Kayaking in North Carolina: The 10 Best Rivers to Paddle

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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.

The list of the longest rivers in North Carolina is topped by the Roanoke River (410 miles), with several other NC rivers that top 200 miles.

The New River stretches some 320 miles into Virginia and West Virginia. The Catawba River flows 220 miles, while the French Broad makes it 213 miles before forming the Tennessee River.

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

  1. Catawba River
  2. Cheoah River
  3. Dan River
  4. French Broad River
  5. Green River
  6. Little Tennessee River
  7. Nantahala River
  8. New River
  9. Tuckaseegee River
  10. Yadkin River


Kayaking North Carolina - Catawba Kayak Co.
Catawba Kayak Co. via Facebook

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.

This river flows through 9 counties and 6 dams in the state of North Carolina. The Catawba also feeds into two notable NC lakes: Lake James and Lake Norman.

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.

Outfitters who can help with kayak rentals on the Catawba in North Carolina include Catawba Riverkeeper (McAdenville) and the Catawba Kayak Co. (Charlotte).

READ MORE: The 50 Best North Carolina Waterfalls to Visit

NC Kayaking - Tapoco Lodge
Tapoco Lodge via Facebook

2. Cheoah River

The Cheoah River is a short river of fewer than 20 miles.

Its headwaters are located in the Appalachian Mountains, and it terminates at Lake Santeelah, where it joins the Little Tennessee River.

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.

The Cheoah River’s scheduled releases are available from American Whitewater. For those who aren’t qualified to kayak it, the Tapoco Lodge is a good place to watch paddlers rush by.

READ MORE: Camping in Nantahala National Forest (Campgrounds & Backcountry)

NC Kayaking - Dan River Adventures
Dan River Adventures, photo via Facebook

3. Dan River

The Dan River originates in Patrick County in Virginia, then wavers back and forth over the North Carolina-Virginia border as it heads east towards Kerr Reservoir on the Roanoke River.

There are several good sections for kayaking the Dan River in North Carolina, with three significant runs located near Hanging Rock State Park.

Paddling the Dan River offers beautiful scenery— sheer cliffs, North Carolina wildflowers, fields, and forest—and it’s known for being a relatively gentle ride.

Outfitters that provide kayaking adventures on the Dan River in NC include Three Rivers Outfitters (Eden NC) and the Dan River Company (Danbury NC).

READ MORE: The 10 Best Campgrounds in the North Carolina Mountains

kayaking asheville nc - French Broad Outfitters
French Broad Outfitters, photo via Facebook

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

kayak lake lure - Green River Adventures
Green River Adventures, photo via Facebook

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.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Places for River Tubing in North Carolina

north carolina kayaking - Carolina Bound Adventures
Carolina Bound Adventures, photo via Facebook

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.

This 135-mile river flows through 3 national forests– the Chattahoochee, Nantahala, and Cherokee– and forms the southwestern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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.

Rental outfits for kayaking the Little Tennessee Riber at Fontana Lake are Carolina Bound Adventures, Bryson City Outdoors, and Fontana Village Resort and Marina.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Lakes in the North Carolina Mountains to Visit

Kayaking in NC. Photo by NOC
Kayaking in NC, Photo courtesy NOC

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.

Kayaks can be rented from Nantahala Outdoor Center (Bryson City), Nantahala Rafting with Fast Rivers (Topton NC), and Falling Waters Resort (West Bryson City)

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Bryson City NC & Swain County

kayaking boone nc - RiverGirl Fishing Co
RiverGirl Fishing Co., photo by Renata Dos Santos via Facebook

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.

The river rises near Blowing Rock NC and flows through Boone, up to Virginia, and on into West Virginia. In WV, it joins with the world-renowned Gauley River to form the Kanawha River.

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.

Outfitters for New River kayaking in NC include High Mountain Expeditions, RiverGirl Fishing Company, River & Earth Adventures, and Wahoo’s Adventures.

READ MORE: 25 Best Things to Do in Boone NC (Blue Ridge Parkway MM 291.8)

North Carolina Kayaking - Tuckaseegee Outfitters
Tuckaseegee Outfitters via Facebook

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.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Things to Do in Cherokee NC & the Qualla Boundary

Kayaking North Carolina - Rocky Forest River Run
Rocky Forest River Run via Facebook

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

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

After visiting North Carolina for the first time, Senior Writer Jonathon Engels and wife Emma spent 2 years exploring Western NC in search of a homestead property. They first lived in Brevard, where Jonathon taught writing at Blue Ridge Community College and extensively explored the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. For the last several years they have lived just off the BRP near Elkin, Southwest Virginia, and the NC High Country. The couple also volunteers with the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, the Elkin Valley Trail Association, and Reeves Downtown School of Music.