Visit Whitewater Center (Charlotte): Review and Guide

The US National Whitewater Center offers a little something for everyone. For those that love spending time outdoors, it is hard to imagine a better location in the shadows of a Top 20 US city. The Whitewater Center is a mere 20 minutes from Uptown Charlotte. We love that the Whitewater Center thrives as an outdoor mecca in the middle of a bustling urban metro. 

Visiting US National Whitewater Center

The Whitewater Center opened in 2001 after originating as a sketch on the back of a napkin. It was a crazy idea to build the world’s largest and most complex recirculating artificial whitewater river so close to an urban core. Yet, multiple Fortune 500 headquarters are a few miles away, which makes the Whitewater Center in Charlotte special.

These days, the center is much more than just artificial rapids, as it features more than 30 recreational activities, 1,300 acres of protected land, and 50 miles of trails. The Whitewater Center is great for family fun and athletic enthusiasts alike.  

You might even find it an excellent place for a date, particularly if you want to get to know someone better in a relaxed environment. Here is a fun fact for you: An episode of failed dating show called Holidate was filmed at the Whitewater Center back in 2009.

Kayak in River
Kayak in River

Where Is US National Whitewater Center?

The US National Whitewater Center is a mere 14 miles from Uptown Charlotte (which is how the locals refer to the area most cities call “downtown”). It is nestled right off I-485, which makes the outdoor center easily accessible from any point in the city.

The Whitewater Center is less than 8 miles from Charlotte Douglas Airport (CLT), notable for two reasons. First of all, planes frequently fly across the top of the center. This is excellent if you have kids and adds to the fun vibe of the perfect outdoor mecca in the center of a thriving metropolis. 

The second reason this is notable is a little more subjective, but the center is only 15 from CLT Airport Overlook. So you can make an entire adventure of hanging out at the Whitewater Center before watching planes take off and land at one of the busiest airports in the country.  The combination is great for a chilled-out day with kids or a day date.

Whitewater Center Entrance in Charlotte, NC

Whitewater Center Entrance

Do You Need A Pass To Go to The Whitewater Center?

You don’t need a pass to use the trails or hang out watching rafters, but you will need an activity pass to complete any land or water activities off the trails. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to the Whitewater Center without purchasing an activity pass.

I’ve trained for races by running on their network of 50 miles of trails, and I have taken our kids to the center on countless Saturdays to give Erin some time to get chores done or spend time to herself. 

It is also popular to grab a beer and just chill with friends. You can’t bring your own food and beverages into the park, but you can have loads of fun at USNWC without buying an activity pass.

Of course, if you are going to Whitewater Center to participate in the incredible outdoor adventures, there are several options for purchasing your activity pass. You can purchase an All-Access Day Pass or Annual Pass if you want free reign to do a little bit of everything all the time. 

If you aren’t ready to spend the entire day at USNWC and instead just have one activity in mind, you can purchase single activity passes, which vary in price based on the activity. 

Do You Have To Pay for Parking?

While hanging out at USNWC or running on the trails is free, you must pay for parking. Still, the annual pass is affordable if you plan on going out to the park often, and the day pass is only $6 per vehicle.

Our family purchases parking passes each year but not annual activity passes.  Keep in mind our kids are small, so when we go out to the Whitewater Center, we generally will get fresh air, but our kids are quite old enough to get on a whitewater raft or ride mountain bikes.

Still, suffice it to say, we find the annual parking pass to be worth the investment.

Activities at Whitewater Center, Charlotte, NC
Activities at Whitewater Center

Are Dogs Allowed at Whitewater Center?

Dogs are allowed on the premises, but the Whitewater Center asks you to keep your furry friend on a leash. Still, it is incredible how many golden retrievers you might see at the center on any given Saturday, and they fit right in.

Our kids love dogs, which was especially true when they were toddlers, so the fact that there are so many beautiful dogs out there makes the experience even better. 

US National Whitewater Center Water Activities

We haven’t even mentioned that the US National Whitewater Center is an Olympic training site for canoes and kayaks. The Charlotte Whitewater Center hosts Olympic Trials.  That is all you need to know if you are questioning whether these artificial rapids are any fun.

If flat water is more your speed, options are also available. If you plan to participate in any whitewater activities, wear secured shoes.  Any old pair of sneakers will do, or a pair of sandals with a back strap like Chacos, but don’t expect to get on the raft with a couple of flip-flops.

If you plan to get an annual pass and want something a little more official, many of the guides wear Astral water shoes, and we recommend that you check those out.

Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater Guide Steers Raft
Whitewater Guide Steers Raft

To understand how excellent whitewater rafting is at USWNC, you must appreciate the engineering feat that created this manufactured river. 12 MILLION gallons of water fill the river, which is cleaned every 24 hours using filtration and ultraviolet light.

The river comprises four sections, each with its purpose, perfect for an urban whitewater destination. The Instruction, Freestyle, Wilderness, and Competition channels feature class II to class IV rapids.

How cool is it to go down an Olympic-standard slalom competition channel? It’s pretty cool, in our opinion. Going down in a raft is different from going down in a kayak while navigating the gates hanging from above. Still, rafting where Olympians train is fun.

Whitewater Options 

For families with younger children, you may consider the Family Rafting option, which features class II and class III rapids but skips the class IV rapids. Children 8 years old and above can participate in the Family Rafting.

The Adventure Rafting kicks the difficulty up a notch, including class III and class IV rapids, some designated as Black Diamond.  While Family Rafting takes place on the Wilderness Channel, Adventure Rafting utilizes both the Wilderness Channel and the Competition Channel. Adventure Rafting is open to children 11 years old and above. 

The most challenging rafting option is the Big Water Session Rafting, which doubles the flow of water moving through the channels and increases the difficulty of the experience. Big Water Sessions are only available to those 16+ and only during certain times of the year, so if you are interested in trying a Big Water Session, plan ahead.

What Else Do You Need To Know?

Raft trips require a reservation. After all, there are a limited number of rafts, a limited number of tour guides, and limited space on the river. But reservations are handled differently than they might be for a hotel or dinner. You can only reserve a spot when you are on site.

The purpose of these reservations is to organize the space available, and they are made available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Once on-site, you pay $5 per person for a reservation (in conjunction with the Day Pass or Annual Pass.

When you arrive, you will check in at the River Center, where you must participate in a safety and technique training session before hitting the channels. 

Multiple Channels for Rafting at U.S. National Whitewater Center (Charlotte)
Multiple Channels for Rafting

Whitewater Kayaking + SUP

Whitewater kayaking and SUP offer you the opportunity to master the rapids independently. And let me just say that while I haven’t personally attempted whitewater SUP, it is fascinating to watch when I am at the Center hanging out with my kids.

Newbies tend to struggle with the whitewater SUP, so they spend more time in the water than standing up. Still, it is impressive to watch, and once you have mastered standing up as you go through rapids, it is truly a sight to behold. 

Regardless, both whitewater kayaking and SUP are available. Much of the information noted above concerning whitewater rafting also applies to whitewater kayaking and SUP, but there is one significant difference.

You must meet prerequisites before you can venture on your own through the channels. You have to be an experienced kayaker, so don’t plan to roll in with no experience to conquer Olympic-level rapids in a kayak.

If you don’t have experience, the Center does offer instructional sessions as both private lessons or group instruction, but the activity pass does not include, so check ahead. You also need to own equipment before they let you take on the rapids. 

Still, if you are an adventurer, this is a tremendous opportunity.

Flatwater Kayaking + SUP

If whitewater rapids aren’t exactly your speed, you may prefer flatwater kayaking and SUP, both of which are also available. While there are many exciting aspects of the Whitewater Center, I always appreciate that you have an artificial river next to a natural river.

The flatwater kayaking and SUP are accessible on the Catawba River and Long Creek, where the Center is appropriately nestled. The Catawba River is very calm, which contrasts with the nearby artificial rapids and provides a nice change of pace for those looking for a more relaxing experience.

Flatwater kayaking is available as a solo or tandem event. Children as young as four years old are allowed to participate in tandem kayaking. It’s a water activity that the youngest children can join in alongside the rest of their families.  Solo flatwater kayaking and SUP are available to anyone over 8. 

Once you have registered for your day pass or annual pass, head to the Flatwater Trip Talk Center near the Catawba to get started. Maps and other wayfinding signs will help you find your way.

US National Whitewater Center Land Activities

Whitewater Center Trail Marker
Whitewater Center Trail Marker

Since whitewater is in the name of the Center, you might assume there isn’t much to do outside of rafting, kayaking, and SUP. If you thought that, you would be mistaken. 

There is more to do on dry land than there are activities on the water. You could spend several days at the Whitewater Center and never do the same activity twice. 

Mountain Biking + Trail Running

The Whitewater Center now maintains more than 50 miles of trails along rivers, creeks, and lakes.  One of the things that I love most about the Whitewater Center is that there are trails for every adventure level. 

The other great thing about the trail system is that it is free to use (once you pay for parking). It doesn’t require a pass unless you rent a bike from USNWC.  For outdoor enthusiasts, the trails offer loads of free fun.

All trails are shared-use trails, so runners should watch out for mountain bikers and vice-versa. There is plenty of room to step aside on many of the trails if you are slower or to go around others if you are moving faster, but there are a few trails where this gets a little tricky.

Still, with 50 miles of trails, they are never too busy aside from the Parkway trail, which is the most visible and prominent trail and serves as the only all-weather trail at the Center. To preserve the trails and keep visitors safe, they will close the trails if they get too wet, so be sure to check online to ensure they are open before you head over. 

Over the years, I’ve run several 9-miler races and once participated in the 24-hour relay race called ‘Time Laps.’ These trails offer tons of challenges!  These are your typical dirt path. These trails are challenging and beautiful and will test you to your core if you venture onto the more technical trails. 

Check-in at the Trail Center before you get started. Those looking to get a mountain bike will also head over before heading out on their adventure. 


Trails for hiking or biking
Trails for Hiking or Biking

While most people use the trails for mountain biking or trail running, plenty of people use the trails for some good old-fashioned hiking. A trail like the Lake Loop is primarily flat and scenic, while some other routes are much more technical.

The North Main trail is popular because the entrance is just off the whitewater channels but has a varied topography.  It is a beautiful trail but of an intermediate difficulty that be challenging to someone that hasn’t spent much time on the trails.

You wouldn’t think that the trails next to this well-manicured center would get so technical, but they can be rewarding and challenging if you aren’t careful. Several of the trails are the Black Diamond level difficulty.  Try the Carpet trail or Goat Hill on for size if you doubt me.

Make sure you plan your route and don’t bite off more than you can chew. I’ve seen many hikers take their dogs with them (which is incredible!), but be careful to watch out for the mountain bikers, usually flying through their route.

If you want to do some hiking close to Charlotte but don’t want to go to Crowder’s Mountain, which gets a little overly busy sometimes, planning a hike at USNWC is great. 

Rock Climbing + Bouldering

Outdoor Rock Climbing Wall
Outdoor Rock Climbing Wall

When we said that USNWC offers a lot more than water sports, we weren’t exaggerating. Here you will also find one of the largest outdoor climbing complexes on the East Coast. The facility offers more than 35 top rope route configurations, approaching 50 bouldering problems, and a 46-foot tall wall for climbing.

We also appreciate that the Center has a little setup for young kids to mimic the older climbers. You will often find kids crawling all over the small boulders with holds. On way hand, it is amusing to watch kids using grips on rocks that are only a few feet tall. On the other hand, it is inspiring to watch them model after the grown-ups climbing above.

You don’t have to wear rock climbing shoes to participate, but if you want to rent a pair, they are available for less than $10. Check in at the Climbing Center, and they will get you taken care of and ready to go. 

Deep Solo Climbing

Deep Solo Rock Climbing Wall
Deep Solo Rock Climbing Wall

While the rapids were the original innovation, the Deep Solo Climbing Complex is the first of its kind in the entire world. Deep Solo Climbing places walls above pools, so climbers don’t have to use a rope system. If the climbers fall, they simply fall into a pool. 

The Deep Water Solo Complex has five walls, the tallest of which reaches 45 feet above the pool below. You must be at least eight years old to participate in Deep Solo Climbing, and naturally, you must know how to swim. 

Secure, closed-toed shoes are required, but as noted above, climbing shoes are available as rental shoes. 

The Deep Solo Climbing Complex is impressive and takes the Center’s reputation for innovating outdoor recreation to the next level. 


When you visit the Whitewater Center for the first time, you might be taken aback by the size and scale of the manufactured river.  Take a moment to appreciate the powerful sound of whitewater rapids.

After that, one of the following things you will notice is the whizzing sound of people gliding through the air on one of several ziplines which carry across the bottom basin of the river. Not only is ziplining a blast, but if you have small kids, I can tell you firsthand that you can get hours of entertainment from them watching people glide through the air on a zipline.

Naturally, experiencing the zipline for yourself is even better than watching. 

There are five different zipline activities from which you can choose. The most prominent zip lines are Figure 8 and the Double Down. The journey starts on a tall tower, which sits behind the Deep Solo Competition Complex. 

From there, the zip line travels across the river basin to a second platform, where you transition to the journey’s second half. Once you’ve crossed Figure 8, you will travel on the Double Down back across the basin to a third platform. It is an imposing experience every adventurer will love.

Figure 8 and Double Down require a $10 reservation and an activity pass. Like whitewater rafting, ziplining is a popular experience, so the reservations help control the crowd.  Reservations can only be made on-site. 

The Pine Zip, Canyon Zip, and Canyon Crossing are much smaller zip lines.  They are still loads of fun, but they don’t require reservations.  Additionally, while Figure 8 and Double Down require participants to weigh at least 75 lbs, kids weighing as little as 45 lbs can participate.

Hawksnest Snow Tubing and Zipline might be the only better ziplining experience in the Carolinas.

Ropes + Jumps

Obstacle Course at Whitewater Center
Obstacle Course at Whitewater Center

One of the many things you will love about the Whitewater Center is that they don’t do anything small. They would never build just one ropes course. Instead, those participating in the ropes courses can choose from a series of options:

  • Adventure Course – Beginner to Intermediate 
  • Canyon Spur – Intermediate to Advanced
  • Ridge Traverse – Beginner to Intermediate 
  • Ridge Course – Beginner 
  • Ridge Low Ropes Challenge – Beginner to Intermediate
  • River Course – Intermediate to Advanced
  • Triple Track – Beginner to Advanced
  • Obstacle Challenge – Beginner to Intermediate

The Canyon Spur ropes course is the most physically challenging, as it has tightrope and pull-up elements. To alleviate any trepidation you might have, USNWC will provide any technical equipment necessary to keep you safe. 

In addition to the ropes courses, you will also see three different platforms with belay jump systems. These belay systems allow you to experience free-fall before the belay slows you down as you approach the ground.

There is a 30-ft platform jump, a 60-ft, and a 100-ft platform jump.  The 60 and 100-ft jumps are on Hawk Island, at the same tall platform utilized for ziplining. The platform impressively rises above the surroundings and offers incredible views for miles. 


While these outdoor adventures are impressive, sometimes you need a slower pace to reconnect and center your life. Yoga sessions are available nearly year-round, and several special events feature yoga.  This is the one event that requires you to call ahead to make a reservation, so plan accordingly.

Daily Yoga is available on the south ridge, but when you are ready to take your yoga game to the next level, you can check out SUP yoga. I’m impressed! I am not quite that flexible or balanced, but if you can pull off yoga on a stand-up paddleboard, more power to you.  

Pumps in Man-made River
Pumps in Man-made River

Winter Activities at Whitewater Center

As you might imagine, the Whitewater Center is bustling during the warmer months. In years past, I would head to the trails for running and barely see a soul. That has all changed in recent years. For a while, USNWC had a fantastic light display on the trails, but in recent years they skipped the lights and doubled down on the ice skating.

Ice Skating

Like so many other things, seeing the ice skating rink set up is quite a sight. This isn’t just your typical ice skating rink.  Instead, it features four distinct skating areas, ice skating trails (which are just incredible), and more than 24,000 square feet of ice skating surface. 

The upper pond hosts ice skating during the winter when the staff drains the artificial river. The rink sits atop a custom-built platform. In the ice skating center’s middle sits an Airstream serving both hot and cold beverages.  It’s the perfect place to stop when you need a break.

String lights surround the ice skating, and the entire ambiance is surreal at night. The beautiful string lights reflect off the glistening ice, and whether you plan on heading over with the family or even on a date night, you won’t be disappointed. 

Skate rentals are available on-site. We especially love ice skating because it brings vibrancy to the Whitewater Center during the previously lacking winter months. This wasn’t always the case, but with the introduction of ice skating, there is hardly a day that goes by when USNWC isn’t full of life and adventures.

Other Events at Whitewater Center

Amphitheater at Whitewater Center
Amphitheater at Whitewater Center

As I am sure you can tell by now, there is plenty to due at the Whitewater Center year-round. Once you visit, you will quickly realize that it is just a fun and relaxing place to be, even if you are just hanging out and have no intention of participating in the various activities.

And that didn’t happen by accident.  The Whitewater Center has endless places to throw a blanket down on the ground, a restaurant, and a beer garden.  They designed the facilities to encourage fun outdoors, and they succeeded.

In addition to the many athletic activities, there are many festivals throughout the year, such as Tuck Fest, an ongoing concert series called River Jam, and a race series.

Tuck Fest

Tuck Fest is a multi-day festival that fully celebrates the outdoor lifestyle. In true Whitewater Center fashion, Tuck Fest features a series of competitions designed to showcase outdoor athletes’ best. 

Competitions include a 5k and a half-marathon, a rafting race, and a deep-water solo competition. While some contests are very serious, others are meant more for fun, such as a youth obstacle course and a night obstacle race.

Tuck Fest has always been popular.  Back when the festival started in 2013, more than 14,000 people attended.  In more recent years, nearly 50,000 people have come out to celebrate the outdoor lifestyle. 

Beyond the competitions, Tuck Fest also features demonstrations, exhibitions, and live music to keep you going strong. 

Airstream On Island in Whitewater River
Airstream Behind Biergarten

River Jam Series

The concert series takes place at an amphitheater on an island in the middle of the largest manufactured whitewater river in the world. That’s pretty cool.

A Concert series that fills three nights per week, all summer long, at an outdoor mecca in the middle of a whitewater river is pretty unique. The recurring concert series takes place three nights weekly (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) from May through September.  Concerts are also featured at other events in the off-season. 

The collection of music is pretty eclectic. You might hear Americana, bluegrass, folk, funk, or Americana on any given night. Whether you are there to listen to a specific band or enjoy a good time, the Whitewater Center is surprisingly great for listening to live music.

The band schedule is always available on the [USNWC website]( if you want to know what music you can expect on any given evening. 

Race Series

The Whitewater Race Series features more than 30 events most years. Many trail races feature multiple race lengths, which opens the competition to a wider array of participants.  Most race events feature standard distances such as 5k, but nearly any time there is a 5K, there will also be a longer race event. 

With more than 50 miles of trails, USNWC also features much longer races, such as trail marathons and ultra trail marathons (as long as 50 miles). Those races are beyond my capabilities, but I am constantly impressed by the athletes running under such extreme circumstances.

If you’ve never run on trails before, you should know that it isn’t directly comparable to road running.

The trails are rocky and rooty and ascend and descend repeatedly. Even when I have trained at the Whitewater Center, race day on the trails almost always takes my breath away. 

Triathlons, MTB Races and Build Your Own Boat

Beyond the ever-popular trail running events, the Whitewater Center offers additional events as part of the race series, including triathlons, MTB races, and the ever-popular Build Your Own Boat competition. 

For triathletes, the Whitewater Center features multiple race events throughout the year. The traditional triathlon event is called the Whitewater Triathlon, but The Center offers non-traditional events too. The Dry Tri substitutes SUP for swimming, enabling the talented participant to stay dry while participating.

Mountain Bikers will enjoy the infamous event known as The Whole Enchilada. This unique event gets its unusual name because the race covers every mile of trails at USNWC. Challenging? Yes. Unforgettable? Absolutely.

For a very serious yet fun competition, you have to see the Build Your Own Boat event. It is capped at 40 participants, so you may or may not be able to participate yourself, but either way, it is worth watching as homemade watercraft traverse the rapids.

The last disclosure we will make about these special events is that they are heavily attended. While this is awesome and a testament to how awesome USNWC truly is, there is only one road in and out.  Since parking is paid for, and you have to go through a gate, traffic can back up along the main entrance.

If you are excited about the event, this isn’t a huge deal, but if crowds and traffic overwhelm you, we don’t want you to be caught off guard.

Many of the events are must-attend if you live in the Charlotte area, and if you enjoy spending time outdoors, visiting the Whitewater Center is worth a special trip. Plus, since it is in Charlotte, NC, there are plenty of other things in the city to do for fun.

More Charlotte Whitewater Center Questions Answered

The Whitewater Center is a ton of fun to visit. It can also be overwhelming if you’ve never been before. We’ve tried to answer as many of your questions as possible so that you feel prepared before visiting.

How Long Is White Water Rafting At Whitewater Center?

Rafting at the Whitewater Center takes about 1 1/2 hours to complete. You need to listen to basic training instructions before you get going. Once on-site, you can reserve multiple rafting slots. So, if you want to make a full day of rafting, you can do so.

Of course, there is plenty to do at the Whitewater Center. If you visit with a group of friends, you can conquer and divide without worrying about others waiting.

Can You Swim At Whitewater Center?

The Whitewater Center hosts Open Water Swim on Thursday nights during the warm summer. There is no lifeguard on duty, and swimming on the Catawba River isn’t intended for recreational purposes. Still, the swimming session is for training and conditioning.

Swimming isn’t available in the artificial whitewater river. While rafting activities are ongoing, safety personnel stand ready to help anyone that falls out of a raft.

Who Owns The Whitewater Center In Charlotte?

The Whitewater Center in Charlotte is registered as a non-profit in North Carolina. Despite early financial support, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County do not own the Whitewater Center. Some trails may extend to local government property, but the non-profit operates independently.

The non-profit’s mission is to encourage an active lifestyle, to be good environmental stewards, and to encourage family and community interaction.

How Big Is The US National Whitewater Center?

The Whitewater Center covers over 1,300 acres and features more than 50 miles of trails. The Catawba River and Long Creek run along the property and join the artificial river. The Whitewater Center works to protect local lands and promote an active lifestyle.

The Whitewater Center is one of the most popular attractions in the Charlotte region. It contrasts nicely with the hustle and bustle of the fast-growing urban core.

Upper Pond at Whitewater Center in Charlotte

Upper Pond at Whitewater Center

Is The Whitewater Center Worth It?

The Whitewater Center is worth your time and money. Whitewater rafting is the centerpiece, but mountain biking, rock climbing, and many other events provide surprising variety. The overall experience can be heart-pumping. Still, there are many opportunities to simply relax and enjoy the Carolina skies.

Plus, there is no better place to relax and enjoy the sunshine and Carolina-blue skies. Whether you are already in Charlotte and looking for a new experience or considering traveling to the Charlotte area for the first time, the Whitewater Center is a must-visit experience. 


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Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.