Paddling Appalachia

With tumbling rivers and cool mountain lakes, Appalachia is a paddler’s paradise. We offer a list of eight great destinations.

The Appalachian region is home to numerous whitewater paddling opportunities for intermediate and expert level kayaking. Photo by Carl Galie

Whitewater enthusiasts from across the country come to Appalachia’s rivers for their aquatic adrenaline rushes. Sportsmen often drift in canoes or open kayaks for fishing excursions. A long weekend of canoe camping on a river trip is a perfect getaway for many outdoors aficionados. Or perhaps a tranquil kayak jaunt around the lake is just what you need to refresh your batteries.

With so many great places to paddle, it’s tough to narrow down any list of top spots, but below we offer a list of perfect paddling places in Appalachia. Just narrowing the list is tough enough, so truly ranking them seemed impossible. Our list is not in any particular order. If you don’t see your favorite paddling destination on the list, let us know. We’d love to hear about your favorite places to paddle in Appalachia.

Gauley River

West Virginia
Home of the Gauley Festival, this river is one of the preeminent whitewater rivers in the country. The Upper Gauley offers Class V paddling and should only be accessed by experts. The Lower Gauley is slightly tamer, but its Class III and IV waters can still create quite the adrenaline rush.

The Gauley Festival began in 1983 and has become a showcase for American Whitewater, which is a national non-profit organization with a mission “to conserve and restore America’s whitewater resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely.” The dates for this year’s festival are Sept. 18-20.

New River

North Carolina-Virginia-West Virginia
The beautiful New, ironically, is quite old. Many geologists consider the New to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Forming in Ashe County, N.C., it runs north through southwest Virginia and to West Virginia where it eventually merges with the Gauley and becomes the Kanawha River.

The New offers many sections to paddle and lots of outfitters can help you plan a trip all along the river’s span. Most of the river is fairly placid, with just a few Class II and III rapids in Virginia, but the best-known part of the river to paddlers is in the area of the New River Gorge in West Virginia where you can sometimes find Class IV+ rapids.

Nolichucky River

North Carolina and Tennessee
The Nolichucky flows through a beautiful and deep mountain gorge in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. It offers a variety of paddling from Class I rapids around the Nolichucky Gorge Campground to the Class IV rapid called Quarter Mile. Playboaters will enjoy some time in Jaws and Maggie’s Rock.

Ocoee River

The Ocoee has long been a renowned river for Southeastern paddlers, but the waterway gained worldwide notoriety as host of whitewater events in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Class III and IV rapids that attract many paddlers begin just west of Ducktown, Tenn. The primary put-in is the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which is a federally operated put-in used by commercial companies and individuals.
The Middle Ocoee offers continuous action with mostly Class III rapids, and, if the water is high, some Class IV runs. Occasional Class II rapids along the way provide a chance to catch your breath.

Reservoirs and lakes provide excellent nature-watching opportunities and are perfect locations for beginners to familiarize themselves to a kayak. Photo by Kent Kessinger

Youghiogheny River

Maryland-Pennsylvania-West Virginia
Commonly known as the Yough, this is a tributary of the Monongahela River. Various sections of the Yough offer an array of paddling options, but probably the most noted section of the river flows through Ohiopyle State Park in Pennsylvania.

The Lower Yough begins after the Ohiopyle Falls and flows downstream to the Bruner Run take-out. Numerous Class III and IV rapids offer thrills generally to be run only by experienced paddlers. Beginning and intermediate paddlers can enjoy the Middle Yough, which starts at the Ramcat put-in near Confluence, and ends near the town of Ohiopyle. This section generally consists of Class I and II waters.

Chattahoochee River

North Georgia’s Chattahoochee River has long been a play place for Atlanta-area paddlers. Typical paddling runs are from Buford Dam at the lower end of Lake Lanier down to either Settles Bridge or Abbotts Bridge, but you can also run the river closer to Atlanta. If you don’t have your own gear, several outfitters in the area will be happy to assist you.

Typically, the Chattahoochee is a Class I or II waterway and is traversed by whitewater kayakers and rafters as well as canoeists. Occasionally upon dam releases or after heavy rains the river can offer a few more thrills and spills, but it’s typically a good float even for beginners.

Lake Guntersville

Tucked away in northeast Alabama, Lake Guntersville is a great recreational lake. The primary access point is Lake Guntersville State Park, which offers cabins, chalets, hotel rooms and camping facilities in addition to boat launching areas.

As is the case with most lakes of this nature, traffic from motorboats can be annoying, especially on holiday weekends, but during off times the 69,000-acre reservoir can be quite scenic and tranquil. Those who enjoy fishing from a canoe or kayak will enjoy a day — or more — on Lake Guntersville.

Allegheny Reservoir

Pennsylvania and New York
In the northern end of Appalachia lies a body of water that is fantastic for canoeists and kayakers. The Allegheny Reservoir spans the border between Pennsylvania and New York. In Pennsylvania, the reservoir is surrounded by the Allegheny National Forest. In New York it’s surrounded by Allegany State Park and the Allegany Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation. With lots of put-ins and spots to camp, the Allegheny Reservoir is perfect for someone who might want to spend a long weekend — or even a week — paddling and experiencing the outdoors.

Tim W. Jackson is former Editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine and is currently the editor of

Related Articles

Latest News

Sorry, we couldn't find any posts. Please try a different search.

AV Mountain border tan1

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment