A Quick and Dirty Guide to the Best Whitewater Kayaking in Kentucky

Cumberland Falls is also known as the “Niagara of the South.”
Cumberland Falls is also known as the “Niagara of the South.” John S. Perkins
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Horses aren’t the only things that are fast in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State is home to some rambunctious rivers that weave their way along the rolling landscape and fling themselves off the escarpments of the Appalachians and the Cumberland. With everything from calm streams to full-on class V rapids, Kentucky is a paddler’s paradise.

Let’s start with the easy stuff and talk whitewater on the border of Dixie.

Beginner Basics: Elkhorn Creek

The Elkhorn is a whitewater classroom for many paddlers from bordering states.
The Elkhorn is a whitewater classroom for many paddlers from bordering states. Edgar P. Zhagüi Merchán

Along US 460, just east of Frankfort, is a popular paddling access site at the Forks of the Elkhorn Bridge. This is the place to put-in for the Elkhorn Gorge, a fun little stream with dynamic playspots and friendly rapids. The Elkhorn is a whitewater classroom for many paddlers who hail from bordering states.

The watershed is able to keep a decent flow for quite some time after a rain, allowing its waters to be frequented in winter and spring. The most important thing to mention, however, is to beware of the Jim Beam Distillery low head dam. It sits less than a mile from the launch, and must be portaged on the left. When the flows are above 3,000 cfs (or three feet), the water around the dam can be dangerous.

Moonbow Masterpiece: Cumberland Below the Falls

Below the magnificent Cumberland Falls lies 10.5 miles of class II-III+ whitewater in a beautiful setting with huge boulders lining the riverbed, typical of the Upper Cumberland. That’s the good news. The bad news for whitewater enthusiasts is that a long lake paddle awaits you at the end. Still, it’s worth the effort because the "Niagara of the South" is a sight to behold.

Finding the put-in at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is pretty straightforward, and the lake takeout is known as Noe’s Dock at the mouth of the Laurel River. It’s recommended to paddle this stretch after the lake drawdown in the fall, otherwise the bottom rapids will disappear into the lake and the ominous flatwater paddle is even longer. When the river is flowing above 400 cfs and the lake is below 705 cfs, take a long day and enjoy the solitude of the Upper Cumberland. If you’re lucky enough to come during a full moon, camp the night before and view the rare nighttime rainbow display reflected in the spray of the falls. (It’s the only place in the Western hemisphere to see this impressive phenomenon.)

Delightful Ditch: Benson Creek

A significant rain (over an inch) is necessary to prime this muddy little Frankfort stream, filled with vertical ledge drops and wide play waves. The water never has much clarity, but the fun outweighs a little dirt any day! A couple of big holes are avoidable, but only one of them is a true hazard. Scout the falls to avoid being humbled in front of your friends. Though it isn’t visible, expect to tag bottom if you are going vertical with your freestyle tricks. Parking at the bottom along Benson Valley Road allows access to the best surf wave.

Remote Retreat: Red River Gorge

The Red River Gorge is filled with beautiful scenery.
The Red River Gorge is filled with beautiful scenery. Tina Karle

A tight little gorge with surprise corners and frequent strainers lies within the Clifty Wilderness area of the Red River Gorge. It’s not easy to find the perfect window for running this stretch, but the low end of the spectrum is suitable for intermediates (class III) while high water (class IV) is pushy with powerful holes, and should only be attempted by experts. The popularity as a climbing destination makes the gorge intriguing for paddling, as the walls are quite impressive.

Running the Red River Gorge with plenty of water will add the bonus of numerous side streams with cascades and waterfalls flinging their way down the cliffs, but even at low flows, paddling beneath a rock amphitheater stands out as a favorite point along the remote journey on the Red.

Urban Amusement: Downtown Bowling Green Riverfront

"The Rocks" is a man-made rock dam that provides some entertainment for Bowling Green’s paddling community at various levels. Some waves, holes, and eddylines form for freestyle play at levels between 10-15 feet on the local gauge. The proposed whitewater park here would be a great asset!

Rip-Roaring Rockcastle

Numerous tight squeezes called the Narrows of the Rockcastle form up the excellent rapids on this section of class III-IV whitewater that eventually ends up in Lake Cumberland. If it weren’t for the arduous, long shuttle, this would be a crowded popular stretch, but the added baggage of a lake paddle or hiking back to Bee Rock Campground keep the crowds under control.

There is a pretty good window for suitable flows—from 300 to 3000 cfs—but finding the lake below the summer pool will expose a few more rapids if you’re running all the way down. That being said, if you can carry a boat, a 25-minute hike in exchange for five miles of classic Cumberland style whitewater seems more than fair!

Louisville Slugger: Falls of the Ohio (Upper Section)

This distinctive place is well-marked by signs in the area, but if the sight of enormous, deep rapids with exploding waves, whirlpools, and powerful eddylines makes you squeamish, then don’t put-in here. There are many possible waves to surf which are constantly changing and shifting locations in very typical big water fashion. The formation of the whitewater here is created by a dam release that floods the world’s largest exposed Devonian era coral reef. Paddling from the dam down to the interpretive center is roughly one mile. Some levels are a bust, but hopefully, some quality surf will exist along the way!

Appalachian Allure: Russell Fork Gorge

Paddle all day and then stay at Breaks Interstate Park, located on the On the Kentucky/Virginia border and overlooking the gorge.
Paddle all day and then stay at Breaks Interstate Park, located on the On the Kentucky/Virginia border and overlooking the gorge. Virginia State Parks

The border of Kentucky and Virginia is deeply entrenched by a notorious, captivating river called the Russell Fork. Driving upstream of Elkhorn City during peak leaf season in the fall is sure to please, but approaching the put-in will likely be followed by a bit of nerves as the river begins to rise from the upstream dam release.

The Russell Fork releases in October are magnetic for groups of expert paddlers throughout the region. Gripping class V drops such as "El Horrendo" make the Russell Fork a favorite, while deadly undercut hazards like “Fist” keep everyone on their toes. A race on the final weekend is a regular annual event for the best Russell Fork regulars.

If the camping accommodations at the "Rat Hole" take-out aren’t appealing, then Breaks Interstate Park has more formalized camping and a buffet restaurant overlooking the gorge. Keep in mind that upstream of the gorge is a nice class II-III stretch of river that gets less traffic. It’s appropriate for novice paddlers who might be camping with their class V counterparts.

Seductive Steepness: Grassy Creek

This thrilling tributary of the Russell Fork is a favorite huck among local boaters. If Russell Fork is running high due to rain and you’re capable, this steep class IV-V gem is a must do. Scout for wood, as the creek narrows down to just four feet wide in some spots. Plopping in at the Bates Motel rewards you with a short mile of continuous steep slides and drops. The finale is Hyperslide, and 80-foot long high-speed slide! The typical Russell Fork take-out is where you’ll end up.

This list is merely a handful of the best rivers. Kentucky has plenty of whitewater to go around!

Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.

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