Nestled deep in a gorge just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nantahala Outdoor Center has grown from a small roadside rafting center to a major attraction hosting 1 million visitors a year.
by Jennings Cool
Early bypassers saw the Tote ’n Tarry as a simple roadside motel and gas station saddling a stretch of the Nantahala River in Swain County, surely one of the prettiest spots in North Carolina. The late Horace Holden Sr. saw the location as an opportunity to create what has become an iconic tourism venue set amid a national forest and a short drive from the eastern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Holden grew up in Atlanta and became a lifelong canoeing enthusiast who started a popular summer camp along the Chattahoochee River near the Georgia capital city. With a vision to entertain visitors with safe, exhilarating outdoor adventure, he purchased the property in 1971 and asked his longtime friends John Payson and Aurelia Turpin Kennedy to help start an outdoor retreat that would enable visitors to paddle through the river’s rapids.
After spending one summer in Bryson City, the Kennedys were hooked on the area and made the decision to move from their home in Georgia. In 1972, they opened Nantahala Outdoor Center, which has since expanded to seven river outpost locations in four states and today hosts about 1 million visitors annually.
It’s a marked change from the early days, when employees would prepare meals for guests, run a guided trip on the river and clean a hotel room, all in the same day. Visitors could paddle the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers, shop around the convenience store or grab a bite at River’s End Restaurant along the banks of the Nantahala. Employees wore all the hats. One of them was the Kennedys’ daughter, Catherine, who started working at NOC at age 16.
Paddling whitewater rapids is a Kennedy family tradition — something they did nearly every weekend. “I love most activities that are outside and in the woods,” says Kennedy, who at 65 still works at NOC as a river guide.
Her love affair with water started at age 8 when she took her first canoe trip with her father’s Boy Scout troop. Both her parents were introduced to water at a young age. Her dad was a canoeing counselor as a teenager at a YMCA camp, and Aurelia was known as the first woman to run a canoe down Nantahala Falls. They both grew up in Atlanta and met at a church camp in their early teens.
NOC’s 500-acre main campus in Swain County has served as the playground for three generations of Kennedy bloodline, and Catherine has watched her family grow up on its soil. She lives in the middle of the Bryson City campus, which is traversed by the Appalachian Trail. “My commute to work is five minutes if I walk slowly,” Kennedy says.
Her love for paddling didn’t stop after her first canoe float years earlier with her father. Before moving to North Carolina, paddling was second nature. “I loved it. Whitewater was what I was most excited about in the world.” Her passion for the water continues today, as she takes groups down the Nantahala River to battle whitewater rapids. She also supervises NOC’s vehicle fleet of more than 60 buses, drives the buses at the main campus when needed and oversees river permitting for NOC.
NOC’s guests range from the one-trip visitor who comes and goes after a rafting exploration to people who lodge for a week and take advantage of the area’s many hiking and biking trails. Its main campus offers rafting, zip lining, mountain biking, dining at two restaurants, shopping, several lodging opportunities and more. The busy season is during June, July and August, but Kennedy says some of the most fun times are the shoulder seasons in the spring and the fall when there are fewer crowds.
The NOC has also served as a key training site for paddlers, including more than 20 Olympians. The most famous are gold medalists Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh, along with Evy Leibfarth, who at 17 became the youngest female to compete in the Olympics’ canoe single slalom competition at Tokyo in 2021. She grew up in Bryson City and trained at the NOC.
“Without Horace’s visionary attitudes the NOC would never have come into existence, and my life along with so many others would certainly look completely different,” Kennedy says. Though last summer marked the center’s 50th season in operation, the celebration continues this year with events, festivals and adventures all year long.
While Kennedy says she isn’t quite sure what her job title is today, she carries 50 years of background information on how NOC operates. She guided NOC’s first trip of its golden season last year, which was also her 65th birthday. “It was a special trip.”
To make its adventures more accessible, NOC expanded beyond its original campus, adding locations along the Nantahala, Chattahoochee, Ocoee, French Broad, Chattooga and Pigeon rivers. “We do rivers really well,” says Leigh Boike, executive vice president of NOC. Its river outpost locations are spread across the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, with outfitter stores in Gatlinburg, Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn and at the main campus in Bryson City. About 7 million guests have taken a whitewater rafting trip since NOC’s opening. “NOC is one of the largest outfitters probably in the United States, definitely in the Southeast,” Boike says. She has been visiting the Bryson City area since she was 8 years old and has worked for the outfitter since 1998.
NOC hires about 700 staff members each year, with roughly 150 full-time and the rest seasonal. The Bryson City campus, about 200 miles west of Charlotte, employs about 450 people in-season. The Queen City is one of NOC’s top markets.
Much has changed since the Kennedys started NOC. But even after 50 years of working in the business, Kennedy — who is one of about 30 owners, mostly current or former employees — still loves taking people out on North Carolina freshwater. She still paddles — for work and for play — several times a week, depending on the time of year. SP
Celebrating NOC’s 50th
Nantahala Outdoor Center will kick off the season on the Nantahala River on March 14 with its first rafting trips of the season. On April 23-24, the annual Spring Fling celebration will be marked by the Upper Cascades release — a controlled water release that ensures an adequate water level for boating. The family-friendly event will include live entertainment, gear and apparel sales, demos and more.
NOC has a long history with international trips, dating back to the late 1970s with a trip on the Usumacinta River in Guatemala and Mexico. The outfitter offered a variety of international trips through the 1990s. In September, NOC announced plans to relaunch similar adventure tours in honor of its 50th anniversary. While there are concerns with traveling internationally due to Covid-19, NOC is taking precautions and evaluating each day. This year, NOC plans to offer 12 all-inclusive adventure trips with various itineraries. Destinations include British Columbia, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Iceland and Zimbabwe.
photographs courtesy Nantahala Outdoor Center