Courtesy of Navitat Canopy Adventures
Navitat Canopy Adventures in Asheville, N.C., offers a zipline flight through the treetops.
The Southern Appalachian region is one of the tops for outdoor adventure, its recreational opportunities drawing everyone from hikers passing through on the Appalachian Trail to tourists in search of a thrill, Olympic hopefuls who train on the whitewater rivers to life-long locals who know where to find secret swimming spots and abandoned caves.
Here spring and summer are replete with birdsongs, ephemeral floral scents, cool breezes, rushing streams, and sunlight streaming through the treetops—all of which help create an alluring world that proves just as stimulating as, though infinitely more verdant, the hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle.
Ken Stamps left the jungle for a life soaring above the trees at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. As the CEO of Navitat Canopy Adventures, Stamps partnered with family members to start the company after leaving his job amid the economic crisis in Detroit, Mich. The company has drawn tens of thousands of visitors to the forest in Barnardsville, N.C., about 20 miles north of Asheville, since it opened a few years ago. And it is one of many that have spread across a region that in many ways is a playground for outdoor recreation.
“We’ve got the topography,” said Stamps, a former landscape architect.
In general, ziplines vary greatly in length, height and speed. In Banning Mills, Ga., an adventure course with ziplines is designed exclusively for children ages four and up, while in Sevierville, Tenn. Wahoo Ziplines’ course features only six lines, but totals more than two miles with each line designed to get the blood flowing at 900 to 1,600 feet in length and 40- to 250-foot suspensions.
“A walk through the Smokies is inspiring. A high-speed zipline ride through them is life changing,” said Matt Payne, a visitor from Los Angeles, Ca., who experienced Wahoo’s lines last summer.
This May, Navitat opened a new line that runs 3,600 feet and flies 350 feet in the air—evidence of the increasing market for commercially accessible extreme adventure.
Matt Moses, general manager of USA Raft, spent about a decade leading cave, hiking and whitewater-rafting tours in the Northeast after earning a bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation. He eventually came to the Southern Appalachians, calling it an “obvious destination” for those who have built a livelihood on outdoor adventure. He now spends much of the year living with his family in the eastern part of North Carolina, where he grew up. He sold his home in Asheville, N.C., three years ago to help the company buy two subsidiaries that had been part of the largest rafting company in the world, with more than a dozen guide services and outfitters in the eastern part of the country.
Moses is in his element leading rafters into a tempest of rushing currents on the Nolichucky River in East Tennessee.
“Once you start going down that river, you’re committed to it,” he said.
The whitewater churns on the Nolichucky. Parts of the river, which snake through the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, are rated Class IV rapids. Despite turbulent conditions, Moses said the company has remained open to offering trips even for those who have never taken a trip—that is, “as long as they have a little sense of adventure,” he said.
“Everybody gets a paddle, everybody’s expected to paddle,” he said.
The Nolichucky is among two rivers in the region where the company runs tours for more than half a year, between March and November, that stretch as long as nine miles. The other, the French Broad River, also includes sections of Class IV rapids, and is where the company runs its other guide service in Western North Carolina.
The company employs about 100 people each season, including 80 or so rafting guides. It has grown over the years to offer other kinds of outdoor recreation, including cave and zip line tours, though whitewater rafting remains its biggest draw, leading as many as 15,000 people onto the rivers each year.
“When our engineer son was about 7, he learned he had to weigh 60 lbs. to go whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River,” said Fred Alexander, a resident of Franklin, N.C., and former Marine who recently retired from a management role with Duke Energy. “He began weighing himself frequently and wondered if it would be OK to fill his pockets with rocks. The day finally came. He was quiet and focused during the entire raft trip. As we got out, he flashed a big smile to ask, ‘Dad, do we have time to do this again today?’ For major events in our daughter’s life, we’ve offered a variety of choices. But she always opts for a raft trip for family and friends.”
Whitewater rafting has proliferated across the region. Some waterways, like the Pigeon River—which runs through the Pisgah National forest in North Carolina—have about a dozen rafting companies along their banks. The companies and rivers are regulated. Many waterways pass through U.S. Forest Service lands. In addition to routine inspections, rafting companies must abide by certain federal rules, including the number of visitors they are permitted to lead down a river per day. For example, on the Nolichucky, USA Raft is allowed to send only 450 visitors a day.
While those regulations have helped prevent market saturation—opening any new rafting companies in certain parts of the region is cumbersome, if not forbidden, amid a rigid federal permitting process—Moses said competition abounds. Despite the crowded market, relations among rafting companies mostly are friendly, even accommodating, with many companies routinely exchanging supplies and rafting guides, and making referrals.
“At the end of the day, we’re all river people,” Moses said. “Everybody, for the most part, works well together.”
Jeff Greiner helps run an outdoor recreation company his parents started decades ago that is considered the forerunner of whitewater rafting in the region. He shares Moses’ sentiment.
“It’s kind of hard not to love a situation where you get to go out and play on the river all day,” he said.
Wildwater was formed on the Chattooga River in East Tennessee in the early 1970s as the first commercial rafting company in the Southeast. Greiner’s parents, Jim and Jeanette, had first visited the river on a canoe trip while traveling to campgrounds across the eastern part of the country to gather information for a brochure. The two eventually started a guide service in a nearby abandoned schoolhouse that dated to the early 1900s.
The company’s reach has since spread across the region, employing a total of 400 workers each season and drawing some 100,000 people each year. It has erected a handful of zip lines, including one overlooking Asheville, and offers rafting trips down four rivers—the Pigeon, Ocoee, Chattooga, and Nantahala. A couple years ago Wildwater created a treetop adventure course that includes dozens of obstacles involving a variety of maneuvers.
For as long as he can remember, Greiner has spent his summers on the river. While he has grown familiar with outdoor recreation’s business aspects, he acknowledged that such a lifestyle involves constant financial risk and closely is tied to the ever-changing weather.
Asked what advice he might give to those seeking to break into the scene, he said, “Think twice.”
Devotion marks those who have started successful rafting companies, perhaps like any other venture.
“People get into the rafting industry because they love it,” he said.
Outdoor recreation companies account for a significant portion economic activity here. In North Carolina, the outdoors market generates some $19 million in annual spending, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, which tracks the economic impact of the market across the state. Last year, at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the far western part of North Carolina, an international kayaking championship drew competitors and spectators from all across the world to the Nantahala River.
Just south of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Dawson County, Ga. is home to more acres of protected land, about 25,000, than people. Passing through it are two major rivers and a network of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding.
“We’re just abundantly blessed with natural features,” said Christie Haynes, president of the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce.
The county’s slogan, “Create Your Own Adventure,” is meant to appeal to a wide demographic, particularly outdoors enthusiasts. It replaced previous ones, including “Where the Mountains Meet the Lake,” which Haynes suggested was vague, failing to fully convey the image of the county.
“There wasn’t a common message about who we were,” Haynes said. “If you want to be outside, we’re a great pace to be.”
Perhaps the most notable tourist attraction is a 720-foot waterfall in Amicalola Falls State Park, the tallest east of the Mississippi River. The park also includes a backcountry lodge, meaning it is not automobile accessible, and the eight-mile terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
The park also has remained fertile ground for another activity, geocaching, which essentially is a game of hide and seek with a Global Positioning System tracking device.
In eastern Tennessee, Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium includes nearly 40 miles of biking and hiking trails. Sightings of wildlife—bears, bobcats, coyotes, white-tailed deer—are common.
Despite its close proximity to the city of Kingsport and major highways, the preserve has remained what Rob Cole, park operations coordinator, described as a convenient, yet “very peaceful escape.”
Near its mountaintop, at about 2,400 feet, is a man-made lake stretching about 45 acres across a basin. It is open year-round, drawing nearly 200,000 people each year, many of them passersby. Of those, about 30,000 are students from nearby schools, he said.
Kingsport, located in what is known as the Tri-Cities area, designed the area as a nature preserve in the 1960s, amid nearby residents’ call to protect the mountain’s natural splendor.
In addition to the nature center offering programs meant to encourage conservation and preservation particularly among youth, the park includes recreation activities such as an above ground ropes course and a 300-foot zip line.
It is considered a relatively small nature preserve, stretching about 3,500 acres, but Cole and others see it as a way to encourage more people to “discover the joy” of nature.
“The best way to that is to get outdoors,” he said. Developing a love for nature doesn't have to mean all extreme adventure all the time, however. Sometimes the best adventure can be had while taking it slow.
“For me, retired and 65 now, I especially enjoy a canoe on a slow river or lake where I can savor a view of just water, sky, mountains, and trees,” Alexander said. “Last month, I paddled past some wary but magnificent Canada geese. I’ve heard the slap of a beaver’s tail, caused a startled blue heron to do a vertical take-off, seen rare plants and a five-minute airshow performed by 50 or more turkey buzzards. Every trip, even on the same stretch of river, reveals something new.”
Such enthusiasm roots its way underground, too.
Roger Hartley spends many days deep in a cave near Blountsville, about 20 miles east of the Kingsport nature preserve. There he leads thousands of people through its limestone caverns each year.
Appalachian Caverns’ tours stretch about one mile, winding along two waterways that flow, and sometimes cascade after heavy rains, into a pool in a spacious cavern. Each trip’s length and rigor varies, “based on the comfort level of the group,” Hartley said. The most physically demanding tour lasts about three hours and involves people dragging themselves through narrow passes and wading through waist-high water. “It wears people out,” he said.
As many as 10,000 to 11,000 people visit the cave each year, including students from nearby schools and geologists—and Hartley hazards there would be more if he could capitalize on outdoor advertising that the county prohibits.
Appalachian Caverns has been exploring the cave since the early 1990s. Its splendor struck Hartley on his initial visit—most notably its delicate ecosystem that is largely insulated from air pollution and stays around 65 degrees year-round.
“It was sort of spiritual,” he recalled.
The cave is ancient, with traces of humanity stretching as far back as 675 A.D. Archaeological evidence released in the mid-2000s suggested that Native Americans used the space for religious ceremonies then. White settlers rediscovered it in the mid-1700s.
The cave is home to only seven species—but among those seven are thousands of bats, including two kinds on the endangered species list that are known to breed in the cave’s depths.
While he acknowledged that caves are widespread across the country—particularly in Tennessee, home to more than 9,000, the majority of them east of Knoxville—the formation of this one is something of a geological rarity. While the carving of its upper portion is attributed to water, its lower portion appears more fractured as a result of seismic activity, which was how the majority region’s caves were formed, Hartley said, citing a fault line running beneath sections of Interstate 81.
The cave’s total size remains a mystery. A land surveyor from North Carolina is using a laser system to determine its depth, Hartley said, which geologists have estimated as three to four miles deep.
“I’ve got the biggest basement in Tennessee,” he said, noting that his house is directly above the cave.
Whether underground, on the water, or in the air, those luckily enough to call the Southern Appalachians home know how to have a good time outdoors—and how to share with others their thirst for adventure.