The rafting guide, a barrel-chested twentysomething nicknamed Butter, yells for everyone to paddle hard through the rapids, but it is already much too late. “Forward!” he shouts as the bow slams into a standing wave four feet high. The hull buckles. In seconds, three paddlers to my left and Butter himself pop out of the boat like hot kernels of corn.

It is quite the show, watching them get worked in the current, and a few folks relaxing on a breezy patio nearby cheer wildly. They have the best seats in the house for watching the meanest rapid here, a monster called Tourist Trap that ranks a class IV out of V in difficulty. While a waitress ferries chilled lagers to the onlookers, another boat comes over the falls, this one backward. All but two paddlers get ejected, and the hoots erupt again.

The strange thing? We're not on some remote river, but minutes away from the banking skyscrapers that loom over uptown Charlotte, N.C. The bottom here is smooth as concrete—because it is concrete. The water, warm and sweet, comes from a tap. That tremendous thunder? That's mostly the noise from massive pumps that circulate more than 12 million gallons of water in this, the world's largest, completely artificial whitewater park.

Welcome to the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC), a $37 million complex of man-made rapids and waterfalls, where every rock, ripple, and chute was meticulously designed on drafting tables and with computer models. Here on the outskirts of North Carolina's largest city, workers spent 18 months converting some 316 acres of red clay and pine forests into a sprawling compound of cedar-clad commercial space, murky ponds, and nearly a mile of surprisingly real rapids. The result—a raft trip before dinner if you like—is an outdoorsy adventure in a decidedly urban setting. Get maytagged in Tourist Trap, and a $17 plate of grilled Atlantic salmon served on the patio above can certainly mend the woe.

“This is about much more than just rafting or kayaking,” says the project's lead architect, Michael Williams, a principal of the Charlotte-based firm Liquid Design. Williams, his partner Mike Standley, and the design team drew some 580 pages of plans for the center, which opened last August. “The last thing the community wanted was another Slip 'N Slide. This is an outdoor lifestyle park.”

Liquid Design's Michael Williams and Mike Standley at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Chad Case Liquid Design's Michael Williams and Mike Standley at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C.

Indeed, rafters and kayakers can bounce down 50-foot-wide concrete channels that gurgle with rapids—some easy riffles, others industrial spin cycles. Mountain bikers roll along 12 miles of undulating single-track trails that weave through the woods. Rock climbers scamper up plastic holds on an artificial spire 46 feet high, while other visitors launch canoes into the Catawba River—a real river—that slips languidly by to the west.

The idea for such a place isn't new. Athens and Sydney built whitewater venues for Olympic canoe and kayak events, and a smaller park recently opened in Maryland. But the Charlotte center is novel because it is the first major—and biggest—park in the country to cater to weekend warriors who can't live in sporty towns like Boulder, Colo., or Bend, Ore., where job prospects are often limited. In that way, the center also brings outdoor adventure to urbanites who can't or won't drive two and a half hours into the mountains in search of it.

“When you see a center like this, you think every community should have one,” Williams says, adding that cities in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California are talking about building similar ones.

The USNWC was born around 2000, when Jeff Wise, a lawyer from Charlotte, began dreaming of a recreation center that focused on the sports he loves, like paddling and mountain biking. Wise, now 44, teamed up with Williams and Scott Shipley, a three-time Olympic paddler who runs Recreation Engineering and Planning, a Boulder-based firm that has helped communities like Reno, Nev., build fake rapids in real streams for kayakers. Modifying the Catawba in this way might have been a cheaper alternative to the center, but Wise dismissed it immediately. The permitting process would take too long, and Wise wanted something much larger.

“We wanted to create a more compelling place to visit,” he says. “We want people to think of Charlotte as a vibrant, fun place. Can a center like this do that single-handedly? I say yes.” Wise, Williams, and Shipley honed their vision on a long trip around the globe, rock climbing in Oregon and rafting in Europe.

Back in Charlotte, Williams designed 40,000 square feet of building space with a contemporary Scandinavian feel, introducing sleek lines of cedar, perforated steel, and concrete to distance the center from both woodsy clichés and the traditional brick-and- column architecture so prevalent in the South. He built a “chasm”—like that through a canyon— between buildings to serve as the main thoroughfare into the park. Steps drop to landings decorated with rocks, alluding to how a river might pool over a series of falls. To help foster après camaraderie, the architects placed a restaurant with patio seating near the biggest rapids as well as about 2,400 square feet of meeting space that overlooks the channels. For practical purposes, Williams designed locker rooms near two pavilions where paddlers meet before trips to learn about the equipment and what to do should they get tossed from the boat. He designed airy storage rooms for hundreds of kayaks and mountain bikes, and spent every Tuesday for months positioning boulders around the channels to make for perfect sitting spots. None of it is rustic.

“We really didn't want this to feel ‘lodgy' or like we were trying to be a national park,” says Williams, 37, who has a B.Arch. from the University of Tennessee. “That can get cheesy quickly. We don't want to be Jellystone.”

The design had to be functional, so Williams off set roof lines to help air move through buildings likely to be filled with wet people and gear. He positioned patios and eating areas near the biggest rapids. As opposed to a real raft trip, where clients put in and take out at different spots along the river, here Williams had to cluster buildings in ways to smooth the flow of people moving in and out of life jackets and boats in practically the same locations. The challenge excited him.