Southeast White Water Rafting & Smoky Mountains Itinerary

The southeastern United States has arguably the best collection of quality white water rafting rivers in a relatively compact area, many of which offer world-class white water that alone are worth the trip. The 6-rivers highlighted in this itinerary have rapids ranging from class III to V and besides the Cheoah are suitable for beginners all the way up to white water veterans. Besides the amazing rafting, this 1-week (9-day) itinerary includes 6-nights of camping and 2-days of hiking within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as an evening in Asheville, NC. So if you are an outdoor enthusiast or an adrenaline junkie that doesn’t mind getting wet, this is the trip for you. Here is a break-down of all the rivers covered in this itinerary:

River Section Class Flow Time Location
Chattooga IV 3-5 Natural 5-6 Hours GA/SC
Nolichucky Full 3-4 Natural 3.5-4.5 Hours NC/TN
Pigeon Upper 3-4 Dam 2.5 Hours TN
Nantahala Lower 2-3 Dam 3 Hours NC
Ocoee Full 3-4 Dam 5.5 Hours TN
Cheoah Full 4-5 Dam 4 Hours NC

Where?

The majority of the trip will be spent in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina but time will also be spent in Georgia and South Carolina. Even though this 1-week itinerary includes visits to four different states, all of the rivers are within a short drive of the Smoky Mountains making the distances very manageable.

When?

Since this is a white water rafting trip you must go during the rafting season which for the southeastern United States rivers typically runs from March to October. The dam-controlled rivers have very consistent and predicable conditions throughout the season but the free-flow rivers are dependent on snowmelt and rainfall which tend to be better during the spring and early summer months. Here is a breakdown of when to go:

  • March & April: Cold water, good conditions and very few crowds.
  • May & June: Water is getting warmer, ideal conditions and manageable crowds.
  • July & August: The warmest water and good conditions but it is also peak season so expect the most crowds.
  • September & October: Water is still warm, so-so conditions and fewer crowds.

Factoring in water temperature, conditions and crowds makes the months of May and June my favorite time of year to go white water rafting in the southeastern USA.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America and gets its name from the natural blue mist that hangs over the ranges many peaks and valleys. The Great Smoky Mountains are part of Blue Ridge Mountains which is a subrange of the larger the Appalachian Mountain chain. In 1983 the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 1988 as an International Biosphere Reserve. Popular activities include fishing (especially fly-fishing), horseback riding, biking, tubing and of course hiking — the famous Appalachian Trail (or AT) runs through the center of the park. Here are some of the best Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikes that are also convenient to the Cosby and Deep Creek Campgrounds as well as the general path of the itinerary:

Hike Name Miles Time Type Elevation Difficulty
Ramsey Cascades 8.0 5-7 Hours In/Out 2,190 Strenuous
Hen Wallow Falls 4.4 3-4 Hours In/Out 900 Moderate
Laurel Falls 2.3 2 Hours In/Out 314 Easy
Alum Cave 4.4 4 Hours In/Out 1125 Moderate
3 Waterfalls 1.6 2 Hours Loop 579 Easy

Map of the Southeast

Map Southeast White Water RaftingA map of the southeast with all the rivers, hikes, campsites and stops covered in this itinerary.

Southeast White Water Rafting 1-Week (9-Day) Itinerary

Calendar Itinerary

Southeast White Water Rafting 1-Week (9-Day) ItineraryThe perfect 1-week (9-day) southeast white water rafting itinerary. Dam release dates are often released up to a year in advance so make sure to check all dates before planning and booking your trip.

Itinerary Notes

  • If you can arrive on Friday instead of Saturday you can add an extra day to the trip which can be used for either rafting, hiking or an extra day in Asheville. The Chattooga offers an overnight option which is how I would recommend using it.
  • The Cheoah is the most challenging and dangerous river in the southeast. It also has the fewest yearly releases meaning that it might not be running during the week of your trip. As a result you might choose to skip it.
  • For those flying, the Atlanta airport (ATL) is the most logical place to begin and end the trip as it works perfectly with the itinerary as well as having the most non-stop flight options. Other nearby major airports include Charlotte (CLT) and Nashville (BNA). Smaller airport options are Knoxville (TYS), Greenville-Spartanburg (GSP) and Chattanooga (CHA).
  • For those rafting the Cheoah and flying, you will need to take either a late flight home on Sunday night or fly out Monday morning.
  • For those driving from the east, south or west this itinerary will work out perfect. If driving from the north I would still recommend starting and ending the trip as described even though it will involve a small amount of backtracking.

Detailed White Water Rafting 1-Week Itinerary (9-Days)


Atlanta GeorgiaThe Skyline of Atlanta, GA which is a great place to start and end the trip (if flying).

Day 1) Arrive in Clayton, GA

Regardless if you are flying or driving, make your way to Clayton, GA — located in the northeastern corner of Georgia. This is a small town of little interest and no real reason to visit except for the fact that is the most convenient town to the Chattooga River. There are several good local restaurants located along Main Street, so grab dinner and turn in early after a busy day of traveling. We stayed in town at Americas Best Value Inn; the staff was very friendly and helpful, although the room had an odd smell which I suspect was some cheap cleaning product. Beds were acceptable and the price was very good so I cannot complain about the value. Breakfast was included and featured make your own waffles and juice, although you have to bring it back to your room as there is no eating area. This is a cheap, clean and no-thrills hotel good for a single-night.

Spend the night in Clayton, GA.


Chattooga River White Water RaftingOne of the rapids on the Chattooga River, known as “the crown jewel” of the southeast.

Day 2) Chattooga River White Water Rafting & Asheville, NC

The Chattooga River is natural-flowing so it is conditions dependent. The section III trip has class 2-4 rapids and the section IV trip has class 3-5 rapids; each section takes about 5 to 6 hours to complete.

In 1974 the Chattooga River became the first river east of the Mississippi to be designated as a National Wild & Scenic River and is the only one that is still commercially rafted. Nearly 40-miles of the river have been designated as “wild” with protective buffer zones of national forests along both sides of the river banning development of any kind. Much of the river serves as the border between Georgia and South Carolina. The river is most famous for being where the 1972 movie Deliverance starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was filmed. All these reasons make the Chattooga River, also known as “the crown jewel” of the southeast, the perfect place to kickoff the rafting trip. Only two sections of the river are commercially rafted — section 3 which consists of mostly class I to III rapid ending with the famous Bull Sluice class IV rapid; and section 4, the more intense of the two sections with lots of named class III and IV rapids.

We did section 4 of the Chattooga with the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). The staff and guide was very professional, friendly and made the day very memorable. The lunch served next to the river was delicious. My only complaint is that they charged $75 for all of the photos they took which seems exorbitant and the highest price I’ve ever seen for rafting photos (I wish they would just include that in the price or make it cheaper). There is an overnight option which allows you to experience both sections of the river, although this will add an extra day to the trip (see itinerary notes above).

After busy day of rafting, drive north to Asheville, NC — the hipster capital of the southeast known for its art, music, breweries and culinary delights. We ended up wishing that we had more time to explore this amazing city so if you can add an extra day, spending it here could be a good option (again, see itinerary notes above). We stayed at the Cambria Hotel Downtown Asheville and really enjoyed this very modern hotel. The room was large, clean and had very comfy beds. The bathroom was nice with lots of water pressure in the shower. The staff was friendly and gave us a small jar of local honey as a gift when checking out. The location of the hotel is perfect for exploring Asheville on foot. They do charge for parking which is the only downside but I think all hotels in downtown Asheville do that. I would recommend staying here for sure.

Asheville has become one of the best food destinations in the United States so grab dinner at one of the towns many local restaurants. We tried the Kathmandu Kitchen but our meal was just OK — while nothing we got was bad, I have had much better Indian food before. To be fair, it might have just been an “off-night” as I have been to plenty of Indian restaurants that were great one week and bad the next. Service was a bit slow but the staff was very friendly and helpful. Drinks were good and the beer selection was great as with most places in town. The atmosphere inside was extremely nice and prices were fine.

Asheville is perhaps best known for beer, so after dinner spend the night bar hopping to a few places and sampling some of the local craft beers from the areas many breweries. Make sure to try something from the Highland Brewing Company, the oldest active brewery in town and our personal favorite. We visited the bars Asheville Club and Jack of the Wood and both were very enjoyable.

Spend the night in Asheville, NC.


Nolichucky River White Water RaftingOne of the calmer stretches of the Nolichucky River taken during the river-side lunch break.

Day 3) Nolichucky River White Water Rafting

The Nolichucky River is natural-flowing so it is conditions dependent. It can be difficult to navigate and sometimes impassible during seasonal droughts (meaning your best bet will be the spring and early summer months). The full-day trip has class 3-4 rapids and takes about 3.5 to 4.5 hours to complete.

From Asheville, drive north to the Nolichucky River and gorge which provides some of the more scenic and technical whitewater trips in the southeastern United States with lots of named class III to IV rapids. At one point during our rafting run, the surrounding cliffs got as high as 2,800 feet above the base of the river making this one of the deepest gorges on the entire east coast. There have been attempts to get this river classified as a National Wild & Scenic River and after experiencing this beautiful place first-hand it is hard to imagine why it isn’t yet. There is the option for doing just the Lower Nolichucky trips with just class I and II rapids but I would suggest the full-day trip for the most satisfying white water experience. We did the Nolichucky full-day trip with USA Raft Adventure Resort and had a great time. The staff and our guide were friendly and made our trip a blast. The river-side lunch was delicious and prices were good so I would highly recommend.

After rafting, head south to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cosby Campground — this is a great campground with every campsite having its own picnic table, tent area, fire pit and grill grate. The bathrooms were well maintained and very clean. The Cosby Campground makes a perfect base for exploring the Tennessee side of the national park and its many hikes. The nearby town of Newport, TN is the best place to stock up on supplies although there are a few small stores just outside of the campground which can work in a pinch.

Spend the night camping at Cosby Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Ramsey Cascades Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on our way to Ramsey Cascades.

Day 4) Hiking The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Spend the day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (see the chart above for hiking options). We did the hike to Ramsey Cascades which was a strenuous in/out hike that takes about 5-7 hours round-trip to complete. The waterfall was amazing and well worth the effort. If you have the energy, do another shorter hike or return for the campsite and relax by the campfire.

Spend the night camping at Cosby Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Upper Pigeon River White Water RaftingSome of the exciting white water on the upper section of the Pigeon River.

Day 5) Upper Pigeon River White Water Rafting

The Pigeon River is dam-controlled with releases varying by month and day (see below for the typical yearly schedule). Even on non-guaranteed release days trips can still run depending on conditions. The upper section trip has class 3-4 rapids and takes about 3.5-hours to complete.

The Pigeon River packs a lot of excitement into a relatively short run. The river is broken up in to the upper section which has the more intense rapids and the lower section with more modest rapids that can easily be skipped. Upper section trips begin at the Waterville Power Station plant located directly on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Look for the person counting each rafter as they exit the bus, this is the local tax man making sure the government is getting its full tax revenue.

Typical Pigeon River Release Schedule:

  • March to April: Non-guaranteed water releases and natural-flow trips
  • May to Memorial Day: Guaranteed water releases on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Memorial Day to Labor Day: Guaranteed water releases on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and on holiday Sundays.
  • Labor Day to October: Natural-flow trips.

We did the upper section with Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and had a blast. Our guide was very friendly, knowledgeable and one of our favorite guides of the trip. They also have one of the best outposts that I have been to with a nice new changing rooms and hot showers to warm up after a day on the river. They also charge a very reasonable rate to get all of the photographs (compared to others) which was much appreciated. I would highly recommend NOC for rafting the Pigeon River.

After rafting, there should be time for another hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — I would recommend Hen Wallow Falls which leaves directly from the Cosby Campground; this is a moderate in/out hike that takes about 3-4 hours to complete. Another option is to spend some time checking out some of the local stores such as Kyle Carver Orchards located not far from the campground, offering fresh fruits, vegetables, ciders, candies, jams, canned goods and various other local products.

Spend the night camping at Cosby Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Newfound Gap Great Smoky Mountains National ParkThe impressive view from Newfound Gap at an elevation of 5,046 feet — this is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Day 6) Hiking The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wake up, pack-up the campsite and spend the day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (see the chart above for hiking options). We first did Laurel Falls which is an easy 2-hour in/out hike to a picturesque waterfall that can get very crowded. For one of the best hikes in the park I recommend Alum Cave which is an impressive overhanging rock-bluff and not an actual cave — either way, this moderate in/out hike takes about 4-hours roundtrip and is well worth the effort as the trail has a little bit of everything the park has to offer. Afterwards, make a quick stop at Newfound Gap for fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Newfound Gap is a mountain pass located in the center of the park and situated directly on the Tennessee and North Carolina border; look for the Appalachian Trail as it passes through here.

From Newfound Gap drive to Deep Creek Campground near the small town of Bryson City, NC. This was a great campground away from the crowds as we basically had the whole place to ourselves when we visited. The ranger was very friendly and helpful. Each campsite has its own picnic table, fire-pit, grill-grate and tent area. The bathrooms were well maintained and clean (although they shut power down to them early in the evening). There is also a great waterfall loop trail that leaves from the campground as well as tubing options. I would highly recommend staying here as it is the perfect location for the final river runs of the trip.

Spend the night camping at Deep Creek Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Nantahala River White Water RaftingPlan on getting wet when navigating your duckie down the misty Nantahala River.

Day 7) Nantahala River Self-Guided Duckies

The Nantahala River is dam-controlled with releases every day of the week. The self-guided duckies trip has class 2-3 rapids and takes about 3-hours to complete.

Situated within the Nantahala National Forest is the Nantahala River and this is perfect change of pace from the other white water runs on this trip. Instead of a large multi-person raft with a guide, each person will have their own “duckie” (which is basically an inflatable kayak) and the trip is self-guided. Choose between a single or double duck. The water is released from the bottom of the dam making temperature very cold throughout the entire year but as a result you get a cool mist hanging above the water. The river is mostly class II rapids that culminate at the exciting class III rapid named Nantahala Falls — make sure to smile as your photo is being taken as you go over this rapid. Pro trip: After running the last big rapid you can pull your duckie out along the right-side of the river, carry it back up above the rapid and run a second time.

We did the self-guided duckie trip with Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and had a blast. This NOC outpost is their main headquarters and there is a huge complex here with lots of activities. With it being so big I was surprised that they did not have hot showers like some of the other NOC outposts we have previously visited. Staff was friendly and helpful. The duckie rental cost includes a wetsuit which is advisable to wear because of the very cold water and you are guaranteed to get very wet in the small duckie. The cost to get all photos on a thumb-drive was $55 which was a bit steep but not outrageous.

After a day of rafting, head back to the campsite and hike the 3 Waterfalls Loop (if you have the energy). The trailhead leaves right from the Deep Creek Campground and takes you to the waterfalls of Juney Whank Falls, Indian Creek Falls and Tom Branch Falls. It is an easy loop trail that takes less than 2-hours to complete.

Spend the night camping at Deep Creek Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Ocoee River White Water RaftingThe Ocoee River is one of the most popular rafting rivers in the entire USA.

Day 8) Ocoee River White Water Rafting

The Ocoee River is dam-controlled with the middle-section having releases 5-days a week (Thursday to Monday) and the full-trip having weekend releases only (Saturday and Sunday). The full-day trip has class 3-4 rapids and takes about 5.5-hours to complete.

The Ocoee River is one of the most popular rafting trips in the entire United States and has the most named rapids of any other southeastern white water rafting river. The upper-section is more remote, has steeper rapids and was the site of white water slalom events during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games that took place in Atlanta, GA. The middle-section is the most popular with near continuous big water excitement. Choose between the half-day middle-section or the full-day option which will allow you to experience both the upper and middle sections of the river on a single trip.

We did the full-day Ocoee trip with Endless River Adventures. The lunch served during the break between the upper and middle sections was very tasty. Unfortunately our trip was cut short because two other customers (not with us) had to quit because they could not swim at all and became freaked out. I feel the company should have screened out anyone who could not swim and had never been whitewater rafting before, especially since the Ocoee has some serious class IV rapids. Additionally, had the company provided a third person as a driver they could have picked those two people up and everyone else could have continued with the trip without interruption. Obviously this was the fault of the company and not our guide. Besides that extremely bizarre issue (which is unlikely to happen again as most people aren’t dumb enough to bring non-swimmers on class IV rapids), ERA is a great option for doing the Ocoee.

Return back to the campsite and spend the final night of the trip relaxing by a campfire.

Spend the night camping at Deep Creek Campground in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Cheoah River White Water RaftingThe Cheoah is the most challenging river in the southeast and not for the faint-of-heart.

Day 9) Cheoah River White Water Rafting & Return Home

If skipping the Cheoah; wake up, break down the campsite and head home.

The Cheoah River is dam-controlled with a limited number of yearly releases. There are normally just 18 to 20 releases per year and each month typically has between 1 to 3 release days (usually falling over a single weekend that sometimes extends into a weekday). The trip has class 4-5 rapids and takes about 4-hours to complete.

The Cheoah River is the final white water run of the trip by design because it is without a doubt the most challenging river in the southeast. It is also one of the most technical and dangerous commercially rafted rivers in the entire United States. The previous weeks rivers will give you the necessary experience and confidence to take this adventure head-on. While the rapids on the Cheoah aren’t any larger or any more intense than what would have previously experienced over the past week… it is the consequences of falling out of the raft that is significantly increased and why this river is considered so dangerous. It is near continuous class IV and V rapids all tightly packed together in quick succession. For comparison the Nantahala River drops an average of 26-feet per mile while the final mile of the Cheoah alone drops 146-feet.

A secret of white water rafting is that an experienced raft guide can usually navigate the boat down the river even if all the passengers don’t have any paddles — the paddles are mostly there so the paying-guests can feel like they are involved. While this is true for the vast majority of white water rafting rivers, it is not so for the Choeah. To successfully navigate this river safely everyone will need to be physically fit, work together in unison and obey all commands from the guide promptly. If you feel up for the challenge, don’t be scared off as this is one of the best and more exciting rivers you will ever experience. At the end of the trip, look for the dam that Dr. Richard Kimble jumped off of in the 1993 movie The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.

Because of the rivers reputation and the limited number of yearly releases (which makes it difficult to train new guides), there are not many companies that commercially raft the Cheoah — one that does is Endless River Adventures and this is who we went with. We liked this outfitter primarily because of our guide Josh who was the most experienced and knowledgeable rafting guides I have ever gone with; this is a good thing especially when running the Cheoah. He was very friendly, gave us lots of paddling tips and was very professional throughout. There were plenty of staff on hand and kayakers nearby for safety in case someone fell in. The lunch served riverside was very delicious and was the best of the entire trip. The pictures were included for free in the cost which was noticed and much appreciated (I wish all rafting companies did this). I would recommend ERA for sure if doing the Cheoah.


After an exhilarating week of white water rafting it is time to finally head home. If flying, you will need to take a late flight home on Sunday night or fly out on Monday morning. If driving, you will likely arrive home very late at night.

2 Comments

  • Pradeep says:

    This is exactly what i need. I will be using this for my 2021 trip 🙂

    • admintr says:

      Glad the information is helpful and enjoy your trip!

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