Coldest water in the Southeast.” That’s all it took. Those few words and the thought of anything described as “bracing,” and “bone-chilling”—adjectives that had evaporated from our vocabulary during another beastly Lowcountry summer—sent our family packing for the Nantahala Gorge. In this far corner of Western North Carolina, just five hours from the unrelenting heat of home, the Nantahala River stays a constant teeth-chattering 48 to 50 degrees. Ahhh! Hypothermia, here we come. It had been 25 years since I’d paddled these rapids. Back then, I was a granola-eating college student who spent summers leading campers on hiking, biking, and paddling trips through the wilds of North Carolina and Virginia. I’d come to the Nantahala one weekend for a reunion with four camp coworkers—all experienced kayakers, all guys. I was the novice, the lone female, the one paddling a C1—a tricky open canoe—for the first time. Amazingly, I made it through the river’s Class II and III rapids without any “swims,” and after a dramatic finale paddling backwards down the semitreacherous Nantahala Falls, I achieved official “river rat” status. I was exhilarated. I’d soloed the Nantahala. On many subsequent drives between my husband’s family home in Tennessee and mine in North Carolina, we’d opt for the more scenic Highway 74, a curvy two-lane hair-raiser that snakes beside the lovely river. The frisky white water was an icy liquid ribbon through dense forest draped with kudzu and, for me, nostalgia. The river owned a part of me, and this end-of-summer trip was my opportunity to share it with my children, to baptize them in the Nantahala’s chilly charms. The area has grown up since I last visited. In the late 1980s, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) was not much more than a riverside shack with a natural food restaurant (starring killer homemade herb bread) where kayakers traded glory stories and soggy rafters thawed out. Today, it’s a retail/rental/outdoor education emporium, complete with crowded parking lots, three restaurants, accommodations for individuals and groups, a ropes course, tennis courts, a biking/hiking/kayaking/rafting outfitter—the works. While the NOC offers convenient (if somewhat commercial) one-stop shopping for your outdoor fix, we opted for the boutique approach, seeking out smaller outfitters and tucked-away accommodations, hoping to get a more intimate feel for the area and its outdoor riches. Log Cabin Comfort Just a 10-minute drive from the NOC hub, up a steep gravel road, we settled in one of the newly constructed Watershed Cabins to rest up before our next day’s rafting excursion. Each of these 12 lovely log homes feels secluded, and ours, a spacious three-bedroom with a fabulous deck, had an expansive view of the Smokies. While we were expecting ruggedness on the river and on the trail, our base camp was a far cry from roughing it. My girls loved the upscale amenities—leather sofas, satellite TV, DVD players, Wi-Fi, and, of course, an outdoor hot tub. Meanwhile, my husband and I were more than content in the porch rocking chairs, enjoying the cool dusk breeze, our complimentary bottle of regional North Carolina wine, and the mesmerizing vista of darkening indigo mountains blending into night. “I Can’t Feel My Feet!” The next morning after scrambled eggs and toast (the cabins have full, fancy kitchens, great for curtailing meal costs), we made the short trek down to Wildwater Ltd. Rafting. The outfitter has been around since 1971 (predating NOC by a year) and got its feet wet, so to speak, on the nearby Chattooga—unruly river of Deliverance fame—where rapids are significantly more challenging than the Nantahala’s. Today, Wildwater offers trips on all five rivers in this white-water wonderland (the Chattooga, Nantahala, Ocoee, Pigeon, and Cheoah), but for inexperienced paddlers and families with children, the Nantahala by raft is an ideal beginners’ slope. My daughters, Sally (age 14) and Claire (nearly nine), veterans of white water in our local surf only, were a jittery mix of nerves and excitement. Jessica, our guide, did a great job of trip prep—highlighting river hazards and safety rules without scaring us to death. With life jackets snug and paddles in hand, we boarded a school bus for the harrowing drive to the put-in. Then the fun, and freezing, began. The Nantahala doesn’t dillydally. Just moments after getting comfy in our six-person raft, we got sloshed about at Patton’s Run, a Class III washing machine named for an undaunted one-armed paddler, Charlie Patton. And from there, the river is a continuous, eight-mile frolic down the gorge, with plenty of breathtaking (literally) splashes of biting cold water to ensure you keep your cool. “I can’t feel my feet,” a numb Sally cried out with a smile equally frozen on her face. We paddled to Jessica’s choreography, “Give me two forward; one, two,” then hung tight as we bounced down rapids with names like “Tumble Dry,” “Isle of Dumping,” and “The Bump.” By the time we made it safely through the falls, Sally could feel her toes again, and we all were drenched with exhilaration, pride, and river water. Off River, Off Road With rafting crossed off our high-altitude adventure list, mountain biking was next. As flat-landers and biking enthusiasts, we wanted to try our hand (or legs) on some hilly terrain, and this Bryson City/Nantahala/Great Smoky Mountain National Forest region happens to be laced with excellent trails. In fact, Tsali Recreation Area, the East Coast Mecca for mountain biking, is just five miles from Watershed Cabins. But Tsali is like intense—and intimidating—Class V rapids for two wheels, and we were looking for the kid-friendly Nantahala version. For guidance, we stopped by Bryson City Bikes where the owner, Andy Zivinski, fit us on awesome rock-stomping rental bikes and directed us toward Deep Creek, an easy spin from his full-service shop downtown. His suggestion was perfect; there in the Smoky Mountain National Forest, wide, clear trails follow a mountain stream past several waterfalls, offering a terrific mix of spectacular scenery and pedaling challenge, especially for young legs. Once back in town, we rewarded our 12-mile effort with a few frozen scoops at Soda Pops, a kitschy soda fountain on the main drag. Bryson City itself has a distinct, low-key charm. Billed as the “quieter side of the Smokies,” this tiny town is home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and not much else, at least at first glance. But then you stumble upon the Bryson General Store and Clampitt’s Hardware, family-owned since 1935 (washboards, $10), and begin to appreciate that not every mountain town has become an arts-and-crafts tourist haven (though there are a few Bryson City galleries). The draw here is not shopping or art or fine dining, but good ol’ alfresco activity, and for that, the menu is bountiful. From paddling and pedaling to horseback riding and hiking (the Appalachian Trail crosses at NOC) to fly-fishing and boating along gorgeous Fontana Lake (across the highway from our cabin), there is back-to-nature adventure aplenty.
Stay: • Falling Waters Adventure Resorts: Luxury yurts inspired by Mongolian design. 10345 Hwy. 74 West along the Nantahala, (800) 451-9972, www.fallingwatersresort.com • Fryemont Inn: A 1923 bark-covered inn. Rates from $125 per night. 245 Fryemont St., (800) 845-4879, www.fryemontinn.com • Watershed Cabins: Upscale log home rentals from $120 per night. (888) 604-3075, www.watershedcabins.com Do: Paddle the White Water • Nantahala Outdoor Center: Hwy. 19/74, (888) 905-7238, www.noc.com • Wildwater Ltd. Rafting: Hwy. 19/74, (866) 319-8870, www.wildwaterrafting.com Bike the Trails • Bryson City Bikes: 157 Everett St., (828) 488-1988, www.brysoncitybicycles.com • NOC Bike Shop: (888) 905-7238, www.noc.com • Tsali Recreation Area: More than 40 miles of trails, also open for hiking and horseback riding. FR 1286, off Hwy. 28 toward Fontana, (800) 470-3790, www.mtbikewnc.com/trailheads/tsali.html Eat: • Reila’s Garden: Fresh salads and seasonal dishes for dinner only. NOC, Hwy. 19/74, (888) 905-7238, www.noc.com • Thirteen Moons: Eclectic cuisine, including mountain trout and vegetarian entrees.Nantahala Village & Resort, Hwy. 19/74, (828) 488-2826, www.nvnc.com/villagerestuarant.php Shop: • The Artists’ House Too, 32 Everett St., (828) 488-1317, www.theartistshousegallery.com • Bryson General Store, 115 Everett St., (828) 488-8010 • NC Clampitt Hardware Co., 111 Main St., (828) 488-2782