White water rafting in Tennessee ranges from the gentle to the extreme. You'll find excursions that are family-friendly, as well as trips where only experienced paddlers are welcome. On the gentler stretches, families can take self-guided trips, but even novices can experience more thrilling rapids on a guided tour. And, of course, there are plenty of places where experienced paddlers can get out on the water on their own. Some of the rivers in east Tennessee are wild and free-flowing, while others are controlled by dams, ensuring more reliable water levels and flow.
White water outfitters offer a variety of water craft for white water sports. Inflatable rafts and kayaks are widely used, but you'll also find duckies (or funyaks). These are inflatable kayaks that seat one or two. They're resilient, maneuverable, and ride low in the water. Think of them as a cross between a white water raft and a kayak, with the benefit is of being more stable than a kayak. Many outfitters also offer canoe and/or kayak paddling classes.
It pays to be safety conscious when getting out on the water. Know your limitations, and check on current conditions before setting out on your own. Outfitters are very safety conscious and will provide experienced guides, safety gear, and instructions before you set out. Some will even provide wet suits, which could come in handy if the water is cold.
Whitewater rapids are classified according to the challenge they present:
You'll find more details on whitewater classification and safety at American Whitewater.
The Ocoee River is the most popular spot for white water rafting in Tennessee. It was the site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom competitions, and the improvements made for those events have only made the area more attractive. The Ocoee Whitewater Center, built for the Olympics, is now operated by the U.S. Forest Service. It includes a Visitor Center and a 4 acre recreation area that provides picnicing, hiking, and mountain biking in addition to whitewater sports.
The Ocoee's flow is controlled by 3 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams, and features rapids ranging from Class III-IV.
Tennessee regulations set the minimum age for going on the Ocoee at 12 years. Numerous outfitters provide guided trips and instruction on the Ocoee.
The Ocoee River is located in the Cherokee National Forest in southeast Tennessee, close to the Georgia border.
For more information see Ocoee Whitewater Rafting
If you're looking for a milder white water experience, there are several rivers in Tennessee that offer family-friendly rafting: the Hiwassee River, the Watauga River, the lower Pigeon River and the lower Nolichucky River.
The Hiwassee River, just 15 miles north of the Ocoee, is perfect for some gentle rafting and canoeing and is popular with families. The 23 mile section from the North Carolina state line to Highway 411 has been designated a Tennessee State Scenic River and includes class I-II rapids, with some sections of class III rapids.
The Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park provides additional recreation along the river, including camping, fishing, hiking, and picnicing.
Outfitters on the Hiwassee provide raft, kayak and funyak rentals and shuttle services. Some also provide guided trips. Age restrictions vary, though a minimum age of 6 is common.
The Watauga River originates at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and heads into northeastern Tennessee, where two TVA dams create Watauga Lake and the much smaller Wilbur Lake. The area downstream of these dams features class I and II rapids, including the scenic Bee Cliff Rapids (also called the Anaconda Rapids).
Several outfitters offer guided raft trips suitable for families with children. Minimum ages vary from 3 to 5 years old. You can also rent kayaks and rafts.
The Pigeon River is a dam-controlled river close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Regular water releases from the dam ensure good water levels through the season, from late May through early September. The Pigeon River's proximity to the national park and to the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge make it one of the most popular spots for white water rafting in Tennessee.
Outfitters offer rafting trips on days when water is released. The Upper Pigeon offers class III-IV rapids and is suitable for children 8 years and older. The Lower Pigeon is a gentler run with class I-II rapids, suitable for children as young as 3 years.
Outfitters are located in Hartford, Tennessee, off of Interstate 40, about a 45 minute drive from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
For more information, see White Water Rafting Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge
The Nolichucky River is a wild, free-flowing river. It begins at Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and flows across the border into northeast Tennessee. The section of river where it crosses the border near Erwin, Tennessee offers the most exciting and scenic whitewater rafting.
The upper Nolichucky River passes through a deep gorge with class III-IV rapids. The lower section of the Nolichucky features class I-II rapids, appropriate for families. High water levels occur in the spring, with lower water levels in late spring through summer.
Outfitters in the area offer a variety of guided trips on both the upper and lower Nolichucky. Minimum age requirements vary from 9-13 years old for the upper Nolichucky, and 4-5 years old for the lower Nolichucky.
The Obed River. located on the Cumberland Plateau, is considered one of the best whitewater rivers in the southeast. It's designated a national wild and scenic river, and is operated by the National Park Service.
The river is classified Class II-IV, but there are no commercial outfitters operating on the Obed, so only experienced boaters should venture here. Water levels and conditions can vary considerably due to rain, though periods of high flow tend to occur in the spring.
The Obed Visitor Center is located in Wartburg, and you can find more information at Obed Wild and Scenic River.
The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is a free-flowing river, and provides world-class white water canoeing and kayaking. Some sections are calm enough for beginners, while others can be challenging. Runs vary from Class I-IV, and water flow varies with rainfall. Peak times for rafting are in the spring, and sometimes in late fall or winter.
The river is part of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service. It's located on the Cumberland Plateau, straddling the Kentucky/Tennessee border.
There is only one commercial outfitter operating in the Big South Fork: Sheltowee Trace Outfitters, located in Whitley City, Kentucky. They offer raft and canoe trips and kayak and canoe instruction.
If you're embarking on the river on your own, check in with the Bandy Creek Visitor Center to file a trip plan and/or register for overnight trips. They can also give you the most current information on river conditions.