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Kayaking the Cheoah River - North Carolina

Extreme Adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains


Located near the remote western edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cheoah River is one of the most challenging and physically-demanding whitewater  rivers in the world. Unique in its features, white water rafting the Cheoah is the perfect challenge for our most adventurous guests.

For nine miles, the Cheoah roars through continuous Class IV-V rapids, towering waves, boiling holes, house-sized boulders, culminating with Bear Creek Falls, a dramatic twelve-foot waterfall. Dropping 150 feet per mile, the Cheoah is three times as steep as the Gauley or the infamous Section IV of the Chattooga. Nationally, only California's Cherry Creek and Colorado's Gore Canyon are comparable.



River Description


The Cheoah River is located in the extreme southwestern corner of NC, near Robbinsville. For seventy years the nine-mile section between the Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood was dewatered. American Whitewater along with the Western North Carolina Paddlers advocated for releases for over 6 years.  Whitewater releases on the Cheoah began in the fall of 2005.  Each year there are at least 18 releases for paddlers to enjoy for the next 40 years.


The Cheoah is unusual for rivers of its volume in the Southeast in that its gradient is relatively constant. This means that with the exception of 2 or 3 half mile or so sections, it is unusually continuous, more so than anything else with a similar volume of water in the Southeast. Some call it "warm western-style paddling;" those paddling it at the higher winter 2002 flows continued the Western analogies, comparing it to Pine Creek on the Arkansas and the Lochsa at high water. No doubt contributing to the analogies was the water quality, which was crystal clear during the winter flows. All who have paddled the Cheoah have agree it will become one of the crown jewels of whitewater world.


The portion of the Cheoah from Outland Gas and Grocery to Lake Calderwood can be broken into three sections: a 1.5 mile brushy and tree-clogged upper section with a number of sticky holes and a potentially troublesome river-wide ledge a bit downstream of the hydroelectric bypass pipe, a 4 mile relatively open and mild middle section that features some nice wave trains at higher water levels, and a 1.5 mile lower section with the most gradient and the best defined drops.  Efforts have been made to clear channels in the upper sections of the river, however there are large root balls scattered throughout the stream bed and swimmers should be extremely careful.


At flows of about 1000 cfs or under, the upper section is about a half grade and the middle section a full grade easier than the lower section, with the first two sections similar in difficulty to the Ocoee. The risks are greater, however, as much of the channel is heavily lined with trees and brush, giving the run a nature akin to paddling during a flood. The main technical challenge is presented by the frequent series of offset holes. Because of the trees and brush, it is not a good place to paddle if you don't have a rock-solid roll and the ability to read water well on the fly (bank scouting would not be fun).


The lower section is the best defined, with a number of classic drops. It begins at the bridge on which the Bearpen Gap gauge is located. My favorites were the sequence of four drops with the biggest single drop on the river (a ledge about 8 feet high) being the third and the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Tapoco Lodge. There were many, many waves to surf and a number of very playable holes, including two potential rodeo sites: one at Tapoco Lodge and one at the end of the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Lodge.


At the highest level paddled during the summer test releases (4.7 feet / 1,130 cfs), the upper and lower sections were much closer in difficulty as the offset holes were beginning to get sticky. The hole below the river-wide ledge was beginning to look scary at this level; recovery after a swim would be challenging due to the thickets of trees growing in the water and on both banks for a considerable distance downstream. The lower section didn't change much, so the result was a run that was a lot more fun but not any scarier (assuming strong class IV skills, and keeping in mind that the Ocoee only requires strong class III skills). If more of the trees and brush were removed, the upper run would almost certainly get easier at every level as paddlers wouldn't be forced to run through the meat of the holes and the entrapment danger would be lower.


For the upcoming schedule of releases see: