The highway to USA Raft Adventure Resort weaves through compact, comforting mountains. The forested Blue Ridges here do not tower or overwhelm. Under wide skies, they silently embrace you in a proud part of Appalachia.
I visited the Erwin, Tennessee, resort in the burgeoning weeks of early fall, and the tree-coated peaks were full with the color to come. Some patches had burst into yellow and orange, but most were still making their final foliage preparations, and you could feel the anticipation in each local’s upward glances from their car windows.
Allie Bynum beamed about it all on our way in. A local herself, Bynum started as a raft guide with the resort in 2015; today, she’s its director of communications and group sales. She beamed about Erwin, the town near Tennessee’s Tri-Cities that has started drawing in visitors from Asheville — yes, the Asheville, North Carolina, that attracts millions of tourists annually itself — for its mix of quietude and adventure. She especially beamed about USA Raft, which began as a raft guide service in 1972 but has surged into a rustic resort, campground, and adventure service in the last few years.
We drove through their new Red Banks Outpost campground and greeted the people who built it — and continue to expand it through the sweat of their brows. We got back on the road and drove just upriver to the resort, a smiling string of riverside accommodations under ample tree cover, and talked with team members proud of what the resort has become.
Outdoor enthusiasts can’t get enough of USA Raft Adventure Resort. As the name suggests, it offers outdoor enthusiasts rafting and paddling adventures on the rushing Nolichucky River — but it also offers lovely lodging, love-infused local cuisine, and a downright cool bar right along the river. It provides visitors with explorations through a nearly unblemished cave, quick access to hiking trails, and perhaps most of all, a cozy refuge in a proud community.
Note: I was hosted by the resort, but all opinions are my own — as much as they possibly can be from someone who slept in the mountains for free.
1. Cabins, Glamping, And Tent Camping
My place was at the far end of USA Raft Adventure Resort, which was nice — it allowed me to mosey through the whole property on my way in.
First, I checked out the camp store, an impressive and inviting wooden structure with a gift shop, a wood-burning stove, Wi-Fi, and a public kitchen. I walked the gravel trail past cabins, lofts, geodesic domes, and Airstreams. Next came a food truck and the oasis of an outdoor bar, buzzing with afternoon activity. Both were so good that they deserve (and will get) their own section. Then I slunk off for an afternoon nap.
I slept in a bungalow called Poplar. Poplar and its two bungalow friends — Eagles Roost and Lost Cove — hang out in a quiet row up a gradual hill at the resort’s end. Sawed-off triangles of warm wood with two ground-floor twin beds and a king-sized bed upstairs, they’re great for solo travelers, couples, and small families. I loved the solitude, the deck and fire pit, and the shade from light-struck leaves visible from my window. The mini-fridge, AC unit, and radiant heater did their jobs well.
A couple of notes: The bungalows are a short walk from the community bath and shower house, and they don’t have built-in bathrooms. Also, the staircase to the king bed is pretty steep — it’s more of a ladder.
To avoid the climb up to bed or the walk past the bar to the bathhouse, consider the Noli Lofts. Like the bungalows, they have one king bed and two twins, but the king is downstairs. They include bathrooms with showers, lovely front decks, and better access to the Wi-Fi flowing from the camp store. The Noli Stretch unit is similarly luxurious and sleeps 6, but it doesn’t include bathrooms.
Other options (including Tiny House, a popular property that was featured on the television show Tiny House Nation) are outlined on the resort’s website. The court of vintage Airstreams next to the bar was particularly intriguing — they look great for those who want to be right in the middle of the social scene.
Accessibility Notes: The resort has a large, wheelchair-accessible bathroom and shower house. The Noli Stretch has a long entrance ramp but a 2.5-inch step at the door. Other units require ascending one to five stairs.
If you want to glamp, book a geodesic dome. You and another can enjoy a cloth dome with heat and AC, a riverside deck, and a king-sized bed. Open the flaps in the back to let the Appalachian air flow in during the day, then stargaze through the ceiling windows at night.
The resort has just four true campsites, but the 22-acre Red Banks Outpost — just 2 miles downriver — has 72. It is right on a glittering gray sand beach along a calm, swimmable portion of the Nolichucky. The view of the mountains from the Outfitters Store on your way in is worth the trip to the outpost alone.
The Red Banks Outpost also offers 12 hookup RV sites, a bathhouse, and Wi-Fi in the Outfitters Store.
The premier attraction in Erwin, without doubt, is the Nolichucky River. Boats and paddles lean against homes on the riverside road to the resort, and when you reach the wooded stretch of cabins, glamp-sites, and fire pits, you can hear the river flowing just beyond the trees. Just about everyone I met was a raft guide, and they all overflowed with energy when talking about their time on the water.
High season is late spring through the summer — and for a reason. This is when water levels are reliably high. If you’re booking in the off-season, call to see what activities local water levels will allow.
I spoke to Bynum about the rafting trips USA Raft Adventure Resort offers.
The Lower Nolichucky
The resort cozies up to a scenic stretch of the Lower Nolichucky where sunlight pours down mountainsides and onto the water. This is where the resort’s Lower Nolichucky rafting trips “put in,” or begin. Groups board inflatable vessels with experienced raft guides and head downriver. You’ll paddle past the Red Banks Outpost and eventually to the “take out” point, where a shuttle will be waiting to take you back to the resort.
There will be calm sections on this trip — and USA Raft does recommend this trip for beginners, view seekers, and rafters aged 4+ — but your raft will also take on class I, II, and occasionally III rapids. (The higher the class, the more chaotic the current.) You will get a taste of high adventure, and you will get wet.
“As someone who is on the water pretty often, I would describe [the Lower Nolichucky] as pretty moderate to beginner. [This is not] a lazy river float,” Bynum says.
If you take the half-day adventure, you’ll be on the water for around 4 hours; if you choose the full-day option (5–6 hours), you’ll stop amid beautiful mountain views for a picnic lunch.
The Upper Nolichucky Gorge
USA Raft’s Upper Nolichucky Gorge trips are for thrill seekers — those who loved the taste of high adventure and want more. You’ll crash through class III, class IV, and if water levels are high enough, some class V rapids, Bynum says.
USA Raft still takes beginners on the Upper Nolichucky Gorge trip, but the minimum age is 10 rather than 4. You’ll get wet, and there’s a chance you’ll take an unplanned swim. Your knuckles, I gather, might be as white as the water.
To reach these rapids, USA Raft will shuttle you 45 minutes from the Red Banks Outpost to the Upper Nolichucky Gorge. Your put-in is in the town of Poplar, North Carolina, where the waters are still fresh off their descent from Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the eastern U.S.
As you would on the Lower Nolichucky trip, you’ll raft for nearly 4 hours straight through; or you can stretch your trip to 5–6 hours if you choose the full-day option.
Rafting Pro Tips
- To ensure availability, book these rafting trips (and other adventures) online before your trip.
- For all rafting trips, the resort provides you with a helmet, paddle, personal floating device (PFD), and in colder conditions, a wet suit. Show up dressed in moisture-wicking athletic wear and, if you want, a swimsuit. Avoid cotton at all costs — it will only make you colder when it gets wet.
- Wear water shoes, tennis shoes, or sandals with a back strap (but not Crocs).
3. Caving Tours
On my second morning, I went into Worley’s Cave with John Davis, an agile, young-spirited man of 46. A veteran and former paramedic, Davis survived cancer and a 6-month hospital stay a few years ago. He’s since stuck to the fun things in life; for him, that means guiding groups over rushing rapids and through pitch-black caves.
The cave is on unassuming property at the edge of the woods in nearby Bluff City. It is privately owned — and has been since at least the Civil War, Davis said. USA Raft Adventure Resort has a good relationship with the owner and guides groups on educational caving tours year-round.
The cave is massive and completely wild, or undeveloped. We spotted bats high on the cave’s ceilings, baby salamanders in its puddles, and fossils in its walls; we crossed into the “cave’s atmosphere,” where outside smells and sounds no longer circulate in; we crawled and rolled through cracks and shimmied across ledges; we finally left the cave’s atmosphere and smelled our own world anew.
Only one room in Worley’s Cave has been altered by humans: the Saltpeter Room. The humans were Confederate soldiers, Davis said. They were mining for saltpeter to aid in gunpowder production. You can still see the rocks they tossed away, their pickaxe marks in the walls, and the burn marks where their primitive headlamps scorched the ceiling.
You’ll quickly learn why this is a caving tour, not a cave tour. You must be willing (and dressed) to get dirty and be able to navigate slick, uneven surfaces.
The limestone cave is wet with the water that built it. There are no lights but the ones you bring in, no paths but the ones you and your guide choose. You’ll cross wet surfaces with nothing to rest your hands on, as well as a stream that sometimes comes up to your knees. Most notably, there are several optional crawling sections.
The most rewarding experiences, Davis said, are attained by those who are honest about what they’re comfortable doing and any physical limitations that could make exploring a big, wet rock difficult or uncomfortable. A Worley’s Cave adventure will always be adventurous — but by sharing these things with your guide, it can also be customized to you.
Caving Pro Tips
- Cover your knees and elbows, and avoid cotton socks. If you plan to do any of the crawls, you may prefer to bring low-profile knee and elbow pads.
- Unlike with raft trips, there is no shuttle to the cave. You’ll meet at the Bluff City Boardwalk and Pavillion before setting off as a group.
- Be sure to hit the bathroom before you leave the resort or campground — the pavilion has a bathroom, but there are no paper products.
4. Stand-Up Paddle Boarding
After I emerged from the cave atmosphere, I took a stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) lesson with Dale Swanson at the Red Banks Outpost.
Swanson, the SUP program manager and admin of the Whitewater SUP Facebook group, is a patient and athletic man of 58. He spent years in canoes as a river guide, which ravaged his knees; like TravelAwaits writer Louisa Rogers, changing to the low-impact sport of SUP greatly reduced his knee pain.
You can certainly seek adventure in SUP. You can hit some of the same wicked rapids rafters and kayakers hit — but what you may get most is the sense of majesty that helps define this area of Appalachia.
“Sitting on your board with your feet in the water, floating down the river… it’s magic,” said Swanson.
Swanson and I went over the movements of SUP on the small beach. When I felt ready, we got onto our boards and paddled on the calm waters, the sun casting an even light on the bare bluff beside us. Mountains poked up in the distance. I saw what he meant.
Water levels (and perhaps my skill level) weren’t high enough for us to paddle toward faster currents, but the feeling of staying upright over eddies in the current was quite nice — as was the fresh water each time I fell in.
USA Raft Adventure Resort offers these SUP lessons (generally lasting 3 hours) as well as immersive 2.5-day group SUP clinics. The clinics’ details are customizable based on skill level and comfortability.
If you’re interested in getting into the sport, we recommend these stand-up paddle boards.
SUP Pro Tips
- The most important skills in this sport are balance and water reading. If you need to develop these skills, start with the SUP lesson.
- Helmets and PFDs are provided. Don’t wear cotton — and if the water is cold, opt for wool or polypropylene coverings.
I didn’t get the chance to hike through the gorgeous forest around me. Walking the resort and rocky riverbank, the forests of early fall begged me to explore them every time. Next time.
The Appalachian Trail runs through Erwin (and right by the resort), and the asphalt Erwin Linear Trail runs 4 miles through Cherokee National Forest.
About 40 minutes by car from the resort, Unaka Mountain Beauty Spot gives hikers an impeccable view of the area, Bynum said. From the parking area, you can hike 2 miles on gravel to a grassy, panoramic lookout spot. You’ll be rewarded with views of endless Appalachian ridges from the overlook.
For more hiking in Erwin, check out AllTrails.
6. Local Food And Drink
To understand the community serving as your home base, just take a seat at the Take Out Bar. The outdoor bar draws in raft guides, resort-goers, and regular old citizens of Erwin. It looks like it sprung up from the forest floor, fully equipped with taps and atmosphere.
Take Out serves regional brews on draft and in cans (Yee-Haw Brewery Co., based out of nearby Johnson City, had a fantastic Oktoberfest beer during my visit), and the sunny deck is the perfect place to talk the afternoon away with locals and fellow adventurers. At night, its strung-up lines of lights look beautiful whether you’re within their glow or beholding them from the riverside picnic tables, listening to the river.
Just off to the side is a flavor you’ve likely never experienced: Appalachian-Caribbean fusion. The afternoon I arrived, One Love Food Truck treated me to the Jah Makin Me Crazy. Ordinarily, that’s grilled Hawaiian buns topped with grilled jerk chicken sliders, pickled red onions, and peach preserves; they were out of jerk chicken, so I went with sunny-side-up eggs in its place. It danced on my tastebuds.
While getting into town and grabbing something local is great (and likely necessary, as One Love has limited hours depending on the resort’s projected occupancy), you will be leaving USA Raft without an essential experience if you don’t grab a meal from One Love.
Bonus: Dine At Dari Ace
I wasn’t able to eat in town much, but I was lucky to make it to Dari Ace in Erwin the morning I left the embrace of the mountains. It’s a small diner, maybe 10 seats around a breakfast bar bumped right up to the kitchen. I’m still confused — I somehow managed to speak with the five other diners there and never, for a moment, stop eating the biscuits and gravy I ordered. It was a lovely way to experience the community of Erwin.
7. A Proud Community
What impressed me most about USA Raft Adventure Resort was the community. Everyone there seemed well aware of how good they have it in Eastern Tennessee. During downtime, you’ll catch staff lounging on the Take Out Bar deck or around the community fire pit, looking out at the river.
The staff all get along and acknowledge each other’s hard work. They’re happy to build you a fire with wood purchased at the bar. Guests chat with other guests, constantly smiling about adventures had or to come. The atmosphere of this place, more than maybe anything else, left me on a high.
Pro Tip: Be Aware Of Festivals
Erwin, the Tri-Cities, and even the resort itself host events and festivals year-round, and those sometimes mean this lovely strip of the riverside is chock full. For socialites, this might be appealing — just book as early as you can so you’re part of the humanity — but those seeking a quiet getaway may want to avoid the resort at these times.
You can always call ahead to get an idea of occupancy levels. My trip was on a Sunday–Tuesday following a music festival at the resort, and by the weekdays, it felt like a quiet neighborhood in the woods.