A Guide to the Best Whitewater Paddling in Tennessee

A kayaker attacks a set of rapids on the Ocoee.
A kayaker attacks a set of rapids on the Ocoee. Angela Greenwell
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The state of Tennessee is home to some of the best whitewater in the country. Millennia of persistent rain have helped the rivers carve their way down through dense forests into impressive, hidden gorges scattered with massive boulders. Moderate temperatures and nearby cities like Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville are a bonus, enticing paddlers of all skill levels and passions to visit the Volunteer State.

Reciprocate a friendly wave to the pickup trucks that also travel the winding roads to the rivers, and if you’re new to paddling here, keep in mind that everything in Tennessee is right around the corner, including world-class whitewater. Here, we list 10 of the best whitewater destinations in Tennessee, from easy to challenging, so you can tick them off your list as your skills progress.

1. A Beginner Paradise: The Mighty Hiwassee

The Hiwassee River sits in a wide and substantial valley—a beautiful setting for the many paddlers, families, and fishermen who frequent the cool waters of this State Scenic River. The most popular stretch starts a few miles upstream of Reliance, just below the TVA Apalachia Power House, which supplies reliable year-round water. Floaters will enjoy a playful variety of splashy class II-II+ rapids and several ledges with many possible routes.

You don’t need much experience to paddle the Hiwassee, but a suitable craft and the ability to maneuver it makes the experience much better. Keeping left as a general rule of thumb also makes your way to the take-out much more enjoyable. If you’re looking for more river time, or perhaps a more gentle trip (class I-II), check out the section just below Reliance. Be prepared to encounter fishermen on either section, as these cool, scenic waters are teeming with trout and some big striped bass!

Insider Tip: On the rare occasion that the upstream power house cannot divert water due to excess rain or repairs, the Hiwassee has an exciting upstream section of big water class III-IV action. It’s only suitable for advanced paddlers, but it’s a real treat to catch "The Dries" running!

2. Wild and Scenic Plateau Pleasure: Clear Creek of the Obed

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About an hour west of Knoxville, near the town of Wartburg, flows the only federally protected waterway in the state: the Obed National Wild and Scenic River. Between the Obed, Clear Creek, Daddy's Creek, and the Emory River, there are more than 100 miles of whitewater paddling to enjoy in the entire Obed-Emory drainage area.

The intriguing geology and variety of class II, III, and easy class IV rapids of Clear Creek have motivated adventurous paddlers for decades, making it the most popular tributary of the system. Various access points include bridges at US 127, Barnett Bridge, Jett Bridge, Lilly Bridge, and finally, after the confluence with the Obed River, Nemo.

The bottom sections are a stunning display of deep canyon scenery with a degree of isolation. Jett to Lilly (class II+) and Lilly to Nemo (class II-IV) are frequently paddled separately, though are sometimes combined by groups with varying skillsets. Paddlers looking to step up should tackle the final stretch, as there are many rapids of note downstream of Lilly, including Jack’s Rock, a sloping eight-foot drop. The river doubles in volume after the Obed confluence, and continues it’s exciting route down to Nemo.

The Upper Upper section from US 127 to Barnett Bridge is 20 miles long, boasting a variety of rock formations and caves to explore along the way. There is plenty of mellow class I-II water along the way, making it appropriate for an overnight trip in canoes and touring boats. Keep in mind, however, that at least one experienced whitewater paddler in the group is helpful, since class III rapids lurk toward the end.

Insider Tip: Clear Creek flows mainly in the winter and spring, when temperatures are cool to cold, so gear up appropriately.

3. Renowned Recreation: Big South Fork of the Cumberland

A crown jewel nestled into the northeastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau near O’Neida is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Regardless of how you access it (check local maps for many put-in/take-out options) you’ll find it magnificent. What better way to spend a day than running quality rapids along towering cliffs?

The character of the class III and IV rapids in the heart of the gorge is typical of Tennessee: pool and drop with some undercut hazards to avoid. Roadless solitude exists here, even with a crowd, as groups tend to spread out. Classic rapids like Double Drop (Class IV) and The El (IV) will challenge intermediates & thrill advanced paddlers who may relax on the many class II-III’s along the way.

Insider Tip: The take-out at Leatherwood Ford has heated bathrooms, while the O&W Railroad Bridge cuts off two miles of flatwater, so take your pick based on what is the bigger draw. The Big South Fork is free-flowing and fun at many water levels starting around 800 cfs, but is enjoyed by experts at huge flows above 5,000.

4. A Raft Dodging Good Time: Ocoee River

The famous home river of the 1996 Olympics deserves a mention on this list. Winding it’s way along Highway 64 in Polk County, the Ocoee cannot be rivaled for continuous rapids, reliability, and ease of accessibility. Whetting the appetites of more whitewater enthusiasts than any other river, it runs a whopping 120+ days per year! Peak season is summer, when there isn’t much else running.

The heavily raft-trodden Middle section (class III+) is slightly less intense than the Upper (III-IV), which tumbles into the rowdy Olympic Course after four miles of whitewater. Both sections will keep an advanced paddler’s attention, while experts enjoy challenging attainment moves, exploring new lines, and surfing the "Hellhole" at the bottom power house. Take a few rides for a good thrashing. Flip over and you’ll be instantly spit out, quickly advancing towards the very last rapid.

5. Rocky Top Classic: The Nolichucky

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Paddlers comfortable on class III+ that are ready for a little more should take a little trip up to Erwin, Tennessee for a ride down the Nolichucky River. The deep gorge is spectacular, but it’s hard to notice for the first couple of miles, since the river packs a class III+ to IV punch right off the bat. Best advice? Get (or watch) some surf action at Jaws, and chill out.

The Noli mellows out just below the longest rapid, called Quarter Mile. Watch out for Murphy’s Ledge at the bottom, as it requires caution. Eight total miles to the takeout includes a few more class III’s, some playboating, and lingering scenery. Squirt boaters convene at Cowbell for mystery moves, just 300 yards downstream of the Nolichucky Gorge Campground take-out.

Insider Tip: It’s best to run the Noli after a rain, but high water is not advised for mere mortals.

6. Cut Your Steep Creek Teeth: Tellico River

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The Tellico sits beside an easy road, a right turn off the Cherohala Skyway (coming from Tellico Plains), and best lends itself to learning waterfall technique. Other than being dependent on rainfall, nothing negative can be said about this pretty rhododendron-lined stream with clean drops, arranged in perfect succession of height and difficulty.

Put in and start boofing (or flopping) your way down 4-9 foot drops, intermittent with class II-III. End up at Baby Falls, a 12-footer, and slide down the "Diaper Wiper" below. The longest most difficult rapid, the class IV Jarod’s Knee, signals the finale of the run.

Insider Tip: There’s an easy (class II-III) lower section for those less vertically motivated.

7. Smoky Mountain Rain: Little River in the Smokies

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No Tennessee paddling trip would be complete without including a river in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and more often than not, that river ends up being the Little. Hidden under a canopy of trees, it’s frequently running clear in spring and winter, but a random rain event can bring it up for a muddy float just about anytime. Access this stream from Townsend on the south end of the Smokies, and you’ll see many pull-offs with river access on the drive up. Well-defined rapids mixed with round-boulder-busy-water are the norm, and the class III-IV’s just keep coming in typical Smokies fashion.

Insider’s Tip: At the put-in, a series of class IV drops called "The Sinks" will be your highlight (or your nemesis) of the day. If you run it, don’t forget to smile because either outcome will be witnessed (and likely photographed) by tourists.

8. Keeping up with the Jacksons: The Caney Fork

Draining a steep escarpment sandwiched evenly between Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, the Caney Fork River shares Cumberland Plateau scenery and geology, but is noticeably more challenging than the other plateau rivers. It was chosen as a home base for the Jackson Kayak family and factory due to the variety of reliable options for playboating and creeking. The Upper Caney Fork is a long class IV-V day, with the most notable rapid being Devil’s Kitchen (class V). Experts can pick their way down the 8+ miles, but will need enough time to run the long shuttle and scout if there isn’t a leader to follow.

Insider’s Tip: At Rock Island State Park, the Caney Fork is a reliable (more than 200 days per year) natural freestyle play park. Several epic surf waves are arranged with a breathtaking backdrop of cascading waterfalls. On the rare occasion that the dam spills, the Caney is big and wide as it flings itself off a 25-foot waterfall and class V+ "Sieve City." Check out the many fossils at Rock Island, but stay clear of the undercut rocks at all water levels.

9. The Best of Walden’s Ridge: Cain and North Chickamauga Creek

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The edges of Chattanooga are defined by a steep, impressive plateau called Walden Ridge. Running parallel to the Cumberland, the extension of the ridge takes a dip every few miles, forming wilderness creek gorges that range from class III to V+. The cleanest, most classic of these creeks is Cain/North Chickamauga Creek, which empties out at Soddy Daisy.

It requires a big rain, but access to this place defines why patience is a virtue. The steep gorge is impressive, with high cliff waterfalls and frequent bald eagle sightings. But be aware that access is difficult once you drop in—there are more than 75 rapids in about 10-12 miles, mostly class IV with scattered class Vs. Starting with creeky bedrock slides on Cain Creek and building volume as it collects tributaries and transitions to boulder gardens, North Chick has a little bit of everything. It’s quality is undeniable.

10. Don’t Swim: The West Prong

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Ask any elite paddler to list their favorite rivers in Tennessee and the West Prong always makes the top three. Still, don’t bite this one off unless you can paddle this entire list in your sleep and you think North Chick is a mellow day. If (and only if) you have the skills, head on to the Gatlinburg side of the Smokies, and be ready for non-stop boulder-dodging action. The West Prong never mellows below continuous class IV, and it can be difficult to stop. The horizon lines just keep coming at you—running the West Prong is all about linking the boofs and staying focused. Split second reactions are required. There are two sections: one upstream of the Chimney’s Picnic Area and one below. It’s gotta have rain, and it’s a gorgeous mountain stream, but unless you’re having a picnic out there, you’ll barely notice.

Insider’s Tip: Best advice repeated again—Do not swim.

Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.

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