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 the 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:
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.
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 New River Tubing Adventure. Zaloo’s Canoes is also a great resource just down the road in Jefferson. With water depths as shallow as 2 feet in some areas, opt for a hard-bottomed tube for this trip.
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 has a few options for your route. 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 both towns are known for. 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? Try parking a car at Fort Mill Dam and one at Riverwalk where you’ll put in and get out of the river for your own self-guided tour.
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.
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. Zen Tubing is another favorite of locals and visitors alike.
Wilson Creek, Collettsville, NC– a honorable mention for your floating desires comes from Wilson Creek in Pisgah National Forest. Just 2.5 hours from Charlotte, you’ll want to focus more on a leisurely bop around one of the calmer areas rather than an actual float trip. The “rapids” here would be gigantic, dangerous waterfalls like Harper Creek Falls. 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.
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) in addition to your own gear. Palmetto Outdoors offers shuttles and gear if self-service isn’t your thing.
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) Wine Trail of Botetourt County. Twin River Outfitters or James River Runners can get you set up and on your way.
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!
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!
Before you hit the water, plan accordingly with the right gear: a map with a plan for your float if you’re going sans-tubing company, sunscreen, sunglasses- preferably attached to more than just your earlobes, hat, a Ziploc to keep important items dry- phone, keys, etc., and a towel with dry clothes to keep in the car. Some river luxuries you might want to invest in are a cooler, a rope and karabiners to keep your crew intact, bug spray, and water shoes. Maybe add a fanny pack if that’s your thing- after all, they’re somehow back in style. Live your dream.