A Guide to the Best Paddling in Kentucky

Stillwater in Kentucky welcomes all kinds of crafts and time to relax.
Stillwater in Kentucky welcomes all kinds of crafts and time to relax. Rosemary Bray
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Kentucky is home to some of the greatest navigable waterways in the U.S. Paddlers are spoiled for choice with the state's abundance and diversity of rivers, creeks, lakes, and streams of every class level appropriate for beginners to experts.

Before you begin any paddling adventure, be aware of the seasonal conditions that affect water levels (recent drought or heavy rainfall). And be sure to check the class of the rapids where you would like to paddle or the schedule of dam releases, as these will affect flow, class, and navigability on many streams.

Here are the classes of water and where you can find them in Kentucky.

Class A: Stillwater

Class A refers to lakes that are still, with little or no perceptible movement. Preferred boat types for calm conditions like this are stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), canoes. and kayaks.

Best stillwater destinations include the Grotto at Grayson Lake, just off of Clifty Creek. Here a six-mile out-and-back paddle cuts through rock palisades and past hidden waterfalls. There's also Rough River Lake, a 5,100-acre reservoir, nestled within thick limestone beds with miles of walls and caverns to explore.

For an all-day trip, the upper Cumberland River between Williamsburg and Redbird Boat Ramp is a narrow 11-mile, tree-lined section. Dix River could fit well here, too, as most of it is a peaceful backwater. The Dix does have one Class II rapid to be aware of.

Class I water is great for groups of Kentucky kayakers.
Class I water is great for groups of Kentucky kayakers. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Adam Warren

Class I: Easy

Class I refers to smooth water with light riffles. In other words, shallow, rapidly moving water, usually over gravel, rocks, and possibly tree rubble, with clear passages and gentle curves. Preferred boat types on these streams are canoes, kayaks, and in some calmer places, SUPs.

Try the Parklands at Floyd's Fork just outside of Louisvillein Fisherville. This Class I stream becomes a Class II depending on flow. You can access seven put-ins along the 19 miles of this scenic water trail flowing through four parks.

The Green River in Mammoth Cave National Park, located in Cave City, just outside of Edmonton, offers miles of pleasant paddling through deep, dramatic gorges cut into porous limestone and majestic wooded hillsides. The 5 mph currents sweep around sand bars and beaches. The river, is 25 feet wide and 10 feet deep on average. Great stretches for beginners include Dennison Ferry to Green River Ferry (8 miles), Nolin River Dam to Houchins Ferry (9 miles), and from Green River Ferry to Houchins Ferry (12 miles).

Class II: Novice

Class II refers to moderate- to medium-quick rapids and regular waves through clear, open passages. Some maneuvering and water reading is required. Canoes, duckies (inflatable kayaks), and kayaks work best.

The Big South Fork River, between Blue Heron and Alum Ford (a 12.2-mile section), is a borderline Class II, with its blueway characterized by large boulders and high cliff lines. Its most notable Class II section is at Duck Rock.

In Anderson and Franklin counties, Benson Creek is a solid Class II and, like seemingly anywhere on Kentucky's waterways, provides beautiful scenery and a lovely way to spend an afternoon in nature. Follow Benson Creek from Kentucky Route 1005 for 5.1 miles to where it joins up with the Kentucky River.

Class III: Intermediate

Class III rapids are moderately difficult, with irregular waves. Passages require navigation and maneuvering experience, and open canoes with floatation bags, duckies, and rafts are recommended.

Bear Creek to Blue Heron on the Big South Fork National River offers five miles of Class II rapids that become Class III at Devil's Jump. Another favorite Class II-III combo is Elkhorn Creek near Frankfort. In Central Kentucky, the five miles of Muddy Creek between Oakley Wells Road Bridge and Doylesville is a fantastic Class II-III play stream among remote rolling hills and countryside.

A kayaker approaches a tricky drop--not one to be underestimated or attempted without a lot of experience.
A kayaker approaches a tricky drop--not one to be underestimated or attempted without a lot of experience. Spalding Hurst

Class IV: Advanced

Class IV rapids are difficult, usually consisting of long, powerful rapids; holes (recirculating water that can pull a boater underwater and keep them there); and eddies (powerful, swirling currents that can flip a boater). Stick with rafts and kayaks. Canoes are not recommended.

For Class IV experiences, look to the Lower Rockcastle River from Beech Creek to Bee Rock Campground. This is a narrow whitewater beauty providing five miles of class III-IV rapids through wilderness.

The Cumberland River, from the falls to Laurel River, is a great all-day (10.5-mile) run with lots of Class III-IV rapids, such as Screaming Right, Stairsteps, Last Drop, and Bark Camp Creek Wash.

Silver Creek, from Curtis Road Bridge to the Kentucky Route 876 Bridge, is a playful three-mile stretch of Class II-III, and IV rapids. And a solid place to train on Class IV rapids without worrying about fatigue or overwhelm is White Oak Creek, a short two-mile run between Kentucky Route 1845 and the Kentucky River.

Class V: Expert

Class V is reserved for highly experienced boaters who can navigate long, violent rapids with little-to-no breaks in between. Expert runs can include obstructions, big drops, steep gradients, tumultuous rapids, and usually a combination of all of the above. The vets come equipped with kayak, rafts, high-end whitewater canoes, or decked craft.

Best known for its volatility, especially in autumn, is the he Russel Fork, from Breaks Park to Kentucky Takeout. It offers four miles of Class IV-V rapids through a stunning canyon.

Similarly scary, unless you know what you're doing, is Roaring Paunch Creek, from Kentucky Route 742 to the Big South Fork. This is a 3-mile run of Class IV-V water through the wild and gorgeous Daniel Boone National Forest.

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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