Mountains or beach? It’s the age-old decision that American vacationers make every year. It’s an especially close call for Southerners, for whom the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastline are both viable options. If your preference leans toward water, you may be tempted to spend your summer break in a place like Myrtle Beach, where there are countless watersports and boating excursions to try.
On the other hand, you may love the mountains but still don’t want to miss out on playtime in the water. If that sounds like you, we’ve got great news for you – splash-filled fun awaits in the Great Smoky Mountains, too! Thanks to the Pigeon River in Hartford, TN, the Smoky Mountain region provides plenty of opportunities to go swimming in the sunshine, whitewater rafting, fishing, and even camping right next to the water. Read on for a brief guide to the watery ways of the mountains!
Splash Away in the Smoky Mountain Outdoors
Between the fast-paced Upper section and the gentler Lower section, the Pigeon River offers some of the best whitewater rafting in Tennessee. It winds from Western North Carolina into the Cherokee National Forest just northeast of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to empty into the French Broad River near Douglas Lake. Take a scenic drive about 40 minutes northeast from Gatlinburg, and you’ll find yourself in a tiny town called Hartford, TN, where several of the most reputable whitewater rafting tours are headquartered.
Daniel Jennette is not just the owner of Smoky Mountain Outdoors but also takes a hands-on role as one of the primary rafting guides. Under the guidance of his nearly thirty years of experience, even newbies will feel safe as they learn to conquer the rapids. Beginners can get a taste of rafting on the relaxing Lower River trip, which traverses 5.5 miles of gentle rapids in the Pigeon River gorge. More experienced or adventurous rafters will love the challenge of Class III and IV rapids on the 6.5-mile Upper River tour, known as the longest rafting trip in the Smokies. Meanwhile, daredevils should seek out the Extreme Upper River trip, which covers those same Class III and IV rapids in a much smaller boat. If there is any doubt in your mind about whitewater rafting, know that you’ll be in safe hands at Smoky Mountain Outdoors.
In a similar vein, Rafting in the Smokies also offers a Lower rafting tour, covering 6 miles of calm Class I and II rapids, and an Upper tour, where you’ll meet adrenaline-pumping rapids with telling names like “Too Late,” “Lost Guide,” and “Razor Blade.” The tours last 1.5 or 2 hours and include PFDs, helmets, and an expertly trained guide. At the end of your river-borne escapades, stick around for more adventures in the sunshine! The ropes challenge course and zipline canopy tour allow you to experiment with the freedom of height and flight, while picnic tables, playgrounds, corn hole bean bags, and swimming holes await those looking for a more calming type of play.
Big Creek Expeditions follows a similar format with an Upper River rafting adventure, Lower River scenic float, and a third option that combines the two. From the moment you put in at their outpost in Hartford, TN, until the end of the 6-mile tours, you’ll encounter gorgeous views of mountains as high as 5,000 feet, incredible sightings of local wildlife, and, of course, thrilling rapids. When you conclude your journey along the river gorge, get cleaned up at the bathhouse and look forward to a delicious bite to eat from the on-site food trucks or restaurants. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of your professional rafting photos to remember this day for years to come!
Camp On the Banks of a River
Not to be confused with the Pigeon River in Hartford, TN, the Little Pigeon River runs directly through Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. This smaller river is better suited to gentle tubing trips, fishing for trout, waking up on its banks, and grilling hot dogs over a campfire. Thankfully, a couple of excellent camping options are available on both rivers, so that no matter what kind of splash-filled adventure you’re after, you’ll already be on-site and ready to dive in headfirst!
Don’t let the term “campground” fool you into thinking of primitive living. On the banks of the Little Pigeon River in Pigeon Forge, Camp Riverslanding is about the outdoors just as much as the finer aspects of vacationing, offering resort-style amenities like a game room, pool and splash pad, recreation hall, dog park, and more. Their campsites consist of RV back-ins of 25 to 65 feet in length, with on-site RV rentals available as well. As soon as you get settled into your new home-away-from-home on the riverfront, you can immediately get into some splashing fun. Grab an inner tube at the Camp Riverslanding Trading Post to catch some nearby rapids, or get your fishing pole set up and look forward to campfire-grilled trout for dinner tonight.
If you’re hoping to stay close to the whitewater rafting adventures in Hartford, TN, Pigeon River Campground is for you. Camping options include individual and group tent pads, riverside cabins that sleep up to 5 people, RV sites with water, sewer, and 20-, 30- or 50-amp hookups. Enjoy proximity to all the hiking, fishing, whitewater rafting, ziplining, and horseback riding your heart could desire, and then come home to cool off in the swimming pool or grab a snack at the general store. Check in with Pigeon River Campground regularly to take advantage of seasonal camping packages and specials, such as discounted rates or even a free night’s stay!
While Gatlinburg sits outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Sevier County, Cocke County is where you’ll find the Pigeon Forge River, the whitewater rafting scene in Hartford, and the Smokies’ close neighbor, the Cherokee National Forest. When you’re looking for more adventurous things to do during your stay in the Pigeon River area, Adventure Side of the Smokies should be your go-to resource.
Find out where you can ride horses, pick up a bottle of moonshine, or stroll through an apple orchard. Discover the best hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins and other accommodations close to the action in Cocke County. Get the inside scoop on where to shop for arts and crafts, jewelry, and woodwork, or let it guide your rumbling stomach to the best restaurants available. Adventure Side of the Smokies has all the answers you’ll need for your visit!
Beautiful scenery that looks like it came straight out of a fantasy animation film? Check. Fun activities in nature and water? Check. A vibrant culture and unique history with friendly locals? Check. Delicious dining options around every corner? Check. While most travel destinations can’t realistically check every single one of your boxes, the neighborly towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg will come very close! When deciding between the calming solitude of the peaks or the lively adventures of the water, at least, the Smoky Mountain outdoors will pass your test with flying colors.
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