Whether you’re visiting Asheville for vacation, have just moved in, or even if you’re an Asheville native, there’s no question that the area is perfect for rapid riding in just about any craft. If you’re just getting into the sport, or if you’re a paddling expert, there are tons of mountain rivers nearby, all presenting their different challenges for whitewater paddlers of any level.

So if you’re new to the activity, let’s make sure you know what we’re talking about when we describe different routes to you. Rapids are classified on an international scale of difficulty, from Class 1, easy, to Class VI, extremely difficult. Obviously, every rapid moves and changes over time, and can be more or less difficult depending on the water levels the time you go. If you go after a period of heavy rain, expect your trip to be more challenging, and vice versa if you go in a drought. Now, let’s explain those classifications a little bit:

Class I: Moving water, but mostly flat with a few waves. Little to no obstructions. Smooth sailing.
Class II: Easy rapids with small waves, navigated with moderate ease by a beginner or intermediate paddler. Some maneuvering could be required.
Class III: Narrow passages with fast flowing water. Maneuvering required, best handled by intermediate level paddlers, but still accessible to some beginners.
Class IV: Long, constricted passages that are very difficult, usually featuring turbulent water. These generally require precise maneuvering, and you should scout ahead to determine your course.
Class V: Scouting required. Extremely difficult, long, violent rapids that are very narrow. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is serious life-threatening danger in the event that something goes wrong. Tests the very limits of a commercial raft.
Class VI: Beyond extreme, the most dangerous of rapids, threat to life very high. Reserved for only the highest class of athletes, Olympic level. Not commercially raftable.

Alright, so now that you know the classifications of river rapids, where can you go, and which river rapids are for you?

French Broad River

The option closest to Asheville, this is a great choice for beginning paddlers. The French Broad River is actually the third oldest river in the world, and it is free-flowing, meaning the difficulty of the rapids will be decided entirely on recent rainfall. If you go on a half-day trip, starting at the Madison County put-in, you’ll encounter mostly Class II and III rapids. If you go for the full day, you’ll run into one Class IV rapid.

Nantahala River

Another good choice for beginners, this chilly dam-controlled river sports mostly Class II and III rapids, along with relaxing sections of flat water. If you go on the eight mile ride, it’ll take around 2.5 hours to complete, and about an hour and a half to drive back to Asheville.

Pigeon River

Just an hour from Asheville, this is a better option for intermediate paddlers as the upper level sports more Class III and IV rapids through the Cherokee National Forest. If you’re a beginner and you decide to go anyway, the lower end of the Pigeon is a bit slower with big spaces of flat water and smaller rapids. This one is dam controlled, so trips are generally timed with the release of water from the dam.

Green River

If you decide to go on this one, choose your route wisely. The river features a splashy class V in the Green River Narrows, which requires top-notch maneuvering and is a popular spot for advanced paddlers in the area. Avoiding the Narrows, you can choose the Upper Green for a 3.7 mile run of Class IIIs. There is an uphill hike you’ll have to make here, but if you’re looking to improve your paddling skills, it’ll be worth it. Still not up for that level of extreme? No worries. The Lower Green is an easy float sprinkled with a few Class I and II rapids to cruise through. Perfect for anyone learning to paddle or just looking to relax in the mountains.

The mountainous areas of North Carolina are sprinkled with beautiful, challenging, and relaxing river runs for paddlers of all experience levels. If you’re moving to the area, it won’t be hard to find your new favorite spot in the mountains, or take up paddling as your next sport. If you’re just visiting, it’s a great way to stay active and take in the scenery of the mountains first hand. No matter the river, there’s a route for everyone.

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