As the temperatures warm and the summer sun gets us restless, families and friends alike plan trips down the river. The following guide will give you a snapshot of your river options and help you plan your road trip through the South. While this is by no means a comprehensive list, the writers have enjoyed a run or two on these Southern jewels.
This post contains affiliate links that earn income through purchases but don’t charge you an added fee.
For Georgians, the Chattahoochee is a river of legend. From Alan Jackson’s royal treatment in his songs to its prime location near many residents, the Chattahoochee is a rite of passage for any metro area high schooler. With headwaters in the Alpine-themed Helen, Georgia, the Chattahoochee is a sort of “choose your own adventure” river. In the northern parts of the state, you can rent a tube and hope for high enough water. Helen has a number of outfitters to equip you for a fun ride down the river’s cooler sections. For the lazier (read: more inclined to bring booze), put in on the north side of the Atlanta for a lazy day “shooting the hooch.” Either option gives a glimpse at the lifeblood of the city from headwaters to landmark.
The Nantahala is a great river to introduce your family to the benefits of a guided trip. With rental options or a chance to hire a guide, this river is filled with mostly class II and III rapids. The well-known Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City is a great spot to grab some gear or expert advice. Starting roughly eight miles upriver, boaters will enjoy wave trains and whitewater ending in the Nantahala Falls. For those opting to kayak the river, there is a take-out right before the falls, the highest ranked rapid on this section of the river. Confident families and couples can rent rafts and ducky boats from the number of outfitters found within the river gorge.
Made a household name during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the Ocoee has played host to Olympic slalom participants and family day-trippers alike. With three distinct sections, the Ocoee River is a perfect option for any river enthusiasts. The Upper Ocoee, only run during “seasonal” weekends, is familiar because it concludes with the Olympic course. This section is the most difficult/technical and has several rapids with menacing enough names to keep the shy off the river. The Middle Ocoee, the one most familiar to regional visitors, is mostly class III and IV rapids. Youth groups, summer camps, and family reunions have enjoyed guided trips down this section since the 1970s. The middle section has just enough whitewater to get the blood pumping, but not enough to miss the cheesy jokes of your raft guides (“summer teeth” anyone?). The Lower Ocoee is a mellow, tubable, option for the less confident boaters or those just looking for a calm afternoon on the river. Putting in just below the largest dam on the river, this wide and slow section is perfect for youngsters. The Ocoee is an essential stop on your tour of southern rivers.
Known to some as the “little Ocoee”, the Pigeon River is not to be missed. Located conveniently near Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the Pigeon River’s narrow but mighty rapids make for an exhilarating escape from the city. With class III-IV rapids, the river straddles the line of Tennessee and North Carolina. Nantahala Outdoor Center has an outpost here as well as a number of other outfitters. There’s not much near the put in so pack a picnic or grab lunch in one of the nearby mountain towns.
Book a trip for White Water Rafting on the Pigeon River here.
The Hiawassee often gets overlooked for its bigger, badder neighbor the Ocoee. But the Hiawassee has lots to offer for the adventurous family. With rentals available, this class III (lite) river is dam controlled, meaning that visitors must keep to strict release times in order to enjoy the river’s offerings. While alcohol is technically prohibited on the river, the stretches of wave train make for a tempting course. The occasional rapids keep the blood pumping but never enough to be too frightened. I recommend the two-man ducky inflatables rather than the four-man rafts to accommodate the slower stretches of water.
Great for kayaking or whitewater canoeing, the Tuckasegee, fondly called the “Tuck” is “tucked” in the corner of North Carolina in the town of Dillsboro. This river has great stretches of rapids and wave trains interspersed with calm sections. With limited guiding options, its recommended you do your research before departure. The take out and put in are both obvious, but a good knowledge of river features is encouraged. For those of you interested in avoiding getting wet, a tourist railroad runs along the river giving views of the train crash site from the movie The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.