Cherokee National Forest North Paddling
Tellico Plains, TN 37385
Northeast of the Smoky Mountains, the main crest of the Appalachians extends through Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee side of the divide, and Pisgah National Forest on the North Carolina side. Three large rivers cut through the mountains in this region between the Smokies and Johnson City. These rivers are known for providing long trips through tall mountain gorges filled with higher volume whitewater, and also have a few tributaries that are quite a hoot when rains bring them up in the winter and spring.
The Pigeon River is born south of Canton and Waynesville, NC, high in the Shining Rock/Middle Prong Wilderness. Downstream of Harmon Den and along I-40, the river necks down through the Pigeon River Gorge, where the Pigeon Dries reside. Unfortunately, since the Dries are de-watered, they rarely have adequate flows, but big rain events often force Progress Energy to spill into the Dries, creating the best class V big water paddling in the southeast. From the powerhouse at the state line down to Hartford, TN is the classic Pigeon River run, where predictable summer releases provide reliable warm water paddling from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and often in the off-season as well. The Lower Pigeon downstream makes a great beginner run.
Further east is the grand watershed of the French Broad, where the best whitewater runs of the drainage are focused around the quaint mountain hamlet of Hot Springs, NC. Whether paddling the classic 8-mile stretch above Hot Springs, or taking a high water trip down exciting tributaries like Big Laurel Creek or Spring Creek, the French Broad has paddling covered. The French Broad downstream from Del Rio is a nice beginner section of whitewater for those not ready for the other runs in this area.
Finally near Erwin, TN, the mighty Nolichucky River cuts the most impressive mountain gorge in the southeast. In the heart of the Nolichucky Gorge, big and powerful rapids wind their way between peaks that soar thousands of feet overhead, before dumping into the more open valley on the Tennessee side of the range.
Commercial rafting companies operate on all three of these rivers. The Pigeon River schedule depends on releases from a hydro-project, while trips on the Nolichucky and French Broad are confined to periods where natural flows are sufficient.