discharge from the Nantahala plant, rushing at 586 cubic feet per second, fills the Lower Nantahala Gorge and lets it play host to fisherman and whitewater enthusiasts alike.

Thanks to the Nantahala Outdoor Center for this article.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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