Wow, where has the summer gone? I have been fortunate enough to paddle several beautiful rivers this summer across the United States. Across all of my travels, I have enjoyed the rapids on the rivers here in the Southeast the most. Obviously I am being a little biased because this is where I live, but I do believe the Southeast is a great area to enjoy paddling and being outdoors.
I wanted to share my 5 favorite rivers for those looking for a place to whitewater paddleboard traveling through the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Please make sure you understand the proper use of gear and the risks you are taking on the water, and know safety precautions. These rivers are descended by people who have experience. Rivers on this list are not recommended for beginners.
1. Nolichucky River
The Nolichucky Gorge provides challenging SUP rapids and a beautiful deep gorge with huge boulder gardens. This river is a must stop for those passing through Erwin, TN.
The Nolichucky Gorge is an advanced SUP river that contains class III-IV rapids, so it is not recommended for first time whitewater paddlers. Beginners should put in at USA Raft and run the lower section down to Saw Mill takeout, which consists of class II rapids with one challenging class III rapid called Radio Tower.
When I am on the Nolichucky and I am looking to go fast on a race-training day, I choose the Carbon Nass.
If I am looking to take it easy and surf, I choose the Atcha. The Atcha is a great board for surfing Jaws on the Nolichucky. Jaws is the third rapid of the gorge and allows for a day of surfing while enjoying beautiful gorge views and the opportunity to hike a mile back to put-in via the railroad tracks.
2. Section 9 of the French Broad River
The French Broad River has several sections to paddle for those passing through Asheville, NC. If you are looking for a whitewater SUP challenge it can be found on Section 9 of the French Broad.
Section 9 is located between Barnard and Hot Springs, NC. This section of the river contains mostly class II-III rapids but has two IV’s at the end: Kayaker’s Ledge and Frank’s Bell.
This season I have paddled the French Broad River to dial in long-distance river races on my Carbon Playa and fun tandem sup runs with my girlfriend on the Fame. The Playa has been my go-to board for most of my summer whitewater paddleboard races. The Playa helped me take 3rd place at the 2016 Battle of Broad hosted by Hala Retailer Southern Raft Supply.
3. Pigeon Gorge
Located in Hartford, TN, the Pigeon River contains class III rapids and is a must-stop if you find yourself between Knoxville, TN, and Asheville, NC.
My favorite rapids on this river are Double Reactionary and Accelerator. Both rapids are tricky class III rapids that will keep you on your toes and hopefully on your board at the end of the river.
You will also need to watch out for raft traffic, this place can be littered with Smoky Mountain tourists in the peak summer season.
I prefer the Atcha on this river because it allows me to catch tight eddies and for splatting multiple rock opportunities throughout the gorge. The Pigeon River is a quick run, so you will always have time to go back for additional laps.
4. Nantahala River
This is probably one of the most popular rivers in the southeast, located in Bryson City, NC.
You can always find someone to paddle with and take multiple laps on the signature last rapid, Nantahala Falls.
If you want to run a great section of this river you will start at Ferebee put-in and take out at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). The NOC has excellent food and craft beer at the takeout.
Another cool feature at the takeout is a surf wave located under the bridge and slalom gates that I like to use to work on my sup control and surf skills. I love surfing my Atcha 86 and Peño at this wave
5. Watauga River
Last but not least, I’ve got to mention my favorite new river since moving to Johnson City, TN. The Watauga River is located in Elizabethton, TN and is the shortest commute for me when I need to go paddling.
The river is one of the cleanest rivers I have ever paddled in the southeast area. The water is crystal clear and it is not unusual to see several large trout when paddling down the Watauga. The river is a must stop for anyone traveling through the Boone, NC, and Johnson City, TN.
Most of the river is beginner-friendly but for those seeking some rapids you can put in at Little Wilbur Dam. This upper section of the river has one class III rapid called Bee Cliff Rapid. The Watauga is SUP dog-approved by our dog, Tomi. He loves hopping on a paddleboard when I’m paddle training on the 11-mile section of the river from Elizabethton to Johnson City.
I realize that there are some great rivers out there that are not listed. I still have plenty of rivers to paddle on my river bucket list this year. With the summer season coming to an end, I am looking forward to shaking the dust off the drysuit this winter.
Jack Nelson is a tech rep for Hala Gear.