There are dozens upon dozens of rivers in North Carolina. Collectively, they provide over 37,000 miles of waterways, including nearly 150 miles of designated wild and scenic rivers.
Many of these rivers are part of the North Carolina mountains and Piedmont region (a.k.a. foothills), where quick changes in elevation and rocky landscapes can provide exciting whitewater and picturesque routes for kayaking.
In other words, kayaking in North Carolina offers top-notch recreation opportunities, and the choices for where to paddle are numerous.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best rivers for kayaking NC the right way.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Kayaking Rivers in Georgia
Kayaking in North Carolina: Best Rivers in North Carolina Guide
- Catawba River
- Cheoah River
- Dan River
- French Broad River
- Green River
- Little Tennessee River
- Nantahala River
- New River
- Tuckaseegee River
- Yadkin River
1. Catawba River
The Catawba River is 220 miles long, beginning in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and flowing down to South Carolina. There, it eventually becomes the Wateree River.
One of our favorite features of the river is Catawba Falls, a remarkable waterfall near Asheville NC formed before the river is reaches the Lake James Dam.
Some of the top spots for launching a kayak into the Catawba River include the Catawba River Park & Canoe Launch in Marion NC, and Rhodhiss Lake near Lenoir NC.
2. Cheoah River
The Cheoah River is a short river of fewer than 20 miles.
The river is located in the Nantahala National Forest, and it has a controlled section of whitewater rapids (Class IV and above) that make it a top spot for serious kayakers.
The most popular put-in for NC kayaking here is across from O’Henry’s on Hwy 129. But note that this is a ride for advanced paddlers only.
Consequently, there are no kayak rentals available for the Cheoah River.
3. Dan River
4. French Broad River
The French Broad River is the most popular place for kayaking Asheville NC. The river actually runs right through the town, which makes for a very unique way to sightsee.
This river stretches over 200 miles, flowing from near Rosman NC all the way to Knoxville TN, where it joins the Tennessee River.
The French Broad River is considered one of the oldest rivers in the world, cutting through layers of ancient rock as it moves through the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
It’s included in the North Carolina State Trail System as 117 miles of “blueway” paddle trails, collectively known as the French Broad River State Trail.
Outfitters for renting kayaks to explore the French Broad River include French Broad Outfitters and Asheville Adventure Company for Asheville kayaking, and Headwaters Outfitters for the Brevard NC area.
READ MORE: The 30 Best Things to Do in Asheville NC
5. Green River
The Green River is located south of Asheville in four North Carolina counties. It starts in Transylvania County, flows through Henderson County and Polk County, then into Rutherford County, where it feeds into the Broad River.
The water flow of the Green River is controlled by dam release. So it has some pretty serious rapids for whitewater sports, including kayaking, canoeing, and river tubing.
The river is split into three sections. The Upper Green River has a couple of Class III rapids and is considered moderately difficult.
The “Narrows” is where the serious Class IV-V NC kayaking action takes place. The Lower Green is ideal for less experienced kayakers looking for some mild whitewater thrills.
Green River Adventures (Saluda) has kayak rentals on the Green River for both the Upper and Lower sections, as well as guided inflatable kayak tours. Visitors can also kayak Lake Lure near the Green River.
6. Little Tennessee River
The Little Tennessee River is a tributary of the Tennessee River. It originates in the state of Georgia and flows through North Carolina and into Tennessee.
The river has been dammed up several times, including the Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the Eastern United States (480 feet) and the fourth tallest in the world.
The Appalachian Trail in North Carolina actually goes right across it!
The best place for kayaking the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina is in the impoundment of Fontana Lake, where there are loads of inlets and coves to explore.
7. Nantahala River
The Nantahala River is located within Nantahala National Forest, and it is followed by US-19/74 for much of the way.
So naturally it is one of the popular places for kayaking in NC.
This is one of the closest options for white water rafting near Georgia, traveling a little under 50 miles before emptying into Fontana Lake and joining the Little Tennessee River.
The Nantahala is divided into two sections, the Lower Run and the Upper Run. Both have rapids, with the lower run having Class II and III rapids and the Upper Run getting into Class IV-V rapids.
8. New River
The New River is one of the most popular spots for kayaking in North Carolina, and it is the best place to go for kayaking in Boone NC.
Despite its name, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers in the world, estimated to be come 260 to 325 million years old.
Beyond the adventure of whitewater and the ancient history of the waterway, paddling the New River comes with the aura of traversing one of the USA’s designated Wild and Scenic Rivers.
9. Tuckaseegee River
The Tuckaseegee River is 60 miles long and runs exclusively in North Carolina, cutting through the heart of downtown Bryson City NC on its way to Fontana Lake.
This river has mild rapids, mostly Class I and II, so it is suitable for adventure-ready kayakers without lots of experience.
Colloquially known as “the Tuck,” the river is probably more renowned for its fishing than its kayaking opportunities. But there are still some great, relaxing floats to be taken on it.
For renting kayaks on the Tuckaseegee River, Tuckaseegee Outfitters in Whittier NC is your best option.
10. Yadkin River
The Yadkin River is a huge river that flows from the Blue Ridge Mountains, through the NC Piedmont, and down to the Pee Dee River east of Charlotte.
Running over 200 miles, the Yadkin is one of North Carolina’s longest rivers. It was designated as the Yadkin River State Trail— a 130-mile paddling trail— back in 1985.
In other words, this is truly a marquee location for North Carolina kayaking.
The river has several impoundments. The W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkesboro NC is a great place for fishing, boating, hiking trails, and excellent mountain biking.
A fantastic place to paddle the Yadkin River in the Yadkin River Valley is Elkin NC. The best outfitters for doing so are Rocky Forest River Run, Yadkin River Adventures, and Hometown River Company. –by Jonathon Engels; lead image & pins courtesy of NOC