Welcome to Summer: Floating Watauga River

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

Flowing cold and clear out of one of Tennessee’s most scenic lakes, this lively mountain float winds through the backwoods surrounded by picturesque farmland in a backdrop dominated by Holston Mountain.

Managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Watauga River can best be accessed below Wilbur Dam. It is important to remember that since this river is controlled by dam, release schedules can change rapidly. Always check the schedule before hitting the water. When Watauga River is not generating, bankside fishing is popular as the water will not be swift enough for boats. You may find yourself stuck among the rocks and riverbed, and pulling even the smallest of boats is something nobody wants to do.

The Float

Watauga enthusiasts enter the frigid, trout-filled water immediately joining the swift stream for an 8.5 mile run. The first rapid comes at .2 mile and is a welcome warm up. Like other rapids on this paddle it is a simple drop with exposed rocks. At .7 mile, the river begins to curve left and passes over mild shoals. Next, you’ll reach Bee Cliff Rapid, a Class III white flow also known as “Anaconda.” Fortunately, there is a cheat route and you can avoid the worst of the rapid if you prefer! Keep within 5 feet of the left shore and you can successfully run an even gradient, avoiding the froth of white in the middle of the river.

Beyond Bee Cliff Rapid, the river continues to speed, passing picturesque farmland in a backdrop dominated by Holston Mountain. Streamside houses become common heading toward Elizabethton, but your eyes will be on the Class I-II rapids, divided by occasional islands. The cold water sometimes generates a cool fog blanket which covers the river. From here on out you’ve got it made! The rapids of the main channels are clear-cut as you take on small shoals. Pass under the US 19E Bridge at 7 miles, followed by an abandoned bridge, and the TN 400 Bridge at 8 miles.

While the river is generating, stopping points are limited, not only by private property but simply by high water inundating the shore. The swift waters will have you at Riverside Park in Elizabethton before you know it.

If you’re new to paddling and looking for a more relaxing trip, Wilbur Lake is on the other side of Wilbur Dam, open to non-motorized boats and even hosts a campground.

Leave No Trace

Remember to leave our trails with no trace, so adventures can last a lifetime. Find out how you can make a difference with our leaders for litter-free Tennessee efforts.

Johnny Molloy is the author of many outdoor guides including Best Tent Camping: Tennessee, Paddling Tennessee, and Five Star Trails Tri-Cities: East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.