Great Smoky Mountains National Park Paddling
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
With the Great Smoky Mountains National Park consistently offering up the best in hiking, backpacking, fishing, and all around outdoor experiences, it shouldn't be any surprise that the park also has some of the best whitewater paddling in the country. The Smoky Mountains are known for small and continuous creeks that come to life every winter and spring from rains that are almost a daily occurrence. Whether you are doing a quick afternoon trip down the Little River or embarking on an all-day paddling expedition, the Smokies define Knoxville whitewater paddling.
The Tennessee side of the park is the most accessible. Every sizable creek flowing north into the valley offers some type of whitewater adventure. Abrams Creek on the west side of the park drains Cades Cove before flowing 18 pristine miles down to Chilhowee Lake. The upper section, which flows through a wild gorge, contains Abrams Falls, an exhilarating but serious drop that should only contemplated by advanced paddlers. The lower is a milder class II run through a very remote corner of the park. Tremont is another area with great paddling. The Middle Prong of the Little River forms at the end of the road where Thunderhead Prong and Lynn Camp Prong, two runnable steep creeks in their own right, converge. The Upper Middle Prong features a mile of steep boulder gardens that provide a quick fix for local creekers. The Lower Section is a step-down in difficulty.
The Little River is the cornerstone of paddling in the park, with four sections. The section above Elkmont Campground requires a two-to-three mile hike to access the top, but serves up plenty of action on its way down to Elkmont! From Elkmont to Metcalf Bottoms, the river is a fun class II with a few hard class III rapids. Below Metcalf Bottoms is the classic Sinks to the Elbow section of the Little River, where non-stop class III whitewater is framed by the consequential class IV drops at the Sinks and the Elbow. The Elbow to the Y stretch sees the river calm to class II, and is where most boaters get their first paddling experience in the Smokies.
Running along Hwy 441 from Newfound Gap to Gatlinburg, the West Prong of the Little Pigeon is one of the best and most difficult class V runs in the country. Split into an Upper and Lower section, this hairball creek run is more than all but few paddlers want. When flows are really high, the Road Prong provides the steepest creek run on the east coast, with a solid class V+ rating. Moving over to the Greenbrier section of the park, the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon has a wide diversity of runs, making it another favorite destination after heavy rains. Hiking up the Ramsey Cascade Trail gives access to an amazing class V run through pockets of old growth forest. From the trailhead down to Porters Creek is another challenging class IV-V run. Porters Creek itself can be run under certain conditions. Finally the lower section of the Middle Prong from Porters Creek down to the park boundary has the best class III creeking in the park and will be abuzz with eager paddlers when the water is up.
The North Carolina side of the park is less travelled by paddlers, as most of the creeks are inaccessible without extensive hiking or access across Fontana Lake. There are many possible expeditions to be had into this seldom visited side of the park. There are a few notable exceptions to this though, with Big Creek and the Raven Fork being world class runs. Just saying "Big Creek" will bring a huge grin to any paddler's face, whether they are thinking of the renowned class V hike-up run above the campground, or the tamer class III-IV trip from the campground down to the confluence with the Pigeon River. The Raven Fork is located in a remote corner of the park bordering the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The only thing more difficult than paddling the Raven Fork is gaining access to the creek, which involves lots of hiking. Very few paddlers venture into this committing gorge.