Cherokee National Forest South Paddling
Tellico Plains, TN 37385
Southwest of the Smoky Mountains, the main crest of the Appalachians extends through Cherokee National Forest on the Tennessee side of the divide, and Nantahala National Forest on the North Carolina side. As one travels down this crest towards the Georgia state line, several watersheds provide a plethora of whitewater paddling options beginning with the Tellico River near Tellico Plains. The Tellico is a naturally flowing river best caught in the winter and spring months. The Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers, further to the south, are both dam-release rivers that provide reliable flows predominantly in the late spring and summer. Finally, the Cheoah River just across Deal's Gap in North Carolina is a recently new addition to the dam-release circuit, providing the most challenging dam-released whitewater in the Knoxville region.
The Tellico River is a mainstay for whitewater paddlers of a wide range of skill levels. A little over an hour's drive from downtown, this river has water more often than almost any other river in the area. The classic Upper Tellico has a few easy waterfalls, perfect for developing advanced creeking skills, while the Lower Tellico is a great roadside class III favorite. After heavy rains, paddlers move into the tributaries and nearby creeks for more excitement. Citico Creek, just to the north, is a real gem, with excellent water quality and continuous whitewater. There is a section of Bald River which cuts through a breathtaking gorge above Bald River Falls, that can be run — just make sure you know where to takeout! Wildcat Creek comes into the wide section of river below the Lower Tellico section. There is a short hike into a tiny and other-worldly gorge that is filled with class III and class IV rapids, as well as a few surprises for the uninitiated. South of Tellico Plains are two more creeks; Conasauga Creek and Coker Creek. These runs feature small waterfalls, slides, and a few possible portages, as they wind through the foothills of the Unicoi Mountains.
South of the Tellico, the Hiwassee and Ocoee Rivers dominate the terrain. In the warm summer months, swarms of new paddlers flock to the Hiwassee River for reliable flows on what is, essentially, the official introductory whitewater training run in the Knoxville area. Most local paddling clubs offer schools and clinics here in the early summer. The river itself is a large and wide stream with clean cold water flowing through an open valley known as much for trout fishing as boating. The de-watered Hiwassee Dries can be a rare treat during extremely wet periods, or when maintenance is being conducted on the powerhouse. Over the mountains to the south, the mighty Ocoee River cuts a ten-mile gorge as it gushes out of the rugged mountains of Georgia and into the Tennessee Valley. This stretch is divided into two sections. The Upper Ocoee is slightly harder than the lower, especially in the short, but very intense, section adjacent to the Whitewater Center where the 1996 Olympics were held. This man-made course provides serious challenge for seasoned paddlers already comfortable on the middle section of the river. The Middle Ocoee is one of the most commercially rafted sections of river in the world. From late March to the end of October, this is the place to be for intermediate paddlers and rafters alike. Most serious paddlers in Tennessee have cut their teeth on the Ocoee, which is the benchmark to which most other river runs are compared.
As a result of successful negotiations with hydro-power interests, the Cheoah River is the newest river to provide whitewater releases. A ride down the Cheoah is a true thrill, with mile-after-mile of class IV whitewater. This is the toughest commercially rafted river in the region, and is a serious undertaking even in a kayak. Just getting to the river requires a harrowing drive on the tail of the dragon past Deal's Gap on Hwy 129!