The incredible beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains leads a lot of people to come to Asheville in search of adventure, pursuing outdoor adventures in order to really get connected with nature. Whether you’re a thrill seeker and adrenaline-high rider or just want a little arm workout while you explore tranquil waters, rafting or kayaking in Asheville is a great way to get outside.
The city is shaped by outdoor enthusiasts, giving you the chance to explore whether you’re ready for a bumpy ride down some whitewater or you just want to silently paddle into a cove and watch a heron or turtle enjoying the sunshine.
Knowing what you’re getting into is a good idea since those are pretty different experiences. But the strong tourism industry here in Western NC means that you can shape your Asheville activities to create a kayaking or other paddling experience that fits your needs and desires.
Don’t forget to check out our web story: Complete Guide to Rafting and Kayaking in Asheville, NC
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Places to Kayak in Asheville: Rivers
Asheville has been recognized as a city that puts its downtown river front and center, making water sports a priority but also just generally emphasizing the French Broad River through greenway walks, arts districts, and so much more.
You’ll find restaurants and coffee shops along the river, giving people a chance to really connect with and be part of the river. That being said, there’s no better way to get to know mountain rivers than to get out and enjoy one in a boat. Kayaking, whitewater rafting, and casual tubing all give you a totally different perspective on the beauty and power of a river.
First, though, a word on rapids: when you see that a section of a river contains rapids of a certain class number, it’s worthwhile to know what you’re dealing with. They begin with Class I rapids, which are just moving water that goes over a shallow riverbed. This might make it easier to get stuck or might cause a little speed-up due to more water rushing over a shallower area.
Then you’ve got Class II, which may generate spray or splashes, before you move into Class III rapids, which start to require some skill to stay upright and may be a bit more thrilling. Once you’re in Class IV or V rapids, you’ve got obstacles, meaning that newbies may want to be with a rafting guide in a group raft rather than a single kayak. There will be a lot of whitewater, a sign that water is moving fast over potentially hard-to-navigate obstacles.
The rapids in the last class, Class VI, are seen as unnavigable, so strong that even experienced boaters will be in danger if they go over them. Use this guidance to help you start at the level of kayaking that you are truly comfortable with. If you seek more adventure after, you can always pick a run with higher-class rapids next time!
1. Find Your Level on the French Broad River
The French Broad River contains a variety of “runs,” or sections of paddling where you can either float calmly for miles or navigate extensive rapids. One of the best places to look through to make a plan for the French Broad River is the French Broad River Paddle Trail. This handy website shows river access points as well as outfitters, lodging, medical services, and campsites along the river, as well as places where you’ll need to get out of the water if you’re trying to paddle through, like dams.
The section that flows through Asheville proper is often quite calm, though high rains make the river faster and occasionally not safe to paddle. However, at various spots along the river, you can find runs that include higher-class rapids. Finding an experienced outfitter or adventure company to identify excellent runs along the French Broad River is a great idea if you’re still getting used to kayaking.
2. Explore Whitewater on the Chattooga River
The Chattooga River is not in Asheville but is a popular river destination for outfitters in this area due to the approachable Class I/II rapids Section 2 as well as more challenging runs along the river. Outfitters like Wildwater Rafting run their whitewater rafting journeys in South Carolina and Georgia sections of the Chattooga, and while that may sound far away (other states!), it’s not a bad drive, even if you’re staying in downtown Asheville.
3. Experience the Most-Rafted River in the Country on the Nantahala River
The Nantahala River is a favorite among rafters and kayakers in the Southeast, and it is a great place to learn whitewater kayaking since most of the splashy Class II rapids keep newbies guessing (and sometimes swimming) but are a good training ground to become a stronger and stronger kayaker. Only around an hour west of Asheville there is a great 8-mile run with a put-in maintained by the Forest Service and a take-out at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
4. Bring Your A-Game to the Nolichucky River
Finding more adventure in the kayaking world may bring you to the Nolichucky, a river running through incredible mountain gorges in Eastern Tennessee. Given the Class III and IV rapids throughout the river’s runs, intermediate kayakers will want to verify both river conditions (a must for any run) and talk with an experienced guide or outfitter to make sure they have the experience to kayak the run they have found.
A guided rafting tour through a company like Wahoos Adventure will teach you to be part of a team and will come with an experienced navigator who knows how to keep safety measures in place even during a thrilling run that you wouldn’t have the technical skill for all by yourself.
5. Experience River Renewal at the Pigeon River
Asheville area kayakers also travel to scheduled “release days” to kayak the run of the Pigeon River, a trip that ends in Great Smokey Mountain National Park. This river used to be very polluted, but changes in the polluting industries upstream in the 1990s totally changed the situation. With fish and other species reintroduced to the river, it’s now a thriving and beautiful ecosystem to watch as you navigate Class II and III rapids. Look for rafting options through Wildwater Rafting, which offers trips on the upper and lower Pigeon River, as well as rafting on the Ocoee, another river in Eastern Tennessee.
Places to Kayak in Asheville: Still Water
While there are sections of the French Broad River that are truly calm during seasons with lesser rain, kayaking near Asheville on flowing water isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For a different but still really lovely experience, consider renting a kayak (or bringing your own) to one of the lakes in the areas around Asheville.
Most of these lakes have a variety of vacation rentals nearby that may already have a place to put in a kayak, and the miles of varied coastline on many mountain lakes allow them to foster amazing wildlife habitats. Whether you want to experience the peace of a sunrise from the water or go searching for beautiful birds, these lakes give you a serenity that really cannot be beat.
1. Paddle in the Picturesque Lake Julian
There aren’t many public lakes in Asheville, but the 300-acre public lake in Lake Julian county park is a perfect choice for paddling. You can rent jon boats and paddle boats, and there’s a boat launch if you have your own kayak or canoe. Be aware of the fishing licenses and boat fees, which are posted on the park’s website. This is a nice spot for exploration but also can be a whole day of activities, between walking trails, picnicking, and a playground.
2. Enjoy Mountain Views at Lake Lure
Only half an hour south of Asheville, you’ll find the beautiful Lake Lure, where the Lake Lure Adventure Company offers boat or paddleboard rentals to explore the many miles of coastline as you look up into the mountains that surround this picturesque location.
Be aware that Lake Lure has very specific licensing and permitting for boats to keep the lake as pristine and pleasant as possible, so check the town of Lake Lure’s website before you put in your own kayak and head out to explore.
3. Find Wildlife Around Every Corner at Lake Junaluska
Thirty minutes west of Asheville, you’ll find the hidden gem of Lake Junaluska, the perfect place to rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard and enjoy the natural beauty. This area has big sky views and beautiful foliage along the shores, as well as the mountain backdrop along the horizon.
When what you really want is to get out and see nature and experience the serenity of still water kayaking, I think that Lake Junaluska is a great option when it comes to epic outdoor activities in Asheville area towns.
4. Bonus for Locals: Beaver Lake or Lake Kenilworth
It’s true that Asheville proper doesn’t have much still water, but there are at least two small private neighborhood lakes to keep in mind if you’re a local who has a friend who is actually living in these spots.
Beaver Lake is a beautiful North Asheville staple, but because many people don’t know it’s a private lake, it’s key to either be the guest of a resident or check on current boating regulations before popping out in a kayak.
Lake Kenilworth is in the historic Kenilworth neighborhood, and kayaking is also primarily for residents, but again, if you’re visiting a friend who happens to have a “lakefront” house there, it’s a nice perk to be able to get out on the water.
Best Guide Companies for Outdoor Activities in Asheville
While experienced paddlers often research and take their own trips for kayaking near Asheville, both beginners and even intermediate kayakers will enjoy renting from an experienced guide company or taking a tour through some of the more popular runs around Asheville.
Whether you experience it in a multi-person raft or are part of a fleet of kayaks on the water, there are options for every level of daring, and having someone more experienced with you can make the experience richer due to their knowledge of the area in addition to their ability to keep everyone having fun even in fast-moving water.
1. Experience the Extraordinary at Asheville Adventure Company
Asheville Adventure Company is a great resource for everything from inexpensive e-bike rentals to tube and kayak rentals (with a designated put-in point and a pick-up to get you back to your car.).
The star of the show, though, is their guided tours, like their French Broad Section 9 Whitewater rafting tour or their French Broad Section 6 whitewater kayaking adventure. While what is offered varies season to season, the team knows a lot about Asheville and about the natural beauty and rivers around the city.
They can also customize tours and adventures for large groups if you plan far enough in advance and talk through what you’re looking for from the experience. Plan your day of fun around an adventure, and bring a picnic to make a day of it!
2. Raft the French Broad River with Blue Heron Whitewater in Marshall
If you like the idea of being part of a team while you navigate a variety of whitewater rapids classes, Blue Heron has a trip for you, launching from their location north of Asheville in Marshall, North Carolina.
In some of the gentler trips, there’s the option to travel down the river in a “duck,” a kind of single-person inflatable kayak that gives you more maneuverability like a kayak but with the bouncy, soft outside of a raft. They are a way to give more experienced paddlers a new view on the trip.
The Blue Heron offerings include an all-day trip, a half-day rafting trip, or a scenic float trip that won’t include rapids or substantial whitewater (they let kids down to age 4 go on these trips, so they can be a great fit for active families!). Find the trip that fits your needs on their website and book in advance for the best availability.
3. Rent and Go With French Broad Outfitters
If you know you want to go kayaking in Asheville but don’t need a guide, visit French Broad Outfitters to rent canoes and kayaks, as well as a variety of camping equipment. If this is your first or one of your first times planning a trip like this, renting is an economical option and helps you find the gear you really like before you invest and make kayaking in Asheville a frequent hobby.
They have a variety of other helpful services, from storing kayaks and canoes at their Hominy Creek location to renting bikes for people who want to tour the area (they have electric bikes if you want a little help on the hills!).
The gem of their offerings, though, is definitely the river trips: they offer a trip that allows you to paddle past the Biltmore Estate, one of the coolest views and most unique things to do in Asheville. They also offer a 6-mile journey through the River Arts District that can be done in a kayak, a tandem kayak, a canoe, or a raft, as well as on a stand-up paddleboard.
There is also a longer 12-mile course that takes you through both sections, as well as a simple self-guided pick-up-and-drop-off service for renting inner tubes to float down one of the slow-flowing sections of the river. Reserve your trip early to make sure you get a spot on a popular good-weather day in Asheville!
4. Reach Many Rivers From the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Nantahala Outdoor Center is a huge operation, and while they have locations all over and take excursions to many of the major whitewater spots around the nation, you’re likely to encounter them in Bryson City on the Nantahala proper or at their French Broad River Outpost in Marshall, just to the North of Asheville.
This is your ticket to the many rivers that are within a few hours’ drive of Asheville. You can start with a rafting trip through Pisgah National Forest that includes Class II/III rapids, nothing death-defying, but you’ll definitely get some thrills.
They offer rafts or inflatable kayak rentals as well as a variety of land-based fun, like ziplining and guided hiking. At the Bryson City, location there’s an intro to Whitewater Kayaking course that can be your ticket to moving from being a team member in a raft to navigating higher-difficulty rapids yourself with safety and fun.
They even offer a guided tour of Fontana Lake, where you can paddle your kayak to spots where your guide knows there are likely to be beautiful vistas and potential wildlife sightings.
For every river that is a little farther away from Asheville, you’ll find at least one and often two or three outfitters that serve that river and offer both guided tours and rentals, so you don’t have to haul in your own gear. Check out the available options and compare prices and where the tours go before making your choice. Enjoy the great water in our beautiful mountains!
There you have it! The best kayaking near Asheville, NC. Where are your go-to places to kayak in Asheville? Let us know so we can add them to the list!
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