Whitewater kayaker
Whitewater kayaker in South Bend, Indiana

What is the best whitewater kayaking school?

Whitewater kayaker
Greg Melville

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There are roughly 10 top-flight whitewater kayak schools across the country, and to name one would be pretty subjective. A person in Colorado who lives close to the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center would probably answer quite differently from a Vermonter who paddles at nearby Adventure Quest. So let me set all biases aside and say that the hands-down best whitewater kayak school in the country is the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina.

Founded in 1972 by three river rats in a deep, narrow gorge on the Nantahala River, NOC was one of the first schools of its kind and is now a model for whitewater centers around the world. Literally millions of people have come to this small outpost near the foot of the Smoky Mountains to whitewater raft on one of the area’s seven rivers, take paddling lessons, train for the Olympics, rent mountain bikes to pedal around the nearby Tsali Recreation Area, or resupply at its well-stocked shop.

I first visited the NOC when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The AT runs right through the property, and during the spring and summer, backpackers crossing the footbridge over the Nantahala’s class III rapids are as common a sight as folks wearing personal floatation devices. NOC also runs a survival school, a raft guide course, and a wilderness medicine clinic, and organizes international whitewater trips.

Honorable Mentions:

Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center
Founded a decade after NOC on the Arkansas River, the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Salida, Colorado, provides instruction on rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, rafting and raft guiding, and offers mountain biking and multi-sport adventure trips.

Zoar Outdoor Paddling School
Western Massachusetts isn’t generally considered a whitewater paradise, but the Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River is packed with enough Class III and IV rapids to douse the thirst of even the most skilled paddlers. That’s why two members of the US Whitewater Team and a friend founded Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Massachusetts, in 1989. Now adventure junkies from around the world come to get kayak instruction, take rafting trips, enroll in rock climbing clinics, and learn swiftwater rescue.

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