Photo: US National Whitewater Center

This Adventure Park Is the Perfect Place to Dip Your Toes Into Outdoor Sports

by Matthew Meltzer Nov 12, 2019

We get it, the great outdoors might not be for everyone.

Granted, nobody really dislikes green grass and fresh air, but sometimes getting out into nature can be a little…outdoorsy. You’ve gotta drive hours from home. Usually there’s no cell service. There might be bugs. You can’t find cold beer readily on draft, and you might have to cook your own food since you don’t really have an address for Postmates. So while the idea of outdoor sports sounds a little better than doing an old Jane Fonda video in your living room, its can also be decidedly outside your comfort zone.

But in North Carolina, there’s a place where you can dip your toes into outdoor adventure without giving up much time, money, or comfort. A place where you can scale massive trees and rush down raging waters, all with perfect cell service and hardly a mosquito. Where mountain biking, hiking, and stand-up paddleboarding all end on a spacious patio bar. It’s all the thrills of wilderness, without having to deal with any actual wilderness.

Welcome to the US National Whitewater Center, a family playground by the Catawba River about 20 minutes from downtown Charlotte. It’s a place to try your hand at rafting, climbing, mountain biking, trial running, or pretty much any other outdoor sport, without any previous experience or much personal risk. And most importantly, it’s a place for unbridled fun that won’t also feel like a shakedown.

The glory of outdoor adventure is all there for the taking

The name “Whitewater Center” is a bit misleading. Its original intent was to provide a training facility for US Olympic hopefuls in whitewater events. But its final design made it a city dweller’s outdoor paradise, and draws more annual visitors than over half the national parks.

“Take a look over here, I want to show you what everyone comes here for,” the center’s guest experience director Mike Kafsky says as he leads me out of the River Center — effectively the USNWC’S welcome center that looks a little like an REI with a ticket window. We walk through a breezeway and step onto a patio with a glorious panorama of the park.

The view hits you a little like the first time you step out of a tunnel into a big-league baseball park, a sea of perfect green and blue that inspires wide-eyed wonder. Laughs and screams crack out from rafters bumping down the river, a mix of white foam and blue water rushing at the bottom of a green hill.

Overhead, people speed down zip lines, waving to the rafters underneath. Mountain bike and running trails run alongside the river, branching out into deep green forest and the Catawba beyond. In the middle, a lively beer garden welcomes wet, dirty, and unabashedly happy people to bask in the sun and enjoy a cold draft beer.

For those who love outdoor sports, this might look like the clubhouse in heaven.

“You walk through this breezeway and you hear it all,” Kafsky says proudly. “It’s everything you could want, to the water to the towers to the people zipping by. It’s the whole package, that’s what makes it so impressive.”

A leisurely, waterborne roller coaster

The park covers 1,300 acres and has two loops of completely man-made whitewater rapids contained in a concrete river. They are controlled by a pump house in the center of the ponds, which releases water to make the rapids run faster or slower. The whole thing was designed by three-time Olympian Scott Shipley, and can be anything from an easy intro to whitewater to an Olympic training ground.

The Wilderness Loop takes you on a high-speed float through the trees, past the zip line towers on Hawk Island. Guides lead their rafts of eight passengers through the rapids, sometimes holding them in water holes to purposefully submerge part of the raft and sometimes dipping in to make sure those who haven’t gotten splashed yet get wet.

The second, more challenging loop is the Slalom channel, traversing Class III-IV rapids. None of it feels as hair-raising as you might experience somewhere like the New River in West Virginia but makes you smile nonetheless. The entire experience is contained in the park, so even if you are flipped out of the raft you won’t float far. It is, essentially, all the thrills of whitewater rafting without much of the real danger.

The river flows around Hawk Island, where towers over 120 feet high dot the skyline and zip lines shoot out into the forest. Here you can zip line through the treetops, grazing the top branches at speeds over 40 miles per hour. The view from the top is spectacular, and especially enjoyable as you wait for the drop down a 100-foot free fall jump.

The island also serves as the beginning and end point for a series of rope courses, where you’ll run across tightropes strung between pine trees and climb ladders suspended 75 feet above the ground. Everyone is harnessed and must complete a short safety course before going, so while it may seem terrifying the only danger is the embarrassment of dangling in the middle of the wilderness and having your entire family take pictures of you.

Making outdoor adventure accessible to anyone

After a smile-filled hour and a half trip through the center’s whitewater course, I relax with Kafsky over lunch at the River’s Edge restaurant on its sunny patio overlooking the rapids. He tells me that during the summer, you often can’t find space to put your blankets down for picnics.

The center doesn’t charge admission, only for the adventures, which means the grounds and the trails are open to anyone who can pay for a parking space. One local friend compared it to a tailgate, except you’re the one playing the sports.

“If you’ve got your own bike, you can just come here and ride the trails all day,” Kafsky says. “If you need a bike we can rent you one, but there’s 40 miles of trails so you can do it all in a day.”

Below the patio, a group of riders who’ve brought their own bikes speed past. A bit past, a climber plops into the deep water solo pool. He is the latest to fall from the arced wall that curves over a deep pool allowing climbers to see how far they can go without a harness before gravity wins the battle. And when the wall wins — every time, according to Kafsky — guests get a refreshing dip in the pool rather than a terrifying fall.

“The whole idea is to really ease the entry and connection to [outdoor sports],” Kafsky says. “So whether the equipment is the challenge — because some of that could be really expensive — we can provide it to you, and provide you with facility. We’ll make it easy…more accessible to more people. You won’t need a huge investment of time or dollars that can test it out.”

In a time when visiting a lot of attractions has become an exercise in paying exorbitant rates to wait in long lines and trips to nature have devolved into Instagram expeditions, the US National Whitewater Center is a throwback to something some of us forgot: fun. Pure, adrenaline-pumping, laughing, sun-soaked fun, like fifth grade recess with IPAs.

Though the center isn’t cheap, necessarily — an all-day pass runs $60 — you still leave feeling like you got your money’s worth. Half-day whitewater trips run more than that in most places, as do zip line and rope courses. Catch a lake in high season, and you’ll pay that for a full-day kayak rental.

But most importantly, it lets you try as many outdoor sports as you want in a day, without much risk of time, money, or personal safety. So no, the outdoors might not be for everyone, but just outside Charlotte, you can at least try it out and see.

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