Adventures on Land and Water: An Adrenaline-Filled Day at the U.S. National Whitewater Center

You’re bound to have a great time rafting on these man-made whitewater rapids.
You’re bound to have a great time rafting on these man-made whitewater rapids. @jeffandonygraphics
Made Possible by
Curated by

Don’t let its name fool you: The U.S. National Whitewater Center covers not only water (white and flat), but enough land and even air-based adventures to delight any stripe of outdoor enthusiast, even those who have never handled a paddle before. And every year, the 1,100-acre facility, located a few miles west of uptown Charlotte, adds more to its already impressive offerings.

Of course, with so much on tap, the center is worthy of repeat visits. But for ambitious adventurers who have limited time—or simply relish the challenge of tackling multiple disciplines in one day—it’s possible to experience a little of everything the center has to offer in a single visit.

With some prior planning—and a lot of energy—here’s how to fit in climbing, rafting, paddling, and trail time, plus, of course, the celebratory beers and grub that come afterward. It’s all in a day’s (many) adventures at the USNWC.

Before You Go

Officially, there is no fee to simply access the USNWC. It costs $5 to park (more info on that below), but you can walk the grounds and run or ride the trails for free.

To take advantage of other activities, however, you’ll need a pass. The full-day pass is the best bet if you don’t plan on returning, which covers most activities and can be purchased online. (The most notable exceptions are the canopy tours, but since they take a half day to complete, they’re not on this agenda anyway.)

Before your visit, check the center’s online calendar to verify the day’s schedule. Note that the trails are shut down during and after rain, and lightning will put a pause on any water activity. You may also want to print out a copy beforehand of the facility and trail maps, which will help you plan the day’s adventure. And for a small fee, you can pre-book your rafting time slot online, which can help structure your schedule.

Morning: Ride or Run

Most activities begin at 10 am or later, but the center’s extensive trail system, with 30 miles of trail, is open at dawn, so you’ll start there.

But first things first: the $5 parking fee. You can pay with a credit card, but cash is much faster—simply had over a fiver and be on your way. (Insider tip: Park in the small lot to the right. It will make it easier to access your gear and won’t be clogged with traffic when the center gets busy later.)

The bike rental shop won’t be open yet, so if you didn’t bring your own wheels, plan to hike or run. Trails are tagged with a difficulty rating (green, blue, or black for easy, moderate, or difficult).

From this parking lot, the easiest trails to access are the Parkway loop, Acadamy Loop, and East Main. The former is three miles of relatively smooth, greenway type path that’s great for beginners. Academy is also three miles, but on more challenging singletrack. And the third loop earns its nickname "Beast Main", as its 5.7 miles of rugged trail climb and descend sharply through the woods.

Outfitters at the USNWC opens at 9 am, just in time to take a breather after your ride or run. Located in the main building, the 5,000-square foot outdoors store offers a good range of hiking, biking, paddling, and camping gear, as well as a few beers on tap. But hold off on the brews for now; you’ve still got plenty of adventure to get after first. After you leave Outfitters, stop at the check-in counter for your day-pass wristband.

Midday: Climbing and Ziplining

The spire offers 75 feet of challenging climbing routes.
    Rob Glover
The spire offers 75 feet of challenging climbing routes. Rob Glover

It’s time for an upper body workout, and the center offers several climbing options, each designed to challenge a different level of climber. You can boulder or climb the 30-foot wall or 45-foot spire. If you’re a bit more experienced, check out the deep water solo climb. Without harnesses or ropes, climbers complete their routes up the wave-shaped, 45-foot wall by falling into the 20-foot-deep pool below.

After honing your skills climbing up, it’s time to experience some unforgettable ways to get back down to terra firma from one of the center’s several "jump" towers. From a platform height of your choosing between 25 and 100 feet high, you’ll be harnessed in for a jump and controlled descent back to earth. It is the ultimate trust fall.

Ziplining at the U.S. National Whitewater Center won’t disappoint.
    @__npphoto__
Ziplining at the U.S. National Whitewater Center won’t disappoint. @__npphoto__

Prefer a more scenic descent? Then a zipline might be more your speed. The longest line at the center begins at Hawks Tower and stretches over 1,600 feet, then concludes with a challenging high ropes course.

Before your next adventure, it’s time to fuel up. For a quick meal, hit up The Market at the bottom of the main stairs below the check in desk for a selection of salads, snacks, and sandwiches.

Mid-afternoon: Rafting

Each St. Patrick's Day the rapids at the USNWC go green.
    Rob Glover
Each St. Patrick's Day the rapids at the USNWC go green. Rob Glover

You’ve been watching groups of screaming rafters slice through the man-made rapids all morning—now it’s your turn to tackle them. After a brief trip talk, complete with cheesy raft guide jokes, you’ll hop in your boat to experience the rapids firsthand. Choose a ride that ranges from the mild Family trip, the moderate Adventure trip, or the wild Rodeo Rafting. Expect class II through IV rapids and a healthy dose of water splashing—a welcome respite from toasty temperatures in spring and summer.

Late Afternoon: Flatwater Paddling

Few experiences offer a tranquil respite like gliding across the slow-flowing Catawba River. Whether you choose to stand-up paddleboard, kayak, or canoe, you’re guaranteed a serene, relaxing way to wind down from the high-adrenaline adventures of the day.

Take a short stroll to the Raft Pavilion, where the USNWC staff will set you up with a PFD and paddle. Your board or kayak awaits at the dock. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you paddle around the island directly in front of the USNWC boat launch. Osprey cruise overhead, searching for their next meal, while lanky heron stand a stoic watch along the shore. Bass often break the water’s surface in the late afternoon, and turtles can be seen lounging on the logs near the river’s edge.

Evening: Food and Beer

In addition to the sit down restaurant and to-go market, the USNWC also serves a variety of food from several permanent food trucks.
    Rob Glover
In addition to the sit down restaurant and to-go market, the USNWC also serves a variety of food from several permanent food trucks. Rob Glover

The sun is hanging low across the river, capping off your full day of adventure. There’s just one task yet to complete: grub and beer.

After dropping off your paddling gear, stop at the Biergarten. Located across the bridge that spans the man-made river, this covered pavilion pours from a significant list of tasty craft beers.

Then, grab a hot shower, change clothes, and settle in for a textbook Carolina sunset. The patio at River’s Edge is the best seat in the house for nature’s spectacular show. Dig into hearty plates of burgers, seafood, sizeable salads, and more as you reflect on the day’s many adventures at the USNWC—or plan your next visit to tackle the ones you didn’t get to this time.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

Last Updated:

Next Up

Previous

Exploring Historic Mobile: 5 Fascinating Hikes Around Alabama’s Oldest City

Next

The Story of Truman Smith: What It Takes to Be a 70-Year-Old Marathoner