Wild Journey: Rafting the Nolichucky River 

Follow along with outdoorsman and writer Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

Just above Erwin, the Nolichucky River finishes its wild journey through a deep gorge, after cutting through the main Appalachian mountain chain dividing North Carolina and Tennessee. The gorge is breathtaking, a place where the river slashes through rock, skimming off boulders and racing westward.

A great way to explore the Nolichucky Gorge is a whitewater rafting trip, where the bordering mountains rise 1,500 feet above the free-flowing Nolichucky River. Commonly referred to by the locals as “Noli,” a trip down this river is often lauded among the best combinations of adrenaline pumping rapids and breathtaking scenery in the United States.

USA Raft Adventure Resort

Luckily there is a rafting operation directly on the river that offers guided trips. USA Raft Adventure Resort also offers fishing and caving trips, and has created quite a name for itself as an overnight destination for van and tent camping, tiny home living, and glamping.

Riding the Rapids

Some paddlers choose to ride in individual boats known as duckies. They are a combination of raft and kayak, yet designed for one person. The gaggle of ducky paddlers is led by a guide, and every multi-person raft has a guide.

Both the scenery and the cataracts will grab your attention. The wooded walls of the gorge rise high into the sky, as craggy rocks stand hundreds of feet above the river.

Along the way, you tackle rapids with names such as Quarter Mile, Zig Zag and the Souse Hole. Rafts and several duckies stay together, so you’ll get to enjoy running the river, all while watching others make their way through the whitewater froth mixed with technical rock beds.

Classes of Rapids

And then there are the rapids. Noli features Class III and IV rapids in its upper stretches. This river difficulty rating system goes from Class I-VI. Class IV-VI increase in difficulty with Class VI being un-runnable, except by the best experts. Class I has easy waves requiring little maneuvering and few obstructions. Class II rapids may have more obstructions and require more maneuvering and the rapids may be flowing faster. Class III rapids can be difficult with numerous waves and no clear defined passage and requires precise maneuvering.

Water Safety

It’s vital to pay attention to your surroundings and practice safety measures when on any body of water, but especially when whitewater rafting.  Choose a licensed guide, always wear a life jacket and protective gear like a helmet, make sure you wear proper clothing and shoes, hold and use your paddle properly, stay in the boat, know swimming techniques, be aware of voice and hand commends, listen to your guide, and never panic.

Leave No Trace

Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime. Find out how you can make a difference with our leaders for litter-free Tennessee efforts.

Johnny Molloy is the author of many outdoor guides including Best Tent Camping: Tennessee, Paddling Tennessee, and Five Star Trails Tri-Cities: East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.