Falls Whitewater Park: A worthy investment

Future home of the Falls Whitewater Park?

Tonight, proponents of the Falls Whitewater Park will go before the Raleigh City Council in hopes of adding the proposed park to an upcoming Raleigh parks bond referendum. The council should unanimously approve the request. A little background, then the “why?”
The effort to create a modest whitewater park at the base of Falls Lake dam began more than a decade ago. It was spurred in part by efforts to lure the headquarters of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body of Olympic paddling. (USA Canoe/Kayak ended up going to Charlotte, which had a shinier thing in the U.S. National Whitewater Center. In 2011, USA Canoe/Kayak abandoned Charlotte for Oklahoma City.)
Herein lies part of the beauty of the Falls Whitewater Park: unlike the 500-acre, $38 million National Whitewater Center, which offers everything from mountain biking trail to a climbing tower to whitewater paddling on a half-mile man-made river, the Falls Whitewater Park epitomizes simplicity. Utilizing the existing rock structure at the base of the dam with minor channeling tweaks, the Falls Whitewater Park could offer whitewater paddling on release from the dam near its minimum of 150 cubic feet per second; thus, nearly guaranteed recreation year-round. Approximately $345,000 has already been allocated by Raleigh and Wake County toward the project; the overall cost has not been determined, but the investment would be overshadowed by the ultimate return.
The Falls Whitewater Park would be at the heart of a rapidly-emerging outdoors playground; it’s addition could establish the area as a regional adventure destination. Consider:

  • Neuse River Trail. This summer, the 27.5-mile Neuse River Trail (with another five miles extending into Clayton) will be complete. The paved greenway in itself has become a destination for road cyclists tired of dealing with traffic. There’s the overall 32 miles of Neuse River greenway itself, there’s also the connecting 15-mile Walnut Creek Trail,  a paved greenway spanning south Raleigh, and the soon-to-be finished Crabtree Creek Trail, which will also run about 15 miles along its namesake creek. With a combined 58 miles of connected greenway, the Raleigh network is one of the most complete secondary transportation networks around, making it a destination in itself.
  • Mountains-to-Sea Trail. From the parking lot at the base of Falls Lake Dam, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail disappears into the woods and doesn’t end, currently, for about 72 miles, in Orange County. It’s one of the longest natural surface trails in an urban area in the country. Although it’s closed to mountain biking, it’s an ideal escape for hikers, the perfect training ground for runners.
  • Forest Ridge Park. Construction is scheduled to begin early next year on Forest Ridge Park, a 600-acre City of Raleigh nature park nearby on Falls Lake. Initially, the park will include five miles of mountain bike trail, hiking trail, ropes courses and more.
  • Neuse River. Raleigh has five access points on the Neuse River, making it a convenient and popular escape for urban paddlers.
  • Falls Lake. The 12,500-acre lake is popular with a range of outdoors types, from paddlers and fishermen, to sailors and water skiers. Oh, and stand-up paddleboarders, too.

Already, at least two outfitters run paddling trips exclusively on the Neuse and a new bike shop has opened near the base of the dam. It won’t be long before bike shuttle service and guided trips, a la the Virginia Creeper Trail, are added. Restaurants will benefit even more from the throngs of famished hikers, runners, cyclists and paddlers. Properly promoted, the local lodging industry should prosper as well as outsiders come for a broad sampling of adventure in the capital city. Raleigh Parks & Rec’s own Adventure Program would be able to up its offering of paddling-related classes.
The Falls Whitewater Park is one of the best investments the city and, hopefully, local voters, can make. Here’s hoping the City Council will act to include it in the next park bond.

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Update: The Raleigh City Council will vote at its June 17 meeting whether to include $2.8 million for the Falls Whitewater Park in its next park bond referendum. That meeting will begin at 1 p.m.

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