Asheville, North Carolina

Population: 69,338

No shortage of whitewater here     Photo: Corbis

My Town: Asheville

"Asheville is the only city in the Southeast with a true mountain-town feel," says local expedition kayaker and filmmaker John Grace. "And predictable flows on Class V whitewater year-round? If you're serious about kayaking, that can give you the skills to paddle any river, anywhere."

Thank nature, God, or geological serendipity for the jackpot of whitewater riches in western North Carolina. Home to 6,000-foot Appalachian peaks, the region gets more than 47 inches of rain annually, and the runoff has to go somewhere. Hence the Class V runs on the Raven's Fork, the Linville, the Toxaway, and the West Prong of the Pigeon, plus hundreds more Class II–IV stretches on the Nantahala, Nolichucky, Tuckaseegee, and Ocoee rivers, all within an hour or so of Asheville. Duke Energy also gets credit for a major assist: The power company's near-daily dam releases on the Green River serve up legitimate Class V whitewater 12 months a year, on a 3.5-mile section known as the Narrows. The Green's waterfalls, slides, eddies, and boulder gardens, 22 miles south of town, are where elite steepcreekers like Pat Keller and Tommy Hilleke cut their teeth. If no one answers the phone at local businesses like Astral Buoyancy (PFDs) and Liquidlogic (kayaks), they're probably out there, too. Après-paddle, head forthe slacker-hip downtown, where art deco facades house indie cafés, an eclectic music scene, and a core of craftsfolk that rivals any in the nation.

REALITY CHECK:
Asheville's low unemployment rate (3.5 percent) masks a disconnect between low-paying tourism and service jobs and a steeper-than-average (by Southeast standards) cost of living.

NEXT BEST:
Hood River, Oregon. Cascades snowmelt means Class V thrills on the Little White Salmon, beginners' training runs on the Klickitat, and something for everyone on the White Salmon and the Hood. When the flow trickles off, there's boardsailing on the Columbia River, skiing and climbing on Mount Hood, and lots of road and trail cycling.

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