The Best Whitewater Kayaking in Northeast Tennessee


Follow along with outdoorsman and writer Johnny Molloy as he treks through the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.

Rolling whitewater, rising mountains, and winding roads are signatures of Northeast Tennessee. The combination of rugged terrain and abundant rainfall make the area a prime whitewater destination. Check out four rivers that give paddlers of all levels a chance to challenge the churn.

Nolichucky River

Photo by Jeremy Gass

Passionately referred to by the locals as “Noli,” the nationally known Nolichucky River stretches from the famed Nolichucky Gorge through the scenic valleys of Northeast Tennessee. Near Huntdale, NC, the Nolichucky River is born and begins a raucous journey between Buffalo and Rich Mountains. The river slices through the rolling agricultural lands of Unicoi, Washington and Greene Counties, eventually turning wide with frequent shoals before meeting the French Broad River at the upper end of Douglas Lake.

The Nolichucky’s signature run is an 8-mile stretch through the high walled Nolichucky Gorge, from Poplar, NC to Erwin, Tenn. You will charge through Class III-IV Rapids amidst mountain scenery while the “Noli” slices a 2,000-foot-deep canyon through the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. You’ll even pass by the forgotten settlement of Lost Cove.

Watauga River

Photo by Jeremy Gass

The Watauga River presents paddling in a wild canyon, as well as below a controlled dam. There are two segments of the Watauga River that are commonly paddled.

The 5-mile run between Guys Ford Bridge to American Whitewater’s Sherwood Horine crosses from North Carolina to Tennessee. Here, the Watauga brings rapids that will test even the experienced paddler, including Class IV Bump and Grind, Class V Hydro, and Class IV Knuckles.

A lower stretch of the Watauga River flows cold and clear out of one of Tennessee’s most scenic impoundments, Wilbur Lake. The dam-controlled waterway presents paddlers a lively mountain 8-mile fun run in chilly waters, ending at Elizabethton’s Riverside Park. TVA delivers a dependable recreation release schedule for paddlers below Wilbur Dam. As the dam releases, the river flows over white shoals before reaching Bee Cliff Rapid, a Class III spiller. Below Bee Cliff, the shoals are Class I-II, with a respectable average drop of 11.9 feet per mile.

Doe River

Photo by Matt Jackson

The Doe River begins high in the mountains, and cuts its own chasm filled with rapids that run thrills to those who dare paddle the boulder strewn stream. The Doe offers an exciting 6-mile run through the Doe River Gorge. The headwaters of the river flow down slopes of the legendary Roan Mountain. The Class III-IV kayaking run starts at Herschel Julian Landing, and traverses a canyon through rapids such as Toasterslot and Class IV Bodysnatcher, with a huge mid-river boulder. It is advised to scout where possible, as log jams occur in the gorge. The 6-mile trip ends at Green Bridge Landing near Hampton. Ideal flow rates are between 400-2000 cfs.

Elk River

Photo by Wesley Bradley

The Elk River presents a potentially hairy whitewater run before giving up to the mountain rimmed Watauga Lake. Daring whitewater enthusiasts tackle the upper Elk River, flowing near Elk Park and Banner Elk just crossing the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. The demanding 5-mile run presents Class IV+ to V+ water, including a start below 65-foot Big Falls (also known as Elk River Falls), and a tough portage around Twisting Falls in Tennessee. There’s also a 35-40’ runnable waterfall called Compression Falls. It is strongly advised to make a very realistic assessment of skills before taking this on.

A more manageable 4-mile section of the Elk River runs from Poga Road Bridge to the US 321 Bridge near the hamlet of Elk Mills, Tenn. This Class II-III run flows under several bridges, allowing for scouting opportunities.

Stay Safe
Paddling whitewater is something that should be done only with the right training and equipment that is specifically rated for whitewater. Paddlers are reminded to stay focused and respect the waterways. Safety is paramount when tackling whitewater – go with a skilled partner, know river levels before embarking and scout, scout, scout. A PFD is required when on the water.

Leave No Trace
Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime.

Equipment, Guide, and Instruction Services
Mahoney’s Outfiiters
830 Sunset Dr.
Johnson City, TN  37604

Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute
2 Jones Branch Rd.
Erwin, TN  37650

USA Raft Adventure Resort
2 Jones Branch Rd.
Erwin, TN  37650

Trip Ideas and Events
Tour Carter County
500 Veterans Memorial Parkway
Elizabethton, TN  37643

Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce
100 S. Main Avenue
Erwin, TN  37650

Greene County Partnership Tourism
115 Academy St.
Greeneville, TN  37743

About Johnny Molloy:
Johnny Molloy is an outdoor writer. The self-employed capitalist has written over 70 books on hiking, camping, paddling and true outdoor adventures. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, Johnny probably has written a book for you. “The wilderness is my office.” – Johnny Molloy