River Tubing

River Tubing is one of our favorite adventurous family vacations. Depending on the river, you can tube on relatively flat, calm water, or more intense white water tubing (or river rapids tubing).

One of our favorite places for white water tubing is Deep Creek, North Carolina. Deep Creek is a small river in North Carolina full of low level rapids perfect for tubing in personal plastic or rubber tubes. Deep Creek also offers riverside camping, so you can wake up in the morning, go tubing down the river for a few hours, grab something to eat, then repeat, tubing and hiking back up to the top, all day until you're too worn out to think about running the river again. It's the most fun exercise you'll ever get and you won't feel the least bit guilty of gobbling up s'mores and/or the beverage of your choice around the campfire at night!

Deep Creek NC River Tubing

Deep Creek is near Bryson City, North Carolina, about three and a half hours north of Atlanta and/or an hour and fifteen minutes from Asheville, NC. The campgrounds are either in the forest or if you're lucky AND you only have tents, you may get a spot right along the river. All of the sites are shady but they vary greatly in size and shape. The campground itself is rustic, with no electricity at the sites and no showers (or even hot water) in the bathhouses! They don't take reservations either so we tend to go mid-week for a better shot at getting a campsite (and tubing with fewer people on the river!). There are other, private campgrounds nearby if you prefer the luxuries of power and hot water showers, but we enjoy the close walking distance to the river tubing run so we stick with the primitive Federal campground.

Here's my 14-year-old son's perspective on the campground:

The campgrounds are very nice at Deep Creek. You can camp in either tents or RVs. All of them have fire-pits and picnic tables. They are all within close walking distance of clean out-houses. The campground has many roads going through it that make it fun to get on a bike and explore. Sometimes after a long day of river tubing, I would get on my bike and try and go everywhere in the campsite. The forest and the surrounding mountains make the whole area very beautiful.

And I should also mention that Deep Creek is close enough to many Southeast cities to be a good day trip if you don't like to camp. The park itself has tons of great picnic spots and, on weekends, it's full of daytime picnic-goers who just spend their day eating and river tubing together!

So, what's river tubing like?

Well, the river tubing experience definitely depends on the river… AND the water level at the time you're there. Some years, the water level is higher than other years and it can make a big difference in your tubing ride. In fact, our first few years going to Deep Creek, we called it "Not-So-Deep-Creek". When the water is low, it is very easy to get stuck on rocks. When this happens, you have to struggle and sort of push your way out but you get very proficient at wiggling yourself off of rocks after going down the river a few times. The plus side to the low water level years is that the river is relatively calm and slower-moving, much better for toddlers and small children.

When the water is high, it's much more of a white water tubing experience. It's not quite as intense as whitewater rafting, but the river moves very fast and it's easier to flip or fall out of your tube. A few years that we've gone, we've had this perfect sort of "Goldilocks level". However no matter what the water level is, it's inevitable that you will get stuck a little bit throughout your river tubing experience.

River rapids tubing can sometimes be purely made of natural water slides. Deep Creek started out all natural but humans have definitely helped direct the flow of the river (and direct where your raft will ultimately go) by moving some of the rocks around to form a channel of sorts. In fact, for part of the river, it almost looks like a Disney ride because the rocks are stacked so neatly into a curvy channel giving you the perfect trip, bouncing and spinning down the little channel. Other parts of the river are much more natural and you need to learn which rapids are safe to go down and which are not. More importantly, you need to learn how to steer your rubber tube down the best rapids. This is easier if you stick to the safest parts of the river or the section where you'll see most people.

While everyone will be wearing a bathing suit riving tubing in the Summer, it's a great idea to wear shorts and rash guard shirts to prevent tube burn, especially if you'll be tubing for several days. In our group of friends, we've all gotten horrible, painful rashes on our inner arms from using our arms to "paddle" along the river and get unstuck, so most of us now wear protective clothing over our bathing suits. One friend calls it "that bag-lady-goes-tubing look". Some wear shorty wetsuits (The waer is cold anyway) and one friend cuts the feet out of tube socks and wears those on her arms with her bathing suit top. Some wear coolmax leggings with water shorts, long sleeve coolmax running shirt, and tevas. Strapped on sandals are important!! You do NOT want to go bearfoot down the river! Neoprene booties can work as well, but they’re not so good for hiking back to the start with a tube on your head. Don’t wear shoes that aren’t secure, like flip flops, or you’ll just lose them.

Choosing the Right Section of the River:

The river has many different sections that largely vary in how rough the rapids are. Some parts of the river are exciting white water rapids (maybe level 1-2?), while others are more like relaxing lazy rivers. All of them make for an adventurous day of river tubing. It can be very fun to go from exciting rapids, to just relaxing while tubing down the river, letting the water take you downstream, and enjoying the beautiful scenery.

Most of the very rough rapids are closer to the top. My teenagers really enjoy the top rapids and I've been known to tackle them from time to time, but if you have younger kids or don't enjoy the adventurous risk of bodily harm, I would suggest not putting your tube in at the top of the river. We nicknamed one of the larger falls "Concussion Rock" after my husband's tube flipped over and he got a sizeable gash on his head. It's better to be careful around the top of the river. Definitely watch other tubers take the run before you (or your loved ones) attempt it!

How do you know where the top is? At the very top edge of the campground (and also the top edge of the picnic area's parking lot), there's a bridge that's wide enough for vehicles although you'll rarely see one go across it. This is generally the top of the typical river run. If you put in at that bridge and ride all the way down to the next similarly-sized bridge, you'll enjoy a relaxing but exciting ride. This is definitely the run for families with young children and it's a good beginning river tubing run for everyone to start with. This segment usually takes about 10-15 minutes to tube all the way down (and much longer to hike back up!).

Then, if you'd like a little more adventure, hike up the river to the next bridge. This one's just a foot bridge (not large enough for a vehicle). If you put your tube in just above the bridge, the section from there down is a terrific run and not usually dangerous unless the water level is very high. From that put in spot, you'll see the "Concussion Rock" falls and you can watch people and see how many make it down successfully unscathed. If you want to try it out yourself, walk up just a short distance to the next still "pool" and put in there. You'll go down a series of more adventurous rapids before ending up back at the small bridge, where you can either get out and do this short segment all over again or continue down the Creek to the next 2 bridges.

After the "Concussion Rock" foot bridge area, you'll be on the right side of the river (where, before, you were on the left side). If you're looking for even more adventure, hike up the right side path a little farther and you'll get to another series of rapids. In this area, we generally see about every other person fall out of their tubes and end up with an injury. But those who make it down successfully just love it!

Update: My New Perspective of River Tubing (without a tube!)

During this year's camping and tubing trip, I fell out of my tube in the "Concussion Rock" area and got fairly scraped up. I can now tell you from personal experience that these rapids are a LOT more fun from a tube than on your knees or on your rear-end!! I was very proud of myself for managing to grab onto my tube and remembering my whitewater rafting lessons of getting yourself feet first, "toes to the sky" (to avoid getting your feet stuck on something at the bottom of the river which can cause drowning), proud of myself… until later when I realized that I would have preferred my knees to be more scraped up than my rear end ;-)

I eventually got myself nicely stuck on a big rock so that I had a little time to catch my breath, get my contacts back onto the front of my eyeballs, and get up the nerve to stand up and jump back into my tube. Unfortunately, getting off the river wasn't an option at that point with a steep bank, fast-moving water, and very slippery rocks.

A friend who also dumped at the top fall ended up stuck right behind me and says that I saved her life (by just being there to stop her ;-) We were sitting there on that big rock and both apologizing to each other (me for being in her way, not noticing that she was as grateful to be stuck as me, and her for ramming into me and almost pushing me off the rock!) I explained that I couldn't leave just yet because I was blind and then I asked her "Isn't there another fall right up ahead?" I'll never forget how I felt when she said "Yes, and it's "Concussion Rock"!"

I'm not sure why I was in such a hurry to get going... I guess it was the knowledge that the rock wasn't big enough for 3 people and the next one to get stuck with us would surely knock me off ;-) But I eventually stood up (with my contacts almost back into place so that I could see just a little), leaped into my tube (knowing I had only one shot!), and crossed my fingers that I would get down the next fall safely.

I made it down just fine and managed to tube the rest of the run safely and I even almost fully relaxed by the end. I tubed plenty more times the next 2 days, but most of us put in just below "Concussion Rock" in the pool just above the foot bridge.

River Tubing with Very Young Children:

When our kids were smaller, we attached their tubes to ours with a tether. This is a mixed blessing: Your child can feel more comfortable since you're always near. Often children will float down the river easier than adults, who are getting stuck on every other rock, so it's easy for kids to get away from their parents if they're not tethered together. However, tethering presents its own problems too. If you steer your own tube perfectly down the best, safest rapid, the other end of the tether sometimes swings around and goes down the perfectly-worst rapid! And it's MUCH easier to get stuck on rocks and tree limbs when your tubes are tethered. Still, it was the only way we were comfortable letting our young children go down the river. Very young children sometimes share a tube with an adult by sitting on their lap. Deep Creek and other white water tubing can be dangerous for young children but there are sections of the river that are safer than others. Walk along the side of the river (or ride it yourself) first to determine a good put-in spot for your family.

If you live near Atlanta and want an even easier, safer spot to try river tubing on first, check out our page on the "Edge of the World" in North Georgia. It's one of our favorite adventurous Atlanta day trips!

More on Tubing Deep Creek, NC

Deep Creek has no shuttle service from the bottom to the top of the river run, so it's a bit of a hike to get to the beginning of the rapids. Carrying a tube up the forest trail to the top can sometimes be exhausting. However, it pays off because the ride down the rapids provides a fun river tubing experience.

There are many river tube rental places around Deep Creek where you can rent tubes for as little as 5 dollars per tube per day. Most of them sell different types of tubes. One of them is the older black rubber tube style with a wooden (or thick hard plastic) seat and strings tied around it to hold the seat in. The other type is more of a standard modern plastic tube. The first year we went to Deep Creek, friends of ours told us to get a rubber tube. They said the black rubber tubes with the wood or hard plastic insert tied in the middle keeps rocks from scraping against you and they are much less likely to pop. However the rubber tubes are very heavy and they are a pain to carry all the way up the trail to the top. After a year or two of taking our friends' advice, one year we decided to try the plastic tubes, and we have not gone back since. The seat is elevated enough that that the scraping isn't actually a problem. They are MUCH lighter, and they are still strong enough to not pop. They also have plastic handles that are easier to hold onto and carry than the rope ties the rubber tubes have. I would definitely recommend the plastic tubes over the rubber tubes.

There's also other stuff to do near Deep Creek. We always take a day to go whitewater rafting down the Nantahala River. The trails to the waterfalls at Deep Creek are good hikes and you can mountain bike the fire roads and single track up there. If you want to drive and hike somewhere else, Clingman’s Dome is kind of cool. There’s bike path at the Nantahala River too that's nice but short. Fontana Lake has some put ins for flat water kayaking around Tsali. You can also do horse rentals around Tsali, but some of it has steep drop offs that can be terrifying!

And there's a new brew pub in Bryson City this year (2012) that has live music too.

River Tubing is one of our family's favorite adventure vacations and we hope you'll try it too... and make sure to come back here and tell us all about it!

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