Updated July 2019
What activity combines the exposure to changing natural beauty you get on a hike (minus the strenuousness) with the easy-going vibe of drinks with friends on your favorite patio? Floating in a tube down one of our many area rivers! A river float is as quintessential to your summer social calendar as grilling out, so round the troops, pick your destination, and prepare to relax, unwind, and practice the fine art of doing nothing while the river carries you gently away from work, school, and the stressors of daily life. Goodbye due dates, goodbye assignments, goodbye especially to you laundry pile! Use one of the many river tubing companies out there or, for the adventurous and frugal, coordinate the trip yourself with your own tubes. Just remember that gigantic inflated swans you’ve seen all over Instagram will probably have a rough time staying whole over river rocks and you’ll need to know a little about water level, discharge rate, and weather before hitting the water.
Here are our picks for the best rivers to spend a lazy afternoon on within driving distance:
Nantahala River, Bryson City, NC – the Nantahala is synonymous with church rafting trips for me, so I didn’t even think to check for tubing here. That was silly because the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) has everything your outdoorsy heart could desire: tubing, rafting, kayaking, flat water activities, ziplining, mountain biking, shopping, food, music… WHEW!
Oconoluftee River, Cherokee, NC – a Cherokee area favorite, this river is calm enough for you to really take in the beauty of the Smokies around you. Book your trip through Smoky Mountain Tube and Raft.
Tuckasegee River, Bryson City, NC – climb aboard their British-style double decker bus and let Tuckasegee Outfitters worry about the details of your tube trip. They also offer kayaks, rafts, and extreme tubing- yikes!
Cape Fear River, Lillington, NC– about 3 hours from Charlotte, book through Cape Fear River Adventures for a 5 hour trip down a calm, deep waterway. Since this is a coastal river rather than a rip-roaring, rapid-ridden mountain river, the water is much slower and lends to a longer, more leisurely float. They also offer kayaking, rafting, SUP-ing, and canoeing trips.
Dan River, Stoneville, NC– just north of Greensboro and about 2.5 hours from home, you’ll find this island-rich river calling for you to jump in, take a ride, and enjoy a picnic on your own mini private island. Dan River Adventures can help you with logistics, you just have to pack the sandwiches.
New River, Boone, NC– said to be North Carolina’s oldest river, New River is the perfect place for a mountain adventure during your next trip to The High Country. In just 2.5 hours, you’ll be ready to conquer the New with the help of Zaloo’s Canoes in Jefferson. Zaloo can show you the ropes if you have aspirations of becoming a fisherman or fisherwoman… fisherperson? With water depths as shallow as 2 feet in some areas, opt for a hard-bottomed tube for this trip. NO SWANS FOR PETE’S SAKE.
Green River, Saluda, NC– one of my personal favorite under-the-radar mountain towns is Saluda. With excellent hiking at Bradley Falls, biking on the surrounding roads or mountain trails, and charming (but small!) downtown, Saluda gives you the best bang for your adventurous buck. Green River Cove Tubing and Wilderness Cove Tubing and Camping have a few options for your route with peaceful flatwater and mild rapids alternating through your trip plus a few rope swings along the way. At just 2 hours away and situated right between Greenville and Asheville, you can afford to spend time refueling at one of the excellent restaurants for which both towns are known. Extra credit if you stop in to my favorite, Hotel Domestique, for a coffee or glass of wine on their patio. It has the most swoon-worthy views in the SC foothills. If that’s not enough excitement for you… or you’re just looking for a creative way to dry off after your river float, check out The Gorge for a zipline canopy adventure.
Catawba River, Marion/Fort Mill, NC– 2 hours away and just east of Asheville, this would be a perfect bookend to a trip to our favorite funky mountain oasis. Catawba River Outdoors even offers fancy “river recliners” for your floating comfort. Luxurious.
Feeling like roughing it on the ‘Tawba? Try rounding the troops then parking a car at Fort Mill Dam and one at Riverwalk for your own self-guided tour. My gym is having a DIY tubing outing at the end of the month so DM any pro tips I’ve missed here to @scoopcharlotte. Don’t forget that you’ll need gear for your solo voyage, Captain. Check out my linked recommendations at the end of this article!
Deep Creek, Bryson City, NC– Deep Creek Tube Center & Campground is 4 hours from Charlotte but feels like a world away. The upper river is great for families looking for a truly lazy river while the lower river has a few rapids if you dare. For beautiful scenery (hello, waterfalls!), you can’t get much better than this location. For a weekend full of activities, they have camping, cabins, and a gem mine on-site for when you’re done on the river.
French Broad River, Asheville, NC– a very popular river for tubing, you’ll have plenty of options for your floating trip. Plus, it’s in one of our favorites- Asheville- so your post-tubing brewery hopping and reward meal is sure to be top-notch. New Belgium Brewing’s tasting room and The Bywater are both post-float favorites located just off the river. For a one-stop shop, Asheville Outdoor Center offers trips down the river and libations after in their on-site tap room. There’s another gem mine here for your budding gemologists as well. Zen Tubing is another favorite of locals and visitors alike. Zen doesn’t require a reservation with shuttles running constantly and provides cooler carriers- no wonder they’re king of the French Broad tubing scene!
Wilson Creek, outside of Blowing Rock, NC– a great option for your floating desires comes from Wilson Creek in Pisgah National Forest. Starting at Mortimer Recreation Area, you’ll want to focus more on a leisurely bop around one of the calmer areas rather than an actual float trip. This is a great place to camp out for the day, tie your float to a tree, and bask in the sunlight, not so much if you’re aiming to get your heart pumping over some rapids. Lots of beautiful waterholes, though!
Saluda River, Columbia, SC– 2 hours away, you can make your own adventure by putting in near the Columbia Zoo and floating toward downtown. Remember this will require some planning and strategy (you’ll need 2 cars- one at the start and one at the end or a very understanding Uber) in addition to your own gear (see gear recommendations below). Palmetto Outdoors offers shuttles and gear if self-service isn’t your thing as well as guided bike, kayak, and walking tours to round out a weekend trip to SC’s capitol.
James River, Scottville/Buchanan, VA– a little over 4 hours from Charlotte, this Charlottesville area river is a popular pre-game before touring the area’s wineries or trekking the arduous (kidding) VA wine trails. Twin River Outfitters (hellooo glamping options… I love Virginia) or James River Runners can get you set up and on your way.
Shenandoah River, Luray, VA – take a mellow 3-5 hour journey on the South Fork of this scenic river. The Shenandoah River Outfitters will take excellent care of you whether you choose to tube, kayak, or canoe. Unwind after your trip on their campground or in one of their on-site cabins or cottages. They’ll even keep your tummy happy with hamburger cookout lunches and steak dinners- yes please!
Little River, Townsend, TN– worth the 5.5 hour trip, Smoky Mountain River Rat will not only arrange for your every floating need, but will also put you on the river section that best suits your tubing goals. There are both lazy trips with swimming and rock jumping as optional stops as well as something a little more exciting… that means rapids!
Toccoa River, McCaysville, GA – in the gorgeous Georgia mountains with trips bookable through Rolling Thunder River Co. The company also offers whitewater trips if you’re looking for more adventure.
Chattahoochee River, Roswell, GA– 5 hours from Charlotte, but just north of Atlanta, you can count on a fun afternoon with Shoot the Hooch. They even run a shuttle from Sweetwater Brewing! Sweetwater Blue pairs fabulously with tubes.
Before you hit the water, I can’t stress the importance of planning accordingly and the right gear:
- Map with a plan for your float if you’re going sans-tubing company
- Tube (duh)
- Air pump (perhaps not as obvious, but VERY important)
- Sunscreen (check out Scoop’s recs here)
- Sunglasses (preferably attached to more than just your earlobes)
- Ziploc to keep important items dry (phone, keys, etc.)
- Towel with dry clothes to keep in the car
Some river luxuries you might want to invest in are:
- Waterproof bag (when a Ziploc won’t cut it)
- Floating cooler
- Rope and karabiners to keep your crew intact/attached
- Bug spray (or these awesome deet-free bug repellant wristbands)
- River-friendly shoes (like these super cute waterproof Birks)
Maybe add a fanny pack and party visor if that’s your thing- after all, they’re somehow back in style. Live your dream and keep Scoop in the loop by tagging @scoopcharlotte in your river tubing adventures!