Swain County is home of the Nantahala River (along with Macon County, North Carolina). The Nantahala is one of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the nation. In 2010, it was announced that the Nantahala River would host the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships. The Oconaluftee River also flows through Swain County in the town of Cherokee.
The county was formed in 1871 from parts of Jackson County and Macon County. It was named for David L. Swain, governor of North Carolina from 1832 to 1835, and president of the University of North Carolina from 1835 to 1868.
In 2011, the Swain County High School football team captured its eighth state football championship, winning the state 1A championships by a score of 20-14 over the Ayden-Grifton Chargers. The Maroon Devils as a team won three consecutive state championships (1988, 1989, 1990); several noteworthy players were on this team while being led by former University of Tennessee and National Football League quarterback and departing U.S. Representative Heath Shuler (Source: North Carolina High School Athletic Association). The school has also won one state championship in volleyball (2008) and two team state championships in cross country (1999 and 2000).
In 2006, the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NC-200610) was established at Swain County High School. The unit was created to educate and train high school cadets in citizenship, promote community service, instill responsibility, character, and self-discipline, and provide instruction in air and space fundamentals.