UNICOI COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- About half of Unicoi County is made up of Cherokee National Forest Lands and therefore owned by the U.S. Forest Service. People across the county are not only capitalizing on the beauty but also the adventure nature offers.
“Most of our guests are here for the Nolichucky Gorge, the class three and four sections– so we bus from here to Poplar, North Carolina and you raft eight miles down the beautiful gorge section and you end up [in Erwin], said Matt Moses, the owner of USA Raft. “We raft from class three and four on our gorge trip which is the most adventurous and our lower trip, which [starts at the resort in Erwin and] goes downstream. That one is mild, more family-friendly and that’s class one and two with one class three.”
Whether it’s your first trip down the river or you know every rapid, there’s an experience on the Nolichucky for everyone.
“People always ask ‘Do I have to have done this before?’ Absolutely not. In fact, you don’t even have to know how to swim,” Moses said. “We give you a personal floatation device. There’s a guide on every raft of every trip that we do. We really believe in that making the experience better and certainly safer.”
USA Raft is an adventure resort, offering everything from lodging (including glamping) and a bar and restaurant to adventures like caving, tubing, paddle boarding and white water rafting.
Rafting trips range from half-day to full with class one to four rapids including trips on the French Broad.
Down the river you’ll find Blue Ridge Paddling also offering rafting, kayaking, and instruction.
“If you bring your family of ten, you’re most likely going to be in two boats, just by yourself. It’s that private setting, more personable, it allows our guests to get to know our staff better and that’s a little bit of our differentiation factor. We customize things so much,” said Mason Schmidt, Co-Owner of Blue Ridge Paddling. “Our maximum trip size is 18 people so when you come and do a trip with us at Blue Ridge Paddling, it’s more than likely going to feel like a private trip with our staff and our guides.”
If you’re looking for a thrill that isn’t so wet- take your bike to the Unaka Mountain Bike Park.
“The first phase is more of a beginner’s section yet it does have a lot of challenging elements to it. The first phase has a green loop,” said Joseph Wigington, President of the Friends of O’Brien Watershed. “There’s also a gravity trail that’s a blue in there. It’s got some technical features in there if you want to get in the air you’ve got 15 different opportunities on that gravity trail.”
It already has about two miles of trails, which will double in its next phase.
“The next phase is going to be a big climb, halfway up the mountain, halfway to the top will be about 500 feet higher than we are right here at the trailhead. From there, you’ve got to get down so we’ll have our signature blue intermediate gravity trail,” said Wigington. “We want to have a big variety of trails, we want to have plenty of opportunity for beginners to come out here- get their introduction to mountain biking. We also want to have some black diamond expert trails where people are going to drive to Erwin, they’re going to make it a point to come to Erwin to ride these trails.”
Locals and tourists alike see the benefits of the country’s adventure tourism beyond experiencing it themselves.
“The total impact of their sales tax revenue is noticeable, especially with the additional spending that their patrons spend in town- whether it’s gas or restaurants,” said Unicoi Co. Economic Development Director, Austin Finch. “There is $17 million in direct spend in Unicoi County and that translates to about 120 direct jobs, that translates to about $1.3 million in tax revenue spent and that goes both state and local… that translates to about $178 per resident off of the tax bill they’d otherwise have.”