Get away to Columbus, GA
Photograph by Ralph Daniel
Move over, Chattooga River. At least for the moment, the Chattahoochee is Georgia’s hot spot for whitewater rafting—along a new course that travels right through the heart of downtown Columbus. And there’s more to this adventure than the novelty of floating past historic city mills. Check out a YouTube video called PileUp of a fifteen-boat casualty (no injuries, but about seventy people took a swim), which had nearly 140,000 views at last count. In it, a giant hydraulic called “Cut Bait” catapults amateur rafters and guides from yellow boats like rag dolls.
The course, which opened in May and cost $24 million to build, was created by blasting two textile-mill-era dams, restoring the river to its wilder natural state—with a few engineered channels and rapids thrown in just for fun. The two-and-a-half-mile ride is the longest urban whitewater course in the world.
The sole outfitter, Whitewater Express, has done a little fine-tuning since those early mash-ups. But the course still slaughters, and the day we went down, old Cut Bait bucked us out in a hot second and sent us down the Hooch in our life jackets, flailing paddles and snatching at rescue ropes. Dozens of onlookers watched the carnage, cheering and snickering from smooth boulders placed along the river for just that purpose.
However, because the course is man-made, the ride isn’t quite as threatening as it seems. There are few hazards, and after a brief plunge, swimmers pop right out into calm, easy-flowing water where most emerge with a smile.
Plus, rafters have options. Georgia Power regulates the river from a dam upstream, and customers can decide if they want to ride during low flow, when the rapids are smaller, or during high flow, when the notorious Cut Bait reaches class four-plus levels with 13,000 cubic feet of water per second (the Ocoee has 1,100), making it the largest rapid east of the Colorado. Naturally, we opted for the latter.
Those less inclined for a thrashing can avoid Cut Bait altogether. The river splits just before it, providing an alternative rapid, the much gentler Powerhouse. Guides take nail-biting customers to examine the rapids from an island first, and each raft chooses its course—“fish or cut bait,” as they say.
It was the river that drew us to Columbus, but other attractions impressed as well. On a drizzly afternoon, we visited the gilded Springer Opera House, a fully restored 1871 theater with opulent double balconies. Once considered the finest theater between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, it still hosts semi-classic movies and live performances.
On a sunnier day, we strolled along the RiverWalk, a twenty-two-mile park completed in 2009. It meanders along the river and past industrial buildings turned into cool lofts.
Columbus’s fine-dining gem, Epic, is a year-old restaurant housed in an old textile mill. The place was still buzzing when we showed up at 10 p.m., clean but bedraggled from rafting, ready to enjoy seasonal dishes like a compressed watermelon salad with sugared-pecan goat cheese and pan-seared scallops over crimson lentils.
Other meals were less highbrow but did not disappoint. We hit the retro soda counter at the Dinglewood Pharmacy, open since 1918, for its specialty concoction called a scrambled dog: a chopped hot dog in chili with oyster crackers. The next day, it was Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant, a soul-food meat-and-three nestled among restored historic homes, where the server called us all “sugar” and “baby” and fed us samples from a cafeteria-style setup.
We were walking distance from Minnie’s and the river at the Rothschild-Pound House Inn, which includes a B&B in the main Victorian structure as well as several nineteenth-century shotgun cottages across the street. In the afternoon, complimentary wine and cheese appear. And at breakfast on the wraparound porch, sublime blueberry pancakes are a great way to fuel up for exploring the city.