Park With Whitewater Features May Be Coming to the Neuse River

WRAL’s Elizabeth Gardner’s dream of having a whitewater park in Raleigh may soon come true.

If WRAL meteorologist and avid whitewater kayaker Elizabeth Gardner has her way, Raleigh City Council will move forward on a transformative 80-acre park with whitewater features as early as this summer. Despite the 20-year quest, Gardner finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel—the project was included in the Raleigh Parks Bond approved last November and could paddle on the scene and be complete in as little as five years. 

Gardner first dreamt up the idea in 2001 when visiting Clear Creek Whitewater Park in Golden, Colorado (a suburb of Denver), with her husband. “We were like, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. We must have one here!’” As soon as she returned to Raleigh, she started asking questions about how to make a whitewater park a reality. … But it proved to be not such an easy feat (see the full timeline to the right).

Naturally, the Neuse River—specifically the portion near Falls Lake Dam—proved to be the perfect place for the park, dubbed Neuse River Park. While kayakers, tubers and the like can utilize that part of the river as it is now, the problem is with access, Gardner maintains. Due to erosion from the different flows of water released from the dam, there’s currently a lack of access points to load into the river. 

A Deep Dive Into History: In 1978, the Army Corps of Engineers, who are responsible for building most of the dams in the country, and Wake County got together and drew up a plan for a whitewater park in Raleigh—which would’ve been only the second in the world. “Nobody’s around that knows why they didn’t build it,” says Gardner. “It was going to be paid for by the Army Corps.”
In 1998, if Raleigh had gotten the bid for the Pan American Games, the Neuse River would’ve been outfitted for the whitewater competition.

This project would change that, creating at least two access points for kayakers to get in and out of the water and surf through three different rapids. (Fun fact: According to Gardner, the City of Raleigh is also working on a blueway—think a greenway but for water—and in order to get the distinction there must be a certain number of accesses along the river.)

The main priority, Gardner emphasizes, is to get people into the river. With the Neuse being so far from Downtown, at times it doesn’t feel like Raleigh even has a river, but it does. And, soon, it’ll attract residents and visitors of all ages, interests and backgrounds. And not just kayakers.

Previously nicknamed Falls Whitewater Park, they ultimately went with Neuse River Park—as Gardner realized as she was visiting parks across the country —“yeah, there were some whitewater kayakers—but there were a lot more people who were tubing, boogie boarding, swimming and just hanging out on the rocks having a picnic,” she says. “So we decided we would take ‘whitewater’ out of the name because it’s really going to be more like an old-fashioned swimming hole.” 

In addition to the river features, the project will also encompass an 80-acre park. What will go there will depend on the master plan—and public input—but she foresees anything from ziplines and ropes courses to an amphitheater to a brewpub overlooking the water. Add to that the greenway trail that already flows alongside the river and connects to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, nearby Forest Ridge Park and Wilkerson Nature Preserve, and you have an “incredible adventure destination,” as Gardner calls it.

Between the master plan, permitting and construction, it could still be about four years before Neuse River Park comes to fruition. “I think if we had it built in five years, I’d be ecstatic,” says Gardner. But it looks to be promising, and with all the park has to offer, it would be a big win for the city. Case in point: Clear Creek Whitewater Park claims $2 million a year in economic impact. 

“The point of this park is that everybody can use it,” Gardner emphasizes—from swimmers and fishermen to boogie boarders and tubers to picnickers to those simply walking or riding by on the greenway looking to cool down on a hot day. Think of it like a free outdoor playground for both kids and adults—a place where residents and visitors alike can realign with nature and escape from the city for a while. And that, we’d argue, is something definitely worth pursuing. 

20-Year Timeline For The Park

  • 2003: Gardner put together a committee and had a company provide a preliminary drawing and cost estimate for the park. The project received funding from the Parks Bond and interlocal fund. The city ultimately decided there wasn’t enough money to build the park.
  • 2012: $150K from the funds is used for a feasibility study. The project was approved by City Council, but not funded.
  • 2019: Raleigh started organizing another Parks Bond. The Parks Advisory Board loved the project and initially put it at the top of the list. 
  • 2020: The pandemic halted the project once again.
  • 2022: Another Parks Bond passes, and Neuse River Park ends up on the list of parks that would be funded by the bond, with $11 million dedicated to the project.
  • 2023: This summer, City Council will decide which projects will be built with the first round of funding.

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Angela Brown
Angela Brown is the author of our Business & Economy section.