10 free things you can do at the U.S. National Whitewater Center

NOTE: You do have to pay $6 to park. But here's what you can do for free once you get there.

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This piece first published on May 11, 2016. It was updated March 6, 2018.

I love the U.S. National Whitewater Center and I’ve gone for a handful of activities, from catching a concert like The Revivalists to paddle boarding. There are plenty of activity passes to pick from: A Day Pass is $59 for adults and $49 for youths (9 and under), a Single Activity Pass (restrictions apply) is $25, and a Season Pass is $199 for adults and $169 for youths (9 and under). The passes are tempting.

But if you don’t go often or have never been, don’t let cost keep you from going at all. Especially when, as USNWC Communications and Brand Manager Eric Osterhus has said, “Everyone has the innate desire to be outside.”

Parking is just $6 for a day ($18 for oversized vehicles) or $50 for an annual pass. I just bought the annual pass. And here’s what you have free access to at the Whitewater Center if you only pay for parking:

(1) Enjoy walking and dog-walking paths

There is a huge concrete/gravel path that loops around the heart of activity: The rapids, the zip lines, the high ropes course, the River Jam Stage. It’s fun just to walk around and see people scaling the Deep Water Solo climbing wall and tackling the rapids in their kayaks. (Click here for the facility map.) Dogs are allowed on the property with a leash.

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(2) Find places to throw down your yoga (or other exercise) mat

Try the grassy knoll just beyond the River Jam Stage or, better yet, the South Ridge beyond the Ridge Pavilion. The South Ridge is open to guests unless in use for event purposes.

Free seasonal yoga classes start in May 2018 as well. The USNWC Yoga Series offers more than 270 practices throughout the year, from Slow Flow to Morning Power Flow. There will also be free yoga practices available at Green River Revival and Tuck Fest.

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(3) Access more than 40 miles of trails for hiking, trail running and mountain biking

The trails are graded green for novice, blue for intermediate and black for advanced, just like ski slopes. They wind and cut through the USNWC’s 1,300 acres of woodlands, with glimpses of the Catawba, giving you the feeling that you’re far from the city (even though you’re not). Distances range from .25 miles to 5.7 miles, so let your energy level determine your path. Check out the trail map here.

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(4) Find spots to kick back and relax

You’re allowed to find a spot to relax in the grass around the whitewater or hang your hammock up along the tree line by the Upper Pond, where gaggles of people are boarding their whitewater rafts. Or pull up a patch of grass on Belmont Abbey Island to break open a book or sunbathe. Don’t forget a beach towel or folding chair.

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(5) Watch the Whitewater Film Series

This series takes place on Friday nights in April and October 2018, featuring outdoor feature-length films from around the world. Titles include “One Year on a Bike” and “Reel Rock 12.” The films start at sunset.

(6) Sink into seated areas to get work done

That’s right, the Whitewater Center offers a public WiFi network. Osterhus said people have been known to open their computers in the Pump House Biergarten. “It’s a nice change of pace,” he said.

I, personally, would choose one of these tables overlooking the whitewater action.

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(7) Get free entry into festivals

USNWC hosts major festivals throughout the year. Next up is Tuck Fest from April 19-22, and the Memorial Day Celebration from May 25-27. Live music and fireworks are free with parking, while competitions and races incur a fee. Terrace Access Passes are also available for purchase at certain festivals, offering a premiere view of the music and festivities and including food/cash bar options.

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(8) Access an abundance of food and beer

First off, know that there are about 100 taps on this property — they’re not necessarily all flowing at once, but they are there. Second: River’s Edge is the main restaurant on the property, with a menu that ranges from pretzels and craft beer cheese to Atlantic salmon. The best view is on the patio, overlooking the Competition Channel.

You can also grab a cold drink or a quick takeout meal at The Market — or more cold beers at The Pump House Biergarten, the Trail Center (where your bike can also get repairs) … and the list goes on, depending on the demand that day.

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(9) Have a chance to shop Outfitters

Maybe this store, which opened in 2016 by the main entrance, is your antidote to overcrowded malls when you’re on the search for sunglasses, athletic gear or outdoor gear and equipment.

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(10) Listen to live music three days a week during the summer

This year, River Jam, USNWC’s weekly concert series with a line-up of national musical acts, is rocking music out at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays starting in May.

“A lot of people do treat this as a true third space — you’ve got your home, you’ve got your work and you’ve got where you spend your free time,” Osterhus said.

And it’s almost free of charge.

USNWC: 5000 Whitewater Center Parkway; Click here for hours and calendar updates

Photos: Katie Toussaint

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