The Nantahala River flows like the plot of a Stephen King novel. The intensity of its rapids slowly increases, with tension building to a screaming climax at notorious Nantahala Falls. You'll recognize the Falls by the unruly mob of spectators crowding the riverbank. These people are not your friends. They are rooting for an overturned raft or crumpled kayak, and the Falls feeds them a steady diet of chaos and calamity. The river funnels through a narrow chute of boulders and ledges that catches the unwary in a wrenching spin cycle and spits any remains out the other end. Your experience will forever play back in your memory accompanied by a soundtrack of either whoops or guffaws. Either way, the Falls is a splashy finale to one of the Southeast's most popular whitewater destinations.
Tucked away in the highlands of North Carolina, a couple of hours from Sugar Mountain and Ski Beech ski areas, the Nantahala tumbles cold and crystal-clear along the southern edge of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With almost two dozen major rapids in 8 1/2 miles, you'll be able to paddle on a near-constant string of exciting whitewater. The most memorable drops-Patton's Run, Tumble Dry, Whirlpool and Surfer's Rapid-are excellent spots to try out your kayaking moves. The biggest rapids on the Nantahala are Class III, which means you don't have to be a world-class paddler to handle this river.
This challenging-but-not-life-threatening reputation also means that you'll be sharing your run with a fleet of kayaks, canoes and rafts-about 200,000 people float the Nantahala annually. If you're a serious kayaker you may have to queue up for the most popular play areas. But don't let that bother you. There's plenty of river here for all. Peel out and paddle a few yards downstream, and there'll be another rapid to play in. And if your arms start to ache, lean back and float through the flatwater stretches where you can enjoy the richness of the rhododendron, mountain laurel and azalea that paint the near-vertical cliffs of the Nantahala Gorge. Just remember to save some muscle for Nantahala Falls.
A dozen outfitters serve the river, but the Nantahala Outdoor Center (888-662-1662; nocweb.com) is tops, offering kayaking classes for novices, as well as rafting trips. Or try USA Raft (800-872-7238; www.usaraft.com). Visit www.greatsmokies.com) for information.