Editor's Note: The difficulty level of whitewater rapids are defined in Classes. For example, Class I rapids are mild. Class II rapids a bit more difficult, with Class III and above rapids much more challenging. Class IV rapids are very difficult with Class V being the most ferocious to navigate; Class IV and V rapids often have sizable "drops" as well as rough whitewater.
Whitewater Center near Charlotte
Delivers Challenging Rapids and Thrills
Seeking a one-of-a-kind experience? Then run the rapids at the $38 million U.S. National Whitewater Center just outside Charlotte, NC. *
By Jack Horan
Spindrifts of water doused us at Sunset Rapid, the first Class III on our trip. Seconds later, as we pitched up and over M Wave, a torrent of water filled our raft, quickly draining out.
Farther downstream, we bounced through Biscuits & Gravy, then spun around and stroked upstream into the Class III drop. “Paddle! Paddle! Don’t look at the river,” shouted Scott, our raft guide. But a huge wave flipped the raft. Over we went into the fast-moving water.
No problem. Scott, other rafters and kayaks fished us out, and within minutes, all six of us were back into our bright blue raft, soaked but ready to take on more Class IIIs and IVs.
“This is awesome. A lot of fun, safe and exciting,” first-timer Bob O’Keefe, 45, of Weddington, NC, said afterward. “We’re coming back. This is a hoot.”
A day of rafting on a remote river in the Appalachian Mountains? No, we were paddling the concrete-lined channels of the new U.S. National Whitewater Center, 15 minutes west of downtown Charlotte in the North Carolina Piedmont.
An Outdoor Lover's Dream
This $38 million, nonprofit center is the largest artificial recirculating whitewater park in the world.
The park offers more than guided raft trips -- costing $33 a person for 90 minutes -- on three-quarters of a mile of powerful rapids. The challenging course is shown at right.*
Individual kayakers and canoeists may paddle the two separate channels for a fee $15 for 90 minutes.
The Big Water Channel and the Competition Channel were designed by Scott Shipley of Boulder, CO, a three-time Olympic paddler. The shorter Competition Channel, equipped with slalom gates, has been designated an official Olympic training site. In 2008, the center hosted the trials to pick the U.S. Olympic whitewater slalom team.
Kayakers I’ve spoken with say the Big Water Channel compares to the lower Ocoee River near Ducktown, TN, suitable for experienced kayakers. The more intense Competition Channel compares to the upper Ocoee, the 1996 Olympics course, a run for advanced kayakers.
Though the U.S. National Whitewater center borders the Catawba River, the park uses treated city water in the channels. Twelve million gallons circulate through six pumps (a seventh is kept on stand-by) stationed between upper and lower pools.
Both channels terminate in the lower pool. Rafts and kayaks paddle over to a conveyer belt, which takes them to the upper pool for more runs.
Rafts typically make six laps, three in each channel, for a cumulative four-and-a-half-mile trip. The center provides helmets, personal flotation devices and paddles. River guards stand at the most difficult rapids, ready to throw safety ropes to people who spill out.
Fun Options for Visitors
Don’t know how to kayak in whitewater? The park offers instruction. A kayak sampler costs $55.
Want to paddle but don’t want to take on rambunctious whitewater? Ask for a kayak or canoe trip on a flatwater section of the Catawba.
Don’t want to get wet, period? Try the climbing wall, more than 30 feet high with 20 routes. Or the climbing tower, 46 feet high, with 40 routes and the look and feel of granite. A guided climb is $23.
Other are a high-ropes course (at $33 a person) and 11 miles of running and mountain bike trails; bike rentals are $25 for two hours.
Or, you might simply enjoy watching the whitewater action from multiple viewing points. Most -- like the one shown above* -- provide an up-close look at the rafting action.
Admission and parking to the center itself are free. Visitors can stroll the gravel walkways around the channels. Moms with strollers often share the paths with teens on bikes.
You might also relax at The Eddy Restaurant and Bar. It's shown at right.*
Diners can sip a beer or wine on the patio overlooking a right-angle turn on the Competition Channel and watch rafts and kayaks disappear into the 7-foot drop.
What's to eat? The fare includes salads (apple walnut chicken salad, $8.50), sandwiches (smoked turkey and avocado wrap, $7.95) and dinners (baby-back ribs, $14.95).
Also on site is are 2,400-square-foot conference center that hosts corporate retreats. and an outfitters store with clothing and gear.
The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June through August. The center has shorter hours in cooler months.
For More Information
Call 704-391-3900 or visit www.usnwc.org.
Jack Horan of Charlotte, NC, is outdoors correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He is also author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians” and co-author of “Paddling South Carolina/A Guide to Palmetto State River Trails.”
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Jack Horan. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.