Wet & Wild Whitewater


Whitewater rafting is wet, fun and wild. That last one gives most mothers pause. Sure it’s all those things, but are Class IV rapids safe? They can be, if you’re riding them at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, home of the world’s largest artificial whitewater river.

At the center, whitewater rafting is open to children 8 years and up. There are three courses, each more difficult than the other, and all a lot of fun. But be prepared, because even on the family course, which features Class II and III rapids, you’re going to be soaked within five minutes of hitting the water.

The 90-minute rafting session includes a 20-minute safety discussion. Everyone is required to wear a personal floatation device and a helmet. You’re shown which parts of the river to swim to if you fall overboard. Lifeguards on the shore keep an eye on each raft as it comes through their section of the river, and the professional guides are all trained in CPR and first aid.

The first time down the river, Kathleen, 12, screamed. David, 11, looked shocked when we popped out of “biscuits and gravy,” the Class III rapid on the family course. But by the end of the day we were taking Class IV rapids — backward! On purpose! Our guide, Zeb Williams, knew exactly what he was doing. As he told me later, his goal is to turn kids into whitewater fans, so he’s not going to take risks with them — he just wants families to have a great time so they’ll hit the water again.

Make sure you bring a change of clothes for everyone. Small lockers are available for $2 per use. They’re big enough to hold a change of clothes for one or two people. (We kept our dry clothes in the car and put the car keys and sunglasses in the locker). Give the key to your river guide, and he’ll keep it in a zippered pocket for you. The lockers require a token, so it’s $2 each time you open the locker.

No flip-flops are allowed on the largest man-made recirculating river in the world, so make sure you bring old shoes or strap-on sandals, and another pair for when you’re on dry land. We wore old tennis shoes, but spent the next day drying them out in the clothes dryer.

Have little ones? No problem, there’s more to do at the Whitewater Center than there is time to do it, and in many cases the minimum age is 4. There’s Eco Trekking, mountain biking, hiking trails, ropes courses, zip lines, kayaking and more.

Eco-trekking is Geocaching with an informational twist. There are boxes hidden in the woods and around the rivers. You rent the GPS unit (included in the AllSport pass) and are given a check-off sheet for each location. When you find the box, you stamp your trek log sheet. Instead of collecting trinkets, you’re collecting knowledge of local ecology from informational cards in the box.

We did one rafting session, ate lunch and Eco Trekked for a while, and were exhausted after four hours. Rafting isn’t light, easy strokes through the water. If your abs, quads, shoulders and arms aren’t sore when you get out of the raft, you weren’t doing it right.

No outside food or beverages are allowed, but there are drinking fountains you can use to fill water bottles. There’s a restaurant and a walk-through cafeteria line with hot dogs and hamburgers. You can enjoy your meal on the grass by the water or at a table in the shade. Snacks are also available.

At the U.S. National Whitewater Center, you can buy AllSport passes that allow you to enjoy everything you can fit into the day. The pass is $29 for children ages 4-11 and $49 for anyone 12 and older. The AllSport pass is the only pass that includes rafting. The OneSport pass is good for one event: flatwater kayaking (guided trips are open to children as young as 4), guided climbing, Climb 2 Zip, Eco Trekking and mountain biking, and cost $25 per person. QuickSport passes are $15 per person and are good for either guided climbing or the Climb 2 Zip course. An adventure course, mega zipline and mega jump are all coming soon and will be available on any of these passes. There’s also a CoolSport Pass for when it’s too cold for rafting, but it includes all other activities. It’s $29 for adults and ages 4-10.

Parking is $5 for the day. With the parking pass, you can wander the 14 miles of trails through the Center’s 400 woodland acres. The website, www.usnwc.org, is indispensable as you plan your visit. Check the calendar of events to see what’s going on, as well as the scheduled hours for the various activities.

U.S. National Whitewater Center
5000 Whitewater Center Parkway
Charlotte, NC  28214

Main grounds and trails are open dawn to dusk. Sports and activity hours vary according to season. See website or call for current schedule.

Parking: $5
AllSport Pass: $49 for adults; $29 for ages 4-10
OneSport Pass: $25 (all ages)
CoolSport Pass: $29 for adults and ages 4-10
QuickSport Pass: $15 (all ages)

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