A Quick and Dirty Guide to Alabama Whitewater Kayaking

Little River Canyon is the heart and soul of whitewater kayaking in the state.
Little River Canyon is the heart and soul of whitewater kayaking in the state. Alan Cressler
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What do you see when you look at a map of Alabama’s 132,000 miles of rivers and streams? If you’re a kayaker, you see plenty of potential for adventure, and many reasons to get excited.

No matter your experience level, you’ll find great places to paddle on creek and rivers throughout Alabama. While beginners can get their feet wet with all-day trips through mellow Class I water, experienced boaters can take quick jaunts through Class III rapids or even negotiate Class IV runs.

If you’ve never tried whitewater kayaking, but you’re interested, the most important thing to know is that it’s more involved and potentially dangerous than cruising Alabama’s flat water, and if you’re new to the sport, pushing off onto the river can be intimidating. It’s important to learn from qualified instructors and experienced boaters, and you can get information on classes by consulting local outfitters like North Alabama Canoe and Kayak, or a paddle club like the Huntsville Canoe Club and the Birmingham Canoe Club.

As you’re introduced to the sport, you’ll not only learn crucial paddling skills and safety procedures, but you’ll also learn the different classification of rapids and how water flow makes river navigation possible or more difficult. In addition, you’ll become familiar with crucial safety equipment, such as personal flotation devices (PFDs), and expand your knowledge of other gear, such as whitewater paddles, kayak skirts, dry tops and other types of apparel. Also, instructors and experienced boaters can help you become familiar with various types of whitewater boats, so you can determine what you really like before you invest a bunch of money in a boat. For your initial outings, you can rent most items from Alabama outfitters and borrow things from other boaters.

Whether you’re new to the whitewater kayaking, or you’re simply not familiar with Alabama’s rivers and creeks, this quick and dirty guide will get you up to speed on some of the Yellowhammer State’s best whitewater options.

Little River Canyon

Found on Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama, Little River Canyon is the heart and soul of whitewater kayaking in the state. It has everything an experienced paddler could want, making it one of the most well-known destinations for whitewater in Alabama, with numerous Class III and IV rapid sections. The scenery isn’t bad either, with clear turquoise water that cuts through sandstone cliffs.

The farthest put-in upriver is Little River Falls, at a Class V known as the "Suicide Section." There are numerous access points further downstream on Canyon River Road like East Fork and Chairlift, that provide miles of paddling across varying whitewater classes and river gradients. Little River is runnable across a wide range of navigable water flow levels as well.

Sipsey River

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With clear water and a flow that carves its way through the narrow sandstone canyons of northwest Alabama, the Sipsey River is the perfect place to enjoy the wild beauty of the state. On the Sipsey it’s easy to navigate past large boulders and rocks due to the water clarity, and manageable Class II rapids provide beginning paddlers a challenge. Coursing through the Sipsey Wilderness, known as the "Land of 1000 waterfalls," this is Alabama’s only river designated as “Wild and Scenic” by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1958.

Another massive plus for paddling the Sipsey is that it’s federally protected, so camping is allowed alongside the river, a rarity in Alabama. Plus, paddling the river involves minimal logistic, because the put-in at the Sipsey River Recreation area is a large paved area with picnic tables, and it’s easily accessible. You can take out at the Highway 33 bridge after traversing roughly 9 miles of untamed Alabama Wilderness.

Bear Creek Floatway in Marion County

This section of Bear Creek is a perfect paddle for newbies seeking just a couple of light Class II rapid spots. Also, you could do an extended trip through Alabama wilderness here and float for 26 miles. Even though camping isn’t allowed on the bank, there are campgrounds close to the river.

If you’re looking for a summer weekend or holiday paddle, and don’t want to stress about whether the water flow will be high enough, then Bear Creek is your destination. Water flow is controlled by TVA, which usually plans releases to coincide with summer crowds. This area was affected by the tornadoes of 2011, so keep in mind that there will be areas of downed trees and debris along the way.

Black Warrior River—Locust Fork

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If you have some whitewater kayaking experience and you’re seeking a challenge that’s less daunting than Little River Canyon, head to the Locust Fork section of the Black Warrior. Just north of Birmingham, the run is around 5.5 miles, consisting of high Class II and Class III rapids, depending on water flow.

Some solid obstacles, combined with slightly more advanced eddies and waves, will make the Locust a good test of your kayaking skills. Put in near Blountsville on the U.S. Highway 231/79 Bridge and takeout at County Road 160 on your right.

Flint River

This section of the Flint River north of Cullman shows how vast Alabama’s whitewater experience can be if you kindle your sense of adventure and take the time to hunt. While the main tributary, the East Fork, consists mostly of Class II rapids with a few challenging drops and rocks, the Railroad Fork is one of the most unique river experiences you’ll encounter. Along the way you’ll paddle under nine railroad track tunnels. While this branch of the Flint River starts out as Class II and III, there’s serious Class IV water farther downstream.

Railroad Fork on the Flint River may be fickle, and you have to explore some to find the right spots, but that’s what draws some people to whitewater kayaking. The moments that make it worthwhile aren’t handed out, and it takes effort and dedication to make it happen.

Written by Hap Pruitt for RootsRated Media in partnership with BCBS of AL.

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