By Torie Robinette
It’s Saturday morning, and you’re inspired to make the most of a much-needed weekend. If you leave now, you could be clutching a raft and careening down Class IV rapids in less than an hour.
Just a quick shot down Interstate 77 from Uptown Charlotte lies a one-of-a-kind world of whitewater, flatwater and natural terrain that begs to be explored.
Nestled on 1,100 woodland acres that run along the glistening banks of the Catawba River, the U.S. National Whitewater Center boasts the world’s largest man-made recirculating waterway. It’s also an official U.S. Olympic training site. But you don’t have to be en route to Rio this August to get your thrills here. What’s on the menu? Everything from sailing down foamy torrents to scaling boulders, all while drinking in breathtaking scenery and taking your strength to new heights.
Follow our thrill guide and prepare to add this weekend to the books.
Face the famous rapids.
Test the waters on the famed man-made whitewater channel, which winds through the core of the USNWC campus. Choose from any of the five types of whitewater play, including adventure or family rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding or upgraded rodeo rafting. Each level is categorized by the demands of its rapids—or its class. The classes, numbered I-IV, become increasingly more difficult, with IV being the most challenging. Each whitewater experience has a minimum age requirements.
Whitewater kayak and canoe slalom opportunities are also available. The USNWC, which offers state-of-the-art Olympic training facilities, was the host site of the U.S. Olympic Canoe/Kayak Slalom Trials in April.
Drift down the Catawba.
The day demands a healthy dose of meditation. Starting at 10 a.m., you can take on flatwater stand-up paddleboarding and tandem or solo kayaking on the edge of the Catawba River at the Flatwater Dock. Activities require no experience, but guests 13 or younger must have adult supervision. If you’re lucky enough to beat the crowd, only the hum of the tide and your paddling will play the soundtrack to your thoughts.
Tackle more than 25 miles of trails.
Visit the Trail Center to pick up a map or rent a mountain bike from the adjacent full-line shop. Embark on a hike or a single-track biking challenge scaling the more than 25 miles of woodland paths that border the Catawba River. With plenty of hills and slopes along the way, the trails vary in difficulty level, but you can access them according to your experience. Leashed dogs are welcome to join you.
Keep your ears perked for numerous trail runs and adventure races put on by the USNWC on select weekends throughout the year. This month features the Brew Dash 6K on Saturday, June 18. The run will be followed by the fourth annual Brew Stash Bash, which includes live music and samplings of top local and national craft beers. Registration for the race is open until June 15 at usnwc.org.
Reach for the peaks.
For a bird’s-eye view of the USNWC’s whitewater rapids, put your mental and physical agility to the test on a roped rock climb. Conquer either the 30-foot climbing wall, which is one of the largest outdoor climbing walls in the South, or the 46-foot Spire, whose boulders are sculpted to feel like real granite. Guests 4 or older can enjoy belaying, rappelling or climbing.
This summer, the USNWC will debut the world’s first man-made deep water solo climbing facility. With walls to scale reaching levels of 25, 35 and 45 feet, climbers can descend into a refreshing 16-foot pool at the base of the mounts.
Toe the line.
Get in your aerobic exercise on the Adventure Ridge ropes course, where you can traverse ropes and plank bridges 20 feet above the USNCW. Skilled? Try one of the eight more advanced courses, each dictated by weight requirements.
Or make your way through the woodlands along the Catawba River and portions of the Historic Tuckaseegee Ford and Trail on a canopy tour. Cross through the towering trees—at more than 60 feet above ground—traveling from platform to platform, zip line circuits, cargo net climbs and more. Reservations are required for canopy tours.
Sail through the sky.
Feel the wind in your hair with a trip or two down one of the on-site zip lines. On the Mega Zip, descend from the peak of the 46-foot Mega Tower and whiz 1,123 feet across the sloshing whitewater below. On the out-and-back Canyon Zip, speed through the South Ridge Canyon on a weaving circuit of two 200-foot zip lines. Check the guest weight requirements for each line.
This summer, the 100-foot Hawk Tower will be added to the campus Hawk Island. Hawk Tower will house two new zip lines at starting points of 60 and 100 feet. One, spanning 1,650 feet, will be the USNWC’s longest, and the other will cross 1,400 feet. The two lines will converge through a seven-segment tree-top ridge course.
Pick up athletic and souvenir apparel, thrill-seeking gear and equipment at the recently added 5,000-square-foot Outfitters shop. The retail floor features more than 40 outdoor brands, like Patagonia, Salomon, Astral and Black Diamond. The shop also offers six taps of refreshing beverages—three for cold beer, one for cool java, one for cider and one for wine.
Grab a cold one.
Enjoy a pit stop at the Pump House Biergarten, where you’ll find solace from the sun at canopied picnic tables. For a chilly craft brew with a kick of spice, try the Jalapeño Pale Ale, crafted locally at Birdsong Brewing Co. Not your style? There are 60 craft specials on tap. Sit, sip and relish the killer view of rapids and paddlers careening by, just feet in front of you, on the Competition Channel. You can also savor a frosty pour at River’s Edge Bar & Grill.
Feel the beat.
As the sun sets, live music will beckon you. Spread your blanket on the lawn facing the USNWC’s very own mini amphitheater. Courtesy of the River Jam concert series, which kicks off every Thursday and Saturday night (May to September) at 7 p.m., nationally esteemed bands, like Matrimony—which got its start here in Charlotte—will treat you to stellar summer setlists. Kick off your shoes and groove until the lights go down at 10 p.m.
This article ran in the June 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.