The Nantahala River, Home to Summer Campers and World-Class Canoe/Kayak Athletes


Nantahala Gorge

Nantahala, in the Cherokee language, means “Land of the Noon-day Sun.” Over the course of centuries, the river here has carved out an eight-mile gorge that is so deep that many parts of it see direct sunlight for only a short time each day. It is an area beloved for its natural beauty and its outdoor recreational opportunities, and is located within the Nantahala National Forest, approximately five miles south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Nantahala River has a history of attracting adventure seeking tourists, but in truth, year-round whitewater recreation on this river is a by-product of power generation at Duke Energy’s Nantahala Hydroelectric Project, which has served the far western North Carolina counties since 1942. Dam-controlled flows facilitate dependable adventures ranging from commercial rafting trips to private canoe and kayak outings and regional, national, and international whitewater competitions. The river water comes from Nantahala Lake – the hydro project reservoir – which has an elevation of 3,000 feet, and so is refreshingly cool, even in the heat of summer. The river is also a nationally-renowned favorite of fly fishing enthusiasts, particularly the cascades above the power plant, where trout abound in the fast, cold water.

According to a 2009 study conducted by researchers at Western Carolina University, whitewater recreation on the Nantahala contributes a total of $85.4 million to the local economy annually, and represents a total of 1,061 jobs.

Building the 2013 Wave

In 2011, the Golden Leaf Foundation awarded the Swain County Tourism Development Authority a grant of $195,000 to fund construction of the 2013 Wave. The construction of this in-stream enhancement will create a world-class competitive freestyle kayaking feature in the Nantahala Gorge, making the Nantahala an attractive venue to host national and international events in this quickly-growing sport. The concrete and rock structure allows for fine-tuning for a variety of uses, and is being conducted with the support of the NC Department of Natural Resources, Swain County, NC, the US Forest Service, Duke Energy, and through the efforts of the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee.

Nantahala Lake photo courtesy Duke Energy.

A Short History of
Whitewater Boating on
The Nantahala River

In the mid-1940’s, campers from several WNC-based summer camps began running the Nantahala in wooden canoes. As word spread, the river became increasingly popular with canoe clubs, Boy Scout troops, and other groups interested in developing whitewater skills. By 1972, the growing community of boaters, combined with local training opportunities, had attracted a significant number of US National and Olympic Canoe/Kayak Team members to the Nantahala area.

In the 1970’s as water releases became more predictable, recreational use of the river had grown large enough to support commercial outfitters. The first of these was the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which began operations in 1972. Today, there are more than a dozen outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge. The river is the nation’s third-most popular river — and the busiest per river mile — hosting over 200,000 visitors each year and the site of numerous national and international competitions, most recently the annual Bank of America US Whitewater Open, and the 2011 USACK Slalom National Championships.