From the safety of the bank, it’s easy to forget just how powerful the water of even a relatively small river like the Pigeon River can be.
But when you’re floating atop a frothing madness like the Vegematic or the Powerhouse, battling with the help of a handful of friends, each flailing at the water with a paddle they only learned to use 30 minutes prior, you come to appreciate that left to your own devices, you are relatively powerless being in the face of nature’s force.
I grew up around rivers and some of my earliest memories are in a canoe.
I learned at an early age how quickly you can go from a relaxing, peaceful float to barreling helplessly along at the mercy of the current as it rips angrily through a patch of rapids.
It’s thrilling and it can be dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Taking a guided whitewater trip is the best way to enjoy riding the rapids in the Smokies if you’re not an experienced kayaker.
With an experienced guide who knows the river and is properly trained in first aid, the trip can be thrilling but with an underlying level of safety.
There are several places in the mountains where you can raft the whitewater.
The best is well to the South at the Ocoee down near Chattanooga.
In fact, when Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, the Ocoee was used to host all the kayaking events.
But, the Ocoee is a pretty significant drive from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, especially when there’s perfectly good whitewater rafting located on the Pigeon River near Hartford at the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
Can you whitewater raft in the Smoky Mountains?
There are a variety of vendors who offer whitewater rafting on the Pigeon, in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.
The procedure is mostly the same. They offer more adventurous rides on the upper Pigeon and less adventurous rides and family floats on the lower Pigeon.
They offer fully guided tours, roughly lasting about an hour and a half to two hours covering about five miles of river.
You’ll meet your guide at a predetermined spot down river, check out gear and go through a few quick safety lessons then board a bus for the ride up river to the boat.
On the upper Pigeon you’ll face a variety of class III and IV rapids.
Class III rapids
Class III means four to five foot tall waves crashing over the bow; brief jolts and shimmies are to be expected. With a guide, class III rapids are pretty fun but an inexperienced boater would find themselves in trouble.
Class IV rapids
Class IV rapids are steeper, more technical involving turns and spins across the current. They require more maneuvering (aka paddling and listening to your guide).
But, it’s important to note, it’s not all rapids. There are plenty of opportunities to rest, float and enjoy the beauty of the forest as you float along.
Are there age or weight restrictions for whitewater rafting?
There are minimum age and weight requirements to raft and you must be able to fit in the personal floatation devices provided.
The minimum age is usually between 8-12 years old but varies by attraction.
The Pigeon River is dam controlled in North Carolina, meaning through the summer scheduled water releases control the river level making rafting possible Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Rafting may be available other days depending on weather and water levels.
You’ll need to call and check availability before or after Memorial and Labor Day, respectively.
Is whitewater rafting safe?
It’s important to know that the rafting companies on the Pigeon River have an excellent safety record, but riding the river isn’t a video game. Even under the best of circumstances injuries or death can occur.
It’s important to be prepared, even in summer, with the proper clothes for rafting. Secure footwear is required. Also, keep in mind that even in the summer, Hartford is at a higher elevation and is noticeably cooler.
The temperatures combined with the frigid mountain water means certain types of clothing are less desirable for the ride. On cooler days, synthetics or items made of wool are recommended.
Though typically fine for the height of summer, cotton clothing will absorb the water and leave you wet all day. It’s a good idea to leave a change of clothes and a towel in the car waiting for you when you return.
Be sure to leave your valuables – but not your keys – safely locked in your car during your ride. The rafting company will provide a secure location to store your keys.
How much is whitewater rafting in Gatlinburg?
Pricing varies per company and situation. In general, you can expect to pay somewhere between $35 and $50 per person for a basic level ride.
Some companies offer longer rides which will affect pricing.
Many of the companies also offer other amenities like picnic areas, ziplines, climbing walls and more so you can make a day of it.
Your best bet is to find the company with the amenities that best suits your group.
The Pigeon River isn’t your only rafting option in the region.
There are several rafting companies operating on the North Carolina side of the state line from Hot Springs all the way down to Bryson City and Cherokee on the Nantahala River.
Here are some options if you want to go rafting in – or relatively near – the Great Smoky Mountains.
Note that prices are subject to change and may vary by season, always check the websites for updated pricing and restrictions.
Best places to go whitewater rafting in the Smoky Mountains
1. Rafting in the Smokies (Gatlinburg, TN – Pigeon River)
Rafting in the Smokies has a River Outpost in Hartford and offices in Gatlinburg. Prices vary on packages, which can include ziplines, ropes courses and horseback riding. They also offer a nature trail, grills and picnic areas.
- Address: 813 East Pkwy, Gatlinburg, TN
- Website: raftinginthesmokies.com
- Starting price: $44 (1.5 hour trip)
- Insider tip: Coupons and package deals are available
2. Smoky Mountain Outdoors (SMO) Rafting (Hartford, TN – Pigeon River)
Smoky Mountain Outdoors has a Rafting Outpost in Hartford and also offers zip lining on-site.
- Address: Riverside Outpost, 3299 Hartford Rd, Hartford, TN
- Website: smokymountainrafting.com
- Starting price: $47
- Insider tip: Coupons and other discount packages are available
3. River Rat Tubing and Whitewater (Hartford, TN – Pigeon River)
River Rat Tubing and Whitewater has a whitewater rafting location in Hartford with tubing offered in Townsend. Multiple packages are available. Dogs are allowed on select routes.
- Address: 3630 Hartford Rd, Hartford, TN
- Website: smokymtnriverrat.com
- Starting price: $45 (1.5-2 hours, includes tubing)
- Insider tip: Coupons and group rates available
4. Big Bear Whitewater Rafting (Hartford, TN – Pigeon River)
Big Bear Whitewater Rafting is located in Hartford and offers both upper and lower river adventures.
- Address: 3165 Big Creek Rd, Hartford, TN
- Website: bigbearrafting.com
- Starting price: $40 (2 hours)
- Insider tip: Allows riders as young as 3 years old (may vary by selection)
5. Big Creek Expeditions (Hartford, TN – Pigeon River)
Big Creek Expeditions is located in Hartford with upper, lower and all day expeditions available. Other activities include ziplining, horseback riding and kart racing.
- Address: 3671 Hartford Rd, Hartford, TN
- Website: bigcreekexpeditions.com
- Starting price: $47 (1.5 hours)
- Insider tip: Packages are available
6. Wildwater-Ocoee River Rafting (Copperhill, TN – Ocoee River)
Wildwater-Ocoee River Rafting is located in Copperhill with a whitewater outpost in Ducktown, Tenn. Zipline combination packages are also available. This location 2-3 hours away from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
- Address: 4596 US-64, Copperhill, TN
- Website: wildwaterrafting.com
- Starting price: $40 (3 hours)
- Insider tip: Minimum age requirement is 12 years old
7. French Broad Adventures (Marshall, NC)
French Broad Adventures is located in Marshall, NC and offers packages including 5 and 9-mile whitewater trips, ziplines, canyoneering and more. Marshall is about 2 hours away from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
- Address: 12 Good Adventures Ln, Marshall, NC
- Website: frenchbroadrafting.com
- Starting price: $53 (3-4 hours)
- Insider tip: Activity packages are available
8. Blue Heron White Water (Marshall, NC)
Blue Heron White Water is located in Marshall, NC and has full-day and half-day floats.
- Address: 35 Little Pine Rd, Marshall, NC 28753
- Website: blueheronwhitewater.com
- Starting price: $50 (half day)
- Insider tip: Scenic float trips are also available
9. Carolina Outfitters (Bryson City, NC)
Carolina Outfitters offers whitewater trips on the Nantahala, the Ocoee and the Cheoah. They offer fly fishing, gem mining, ziplines, horse riding and even train trips. Multiple pricing options depend on unguided, guide assisted or guide in boat as well as number of people in party.
- Address: 12121 US-19, Bryson City, NC
- Website: caolinaoutfitters.com
- Starting price: $29 (self-guided), $39 (guide-assisted)
10. Nantahala Rafting with Adventurous Fast Rivers (Topton, NC)
Nantahala Rafting with Adventurous Fast Rivers offers 8.5 mile trips down the Nantahala with class II and III rapids. Self-guided, full-guided and partially-guided options are available. Prices vary depending on selection.
- Address: 1965 US-19, Topton, NC 28781
- Website: nantahalarafting.com
- Starting price: $16 (self-guided), $32 (guided)
Have you been whitewater rafting in the Great Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments.