The Best Places to Paddle on the Tennessee River

The Tennessee River Gorge is a spectacular setting for paddling just minutes from downtown Chattanooga.
The Tennessee River Gorge is a spectacular setting for paddling just minutes from downtown Chattanooga. Michael Hicks
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The area around Chattanooga is perhaps best known for its whitewater, but that’s not the only paddling opportunity available in the Scenic City. In fact, paddlers are increasingly discovering the joys of kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding on the Tennessee River, which runs right through the heart of Chattanooga. In fact, a paddling trip on the Tennessee River allows you to see the city in a new way while exploring some of the city’s most epic and iconic features.

The Tennessee River Blueway, a 50-mile stretch of river from the Chickamauga Dam Recreation Area northeast of the city to Nickajack Lake in the west, was designated a National Scenic River Trail in 2002. You’ll find something for everyone along the river, from easy calm lakes that are perfect for beginners to the busier urban waterway to explore. The highlight for many is the 26-mile segment through the Tennessee River Gorge—aptly called the Grand Canyon of Tennessee.

Just a few miles from Chattanooga, the Chickamauga Dam Recreation Area is an excellent spot for beginning paddlers to start. Above the dam, there’s both shallow water and no current to deal with—ideal conditions if you want to try stand-up paddleboarding for the first time. Rental paddleboards and kayaks are readily available at Rock Creek (Riverside Store) and L2 Boards.

Paddling on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga gives you a different view of the city.
Paddling on the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga gives you a different view of the city. Jake Wheeler

Following the current of the river below the dam, you’ll quickly make your way to downtown Chattanooga. A popular spot to stop is at McClellan (Audubon) Island , a 19-acre preserve just upstream of the Walnut Street Bridge. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails as well as a wide variety of plants and animals.

The most impressive city scenery is on the south side of the river, where you can paddle over to touch the towering limestone cliffs below the Hunter Museum, pass beneath the Walnut Street Bridge a dizzying 140 feet above, and admire the “cannon” water fountains and Tennessee Aquarium from your water-side vantage point.

For those wanting a river tour of the city, the most popular launch spot is at Coolidge Park, directly underneath the Market Street Bridge, where a gentle concrete ramp leads you to the water. After paddling through downtown, you’ll round Moccasin Bend and enter the Tennessee River Gorge, a spectacular tree-covered gorge that’s cut into the Cumberland Plateau. Bald eagles are often visible along the route. Just 10 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, River Canyon Kayak rents both one- and two-person kayaks and stand-up paddleboards that allow you to explore this section of the river.

You can find sections of the Tennessee River for any level of paddler.
You can find sections of the Tennessee River for any level of paddler. Jake Wheeler

In addition to the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is also home to quite a few pristine creeks and tributaries that offer unforgettable paddling experiences. From the emerald green waters of Lookout Creek , to the best kept paddling secret in town at West Chickamauga Creek , there’s no shortage of options for flatwater enthusiasts around Chattanooga.

You can also put those paddling skills to the test at the ChattaJack 31, a race held in each October that draws paddlers from all over the United States. The event takes paddlers 31 miles from downtown Chattanooga to Nickajack Lake in a variety for watercraft, and it has quickly established itself as one of the country's premier flatwater endurance races.

Whether you take an hour to explore the Tennessee River Gorge, see downtown Chattanooga from river-level, or paddle the entire length of the blueway, you’ll find something to love on the Tennessee River.

Originally written for Chattanooga CVB.

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