Weekend Getaway — Nantahala River and National Forest

We’re just weeks away from summer and, if you’re like me, you’re already starting to think about fun things to do out of town. For the last few years, we’ve done smaller trips close to home instead of longer (and more expensive) vacations. It works best with our schedule and budget.

One of the places that we’ve loved to visit is Nantahala. The drive is easy (and beautiful) from Atlanta, there’s lots to do there, and you don’t have to break the bank to try new things and have a real adventure.

The article below can help you get started with planning a Nantahala getaway. (It originally ran in the now-defunct Atlanta Homeschool magazine in May 2014.) Hope you enjoy!


Nantahala River and National Forest

By Shawne Taylor

Located in western North Carolina and nestled between the Cherokee National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, and the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, is the Nantahala National Forest. This nature lover’s paradise is a mere 3.5 hours from Atlanta, and is a beautiful, family-friendly vacation destination.

Nantahala means “land of the noonday sun” in Cherokee, which is appropriate, as the dense, lush foliage provides so much cover that some parts of the Nantahala Gorge only get sunlight when the sun is directly overhead at midday. The area also has historical significance. Spanish Conquistador, Hernando de Soto explored the forest in search of gold, back in 1540, and naturalist, William Bartram spent four years here, diligently recording descriptions of the many plants and animals he found in the area. A hiking trail now commemorates Bartram’s time in Nantahala, established in the late 1970s by the North Carolina Bartram Trail Society, http://ncbartramtrail.org.

Today Nantahala is known for its beautiful forest landscape, numerous waterfalls, Nantahala Lake, and hiking trails. But its main attraction is the river. Thousands of families and adventurers visit every year to raft or kayak down the relatively gentle eight-mile long, Nantahala River. These Class II rapids offer long stretches of calm water that allow visitors to enjoy the mountain scenery, with pockets of bouncing waves and currents to keep it interesting; all topped off at the end with a small, exciting burst of Class III whitewater.

Whether your family is new to rafting and outdoor adventuring, or experienced nature enthusiasts, Nantahala is a great quick getaway that you won’t soon forget.


 Outdoor Fun:

 Whitewater Rafting on the Nantahala

A fully guided rafting tour down the Nantahala takes approximately three hours, and typically costs $50-$55 per person. While this is a perfect “beginner’s river,” rafters must be 7 years or older, and 60+ pounds. http://wildwaterrafting.com/portfolio-item/nantahala-rafting/

Recreational Kayaking on Fontana Lake

If you have younger children, or just prefer kayaking in a lake to rafting on rapids, you may be interested in the kayak tour of Fontana Lake. This fully guided tour takes three to four hours, costs approximately $16-$48 per person, and is open to anyone ages 4 and up.


There are many trails to hike in and around Nantahala, including a portion of the Appalachian, the Bertram, the Whiteside Mountain Trail, and the Deerfield Loop. Hikes here vary from rugged trails to leisurely strolls, so it’s important to either book a guided hike or do your research before heading out.

Zipline Tours

For true adrenaline junkies, there’s not much that beats a Mountaintop Zipline Tour, high above the Nantahala Gorge. If this is for you, expect to spend about 3-4 hours and anywhere from $90-$110 for the experience. You must also be in the 100-250 pound weight range to participate.

For a less-intense, more family-friendly zipline adventure, you may want to consider the Zipline Adventure Park, near Bryson City. Here you’ll spend 2.5 hours, and pay $40-$50 for a multi-stage, challenge course. The weight range for this is 60-250 pounds.


There are numerous campgrounds in around Nantahala, many offering amenities such as flush toilets, showers, and picnic areas. Most seem to be tent camping only (with no RV hookups). You can book a campsite through the Nantahala Outdoor Center, or check out the detailed listings from the U.S. National Forest Campground Guide.

Best Resources:

Whether you’re looking for guided tours on the river or in the canopy, just want to rent a kayak, or are looking for more information on adventuring in Nantahala, the following organizations can provide just about everything you might need.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a 500-acre adventure center, right in the heart of the Nantahala National Forest, where the Nantahala River intersects the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. The NOC (as it’s called) has been around since 1972, and today boasts four retails shops, two restaurants, lodging options, and a variety of outdoor activities, including rafting, hiking, biking, and ziplining. This is where people meet to hang out, have a quick lunch, or watch the rafters and kayakers come in from their run on the river.

Wildwater Nantahala is another adventure center in the area offering family-friendly rafting trips, Nantahala Zipline Canopy tours, Nantahala Jeep Tours, and lodging (including a group lodge and luxury yurts). Their facility also has a gift shop, changing rooms, clean bathrooms, and a nice picnic area.


Where to Stay:

Both the NOC and Wildwater Nantahala offer lodging, including cabins and luxury yurts. But if you’re looking for other options, these are some of our favorites.

Bryson City Cabin Rentals

This rental company offers one- to three-bedroom luxury cabins and group lodging, convenient to Bryson City and Cherokee, NC.

Nantahala Village Resort

The Nantahala Village Resort boasts lodge rooms, suites, and rental cabins, as well as on-site dining, horseback riding, a game room, and swimming pool.

Fontana Village Resort

This resort provides a wide range of accommodations, including lodge rooms, suites, cabins, and camping (both RV and tent). They also have onsite dining, complementary Wi-Fi, and a fitness center.

Where to Eat:

Neighboring towns offer a variety of dining options, from chain eateries to small mom and pop restaurants. But, if you’re looking for something right in the heart of the Nantahala action, you’ll want to try the following:

River’s End Restaurant

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, River’s End is known for its American-style home cooking and amazing location alongside the south bank of the Nantahala River. There’s something on the menu for everyone here, but to really see what River’s End is all about, you must try the sweet potato pancakes, white bean chili, or Sherpa Rice bowl. 13077 Highway 19 West; (828) 488-2176.

Big Wesser BBQ & Brew

Formerly known as Slow Joe’s Café, Big Wesser BBQ serves home-style entrees, southern sides, mouth-watering BBQ, and a wide selection of beers in a family-friendly atmosphere at the edge of the Nantahala River. They also have picnic tables outside, and feature live music every weekend from May through September. 13077 Highway 19 West; (828) 488-7174.

Explore: Nearby Towns and Places of Interest

Bryson City, northeast of Nantahala, is a small, quiet town with a variety of restaurants, and lodging to suit everyone’s needs — from Bed and Breakfasts to cabins to small, country inns. Its location makes it convenient to Nantahala River, Fontana Dam, and the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

Bryson City is also home to the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad, offering full or half day family excursions through the North Carolina Mountains in historic passenger cars.

Just beyond Bryson City, and steeped in Native American history, is the town of Cherokee, NC. Cherokee is home to the Oconaluftee Indian Village, the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, the Sequoyah National Golf Club, and so much more.

Fontana Village was originally planned as a town to house the workers who came to the area in the 1940s to build the Tennessee Valley Authority Fontana Dam. Today, the Village consists of a Lodge, campgrounds, conference center, restaurants, gift shops, marina, fitness center, biking and hiking trails, and a beautiful reservoir lake that attracts watersports enthusiasts year-round.

At 480 feet high and 2,365 feet long, Fontana Dam is the highest concrete, gravity dam east of the Rocky Mountains, and is ranked among the most beautiful dams in the world. The view from the observation center at the top is breathtaking.

Franklin, located just 18 miles east of Nantahala, is known for its gem mining, antique shops, and art galleries. The road from Nantahala to Franklin is such a beautiful drive, it has been designated as a National Scenic Byway. And, if you need a break from all of the outdoor activities, here is where you’ll find the Fun Factory, a family fun center with video arcade, mini-golf, laser tag, bowling, and more.

Want More?

If rafting the Nantahala River has you wanting more, consider giving these others a try: the Chattooga River, Cheoah River, Nolichucky River, Ocoee River, the French Broad, and the Pigeon River. Trips can be booked for all of these locations through the Nantahala Outdoor Center.


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