Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies
The noise of the river filled our ears, a deafening sound of the power of nature: torrents of cool cascades rushing and twisting over and around the river rocks and jutting boulders protruding from Tennessee’s Pigeon River.
“Gimme two strokes,” our guide, BP, said above the roar as he maneuvered our rubber raft back to face the surging current.
“Two more.” Our raft jostled up and down as we faced the Class III Super Glue rapids head on. The water climbed in our boat, raising to our waists. Worried, I glanced over at our youngest to see if she was alarmed. A huge grin spread across her face. Clearly, she was thoroughly enjoying our whitewater rafting experience in the Smokies.
Rafting on the Pigeon River? No-Way!
When I heard about rafting on the Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, all I could imagine was that that lazy little creek that winds through the heart of Pigeon Forge. I pictured us dropping over the falls next to the Old Mill Restaurant in the Pigeon Forge shopping district, clutching the sides of those little rubber duckies. But apparently, that little brown-water creek is the “Little” Pigeon River, and fortunately, our family rafting adventure was taking place not in full view of the Old Mill diners munching on country fried steak and cheese grits, but through the natural wilderness setting on the churning whitewater of the Big Pigeon River.
Whitewater rapids are classified as Class I ( no sweat-easy-peasy) all the way to Class VI ( what the heck are you thinking-extraordinarily difficult) and the Big Pigeon River offers Class III and IV whitewater fun for the whole family. We headed out to the Rafting in the Smokies Outpost, located 45 minutes from Pigeon Forge in Hartford, Tennessee for our Upper Pigeon whitewater experience.
Finding Neverland at the Rafting Outpost
Rafting in the Smokies outpost was easy to spot, with a swinging bridge suspended across the river and an island full of people soaring through the canopy on zip lines, tackling their aerial obstacle challenge course or playing games on the ground by the river.
We checked in and crossed over the bridge to explore the island. Rafts stopped on the island to take families on the lower Pigeon River float. Families picnicked. A bunch of teens tried their skills at cornhole. Younger kids chased each other around in an impromptu game of tag. The guides chatted happily with the guests. The zip-line instructor, psyched & upbeat, encouraged participants on the run. Everyone looked happy. Had we accidentally stumbled upon Peter Pan’s Neverland?
Hitting the Upper Pigeon River
We soon met our own river group and were assigned guides, fitted with life jackets, helmets, and paddles. High spirits & humor peppered every conversation. What could have been a boring, yet necessary safety instruction lesson aboard the bus to the launch site had everyone laughing in the end. We were cautioned about the dangers of the river- like never to try and stand up (thankfully there are no gators to contend with here- so one less worry for us southerners). The camaraderie and professionalism of our guides shone through. Even though they kept everyone entertained and laughing, it was apparent that the safety of their guests was their top priority.
Our 5.5-mile journey began at the North Carolina border. The river water levels are controlled via dam release from the nearby power plant and our Tuesday float was timed perfectly. After a quick paddle instruction, our guide, the bearded BP, took the lead of the Rafting in the Smokies flotilla. There were 4 other rafts in our group, each with their own guides.
Tackling the Pigeon River’s Class III & IV Rapids
BP expertly led us through the beginning Power House Class III rapids. Every time our rubber raft plunged into the whitewater, a wave would sweep across to give half of us a good soaking, then our entire boat would shift and everyone who laughed at the drenched paddlers would receive an icy splash themselves, but the 64°F water proved more refreshing than shockingly cold on this warm summer’s day.
Our daughter, who is currently in that too-cool-to-smile phase, couldn’t stop grinning as we churned through the Vegamatic, rocked the Roller Coaster and faced off the Class IV Double Reactionary and Accelerator.
Surfing the Class III Super Glue won hands-down as our family-favorite and an unforgettable experience, adding an exciting edge to our family whitewater rafting adventure. The only downside was that this 1.5-hour adventure ended way too soon.
About Rafting in the Smokies Outfitters
Rafting in the Smokies has two rafting trips to choose from and all trips are guided. The 5.5-mile Upper Pigeon River is for ages 8 years old and up (or 70 lbs). This portion of the river is filled with Class III and Class IV whitewater rapids. The 6.5-mile portion of the lower Big Pigeon River is known to be more of a quieter, family float with Class I, II rapids (and one Class III). The lower river float is for ages 3 and up.
There are opportunities for zip lining, rock climbing, and an aerial obstacle course located on the adventure island adjacent to the Rafting in the Smokies Outpost, along with changing rooms & hot showers to warm up after a whitewater adventure.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- Rafting in the Smokies is located at 3595 Hartford Road, Hartford, Tennessee. They strongly recommend you follow the driving directions on their brochure or website, as your GPS will lead you onto narrow, off-pavement roads that can be unsuitable for certain cars. We went with Siri, who had been misleading us through the Tennessee mountains all week (she no longer loves us, we suspect). However, we did get to see a lot of way-off-the-beaten-track farms and old cars. Forewarned is forearmed!
- Their phone number is 1-800-Pro-Raft (1-800-776-7238). Handy to keep, in case you do get lost.
- You will get wet! Bring a change of clothes to wear after your adventure. And a towel to dry off.
- You don’t need anything but yourself. Everything else will get wet too- or fall off- so leave those cute sunglasses, camera, phone, etc safely stored (out of view or in the trunk) in your car.
- Don’t worry about taking photos- they do it for you en route. They must have little Neverland fairies in hidden in trees along the river because we didn’t see an intrusive photographer anywhere. But when you get back to the outpost, all those photos are waiting for you. You can buy one or get them all on a handy flash drive to use, share & splash all over your fave social media outlets.
- No flip-flops or bare feet allowed. Invest in a cheap pair of water shoes. You can pick them up at a Walmart or Dollar General before you get there or buy them at their gift shop.
- If you or your kids are afraid of the water, the Upper River adventure is not for you- try the easier Lower River float. Either way, you must wear lifejackets at all times (and helmets).
- You do not need to be experienced to do the Upper Pigeon River. There’s a guide in every boat to instruct you and steer the way.
- Yes, people do fall out of the rafts at times. There was someone who fell out of one of the other raft on our trip but was easily pulled back in. Pay attention to your guide when they tell you how to lock your feet in your boat and do it. I got unseated on one rapid, but my feet held me in place- and I stayed in the raft.
- There is a spot in the river where the guides let you jump in and swim if you feel the need to cool down (but ya still gotta keep all that gear on!).
- Although reservations are not required, on weekends and busy days they are necessary.
- Look out for the coupon. Find one of the Rafting in the Smokies brochures and get $12 per person off of your rafting adventure. You can usually find them in those attraction flier boxes by the restaurants and hotels around Pigeon Forge or stop by the Pigeon Forge Visitor Center and pick one up.
This family rafting adventure was made possible courtesy Rafting in the Smokies Outfitters, who have been running families down the rapids since 1978, and the Pigeon Forge Tourism Board, (MyPigeonForge.com), but all thoughts and opinions in this article are my own.
**All photos in this post were taken by the kind & talented folks at Rafting in the Smokies.**
More Stories that May Interest You:
- Summer Family Fun in Pigeon Forge
- 10 Reasons to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Riding the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
- Riding the Rails at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge
- Think Before You Drink: Water Safety in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park