Whitewater Rafting in the Smokies is a Perfect Family Adventure

If you’re looking for a fun family summer adventure that works either as a day trip or weekend getaway, whitewater rafting in the Smoky Mountains may be just the experience. Kristina took her kids and tells us why it is a great introduction to rafting, even for little kids.

I’m a fairly adventurous person, spending as much time on rivers and lakes as possible, hiking trails deep in the forest, camping in the woods, and anything else I can come up with that involve the outdoors. I’ve been waiting until my youngest would be old enough for one particular adventure though and this was the year for it: whitewater rafting.

When the opportunity came up to finally go rafting on a river, I went for it because it’s a boatload of fun. Truly.

Rafting in the Smokies

There are several rivers within a short driving distance of Greenville, SC where you can go whitewater rafting and I chose the Lower Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains because the rapids were small and the company takes kids on the excursions here.

With whitewater rafting, the rapids are classified as Class IV with I and II being fairly tame and III, IV and V being a crazy wild ride. I’ve done the latter classes on the New River in West Virginia when I was much younger and invincible. It was super awesome but definitely not for kids. I knew the lesser rapids would be fine and a lot of fun for kids who loved the outdoors but who weren’t quite ready for a wild river ride.

We booked a trip with Smoky Mountain Outdoors Rafting, which is just off Route 40, about a three-hour drive from Greenville. We were camping nearby for the weekend but you can definitely do this as a day trip.

Getting on the River

There are different options to choose from when rafting with SMO and we went with the Lower Pigeon River because my youngest was too little for anything else. True story. This trip is a fairly leisurely 5.5 mile float down the Pigeon River with some smaller rapids and all-around stunning views. I can’t ever get enough of the Smokies so anytime I can marvel at them is a good day.

This trip is available May – September and takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half depending on water levels. Our trip was about an hour.

You can save time by filling out waivers online when you book. All trips will start at the outpost on Hartford Road, not far off of Route 40. If you do the same trip we did, you’ll get in the boat right there at the outpost. For the more exciting rides, you’ll get on the bus and drop it farther up the river. Either way, you’ll park at the outpost.

Once you park (get there 45 minutes before your scheduled trip), you’ll check-in at the shop and they’ll give you your time of departure and group number and tell you to wait under the covered deck. If you want to pre-purchase photos, do so at check-in since you’ll get a small discount and have them emailed to you during your trip actually. They have lockers available for $2 each where you can store your keys and valuables. Don’t take your keys rafting. Just don’t do it.

Once your group is called, you’ll be assigned a guide and get your life jacket, helmet, and paddle. From there, you’ll walk down to the river and get in your boat. Your guide will give you a quick safety lesson as you paddle away from the river bank and off you go.

Paddling the river

There isn’t much effort paddling the raft down the Lower Pigeon River, which gives you time to enjoy the beautiful scenery and take in the experience. The rapids give you some nice bumps along the way, which is fun for the kids. We learned about the area, some of the trees, and asked about how crazy the Upper Pigeon River rafting ride is.

We had a couple who did the Upper Pigeon ride that morning on our boat with us and they were telling us it was a blast – a fast ride over more than 70 rapids from Classes I-IV with few breaks in between. To do that trip, kids need to be at least 8 years old or weigh more than 70 pounds. Smoky Mountain Outdoors also offers an extreme Upper Pigeon River trip that’s on a smaller raft and where they hit the meat of the rapids down the river. Kids need to be 12 years old for that trip, know how to swim, and previous rafting experience is recommended.

Our guide was great as well. She was telling us about some of the neat hiking she’s done in the area plus what mountains we were looking at as we paddled down the river. The guides are all well-trained and love what they do – I mean, I’d love it too if I got to raft all day in the Smokies!

Once the trip ended, we unloaded on the riverbank while the guides got the rafts onto the buses, which we used to head back to the outpost.

Tips on whitewater rafting

We went on July 4th weekend and to say the place was packed would be an understatement. However, everything ran smoothly and it was obvious Smoky Mountain Outdoors was well-run. Every staff member and guide we encountered was kind and helpful and they all knew their jobs and did them well.

Family whitewater rafting in the Smokies

You don’t need to bring much on your trip but you will need:

  • Shoes with a strap or sneakers. No flip-flops or sandals (we saw an entire family wearing flip-flops who were instructed to either wear different shoes if they had them or purchase shoes in the store). The rafting company tells you this multiple times via emails before you come to the outpost.
  • A change of clothes and towel if you want to get out your wet clothes before driving back to your campsite or hotel.
  • Sunscreen. There’s no shade on the river and you’ll be in the direct sun.

Reservations are encouraged as well, especially during holiday weekends. Since this place takes smaller kids, it’s popular with families and you don’t want to get there and not be able to go out rafting if you didn’t have a reservation.

Tickets for the Lower Pigeon River trip are about $30 a person but be sure to check the website and sign up for their email list as they do run specials. We were able to get a lower ticket price since they were running a deal on the site when we booked.

That’s pretty much it. It’s not complicated and makes for a memorable trip with your family and friends. When my youngest is old enough, I’ll write about the Upper Pigeon River next time!

Have you been whitewater rafting?

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