The famed Chattooga River is one of the nation’s most renowned rivers. Its reputation is well-deserved—it is a spectacular wilderness river that frolics through rock outcroppings and forest thickets that contain virtually no sign of human habitation. Located along the Georgia– South Carolina border, the river is protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which divides the river into sections. The river above GA 28 (including Section I from Burrells Ford to the GA 28 bridge) is the only stretch of river in Georgia where Chattooga River paddling is prohibited by law. The remaining three sections consist of 28 miles of pristine whitewater paddling that encompass something for all paddlers, from beginners to experts. Its excellence rivals any river in this country.
From A Canoeing & Kayaking Guide to Georgia by Bob Sehlinger and Suzanne Welander
Get an Overview of the Savannah Watershed where the Chattooga River is located
For what seemed like the first time in a long time, it rained. Then rained some more. Before we knew it, the Chattooga River was up and running, and spring paddling season opened once again. It had been two years since our last Chattooga River paddling experience. Other than the shrine to Red Bull and roses in the 76 parking lot, this day was uneventful: we unpacked, portaged in, and paddled 12 miles through intermittent rapids, shoals, and calm stretches on water so clear that the river bottom streaked by.
Description Chattooga River Paddling Section III
See a Google Map showing the put-in and take-out points for Section III
Section III of Chattooga River paddling stretches from Earls Ford to the US 76 bridge. Multiple access points along this stretch allow for day-trips of manageable length. Depending on the amount of time spent scouting or portaging, paddling all of Section III in one day is difficult, and definitely strenuous. By the time the river reaches Earls Ford, the volume has increased significantly and the average gradient is much steeper than that of Section II. The first rapid encountered is a fairly straight drop to the right of center over a 3-foot ledge. From the large eddy and pool below this drop, look downstream and to the left for the entrance to Warwoman Rapid. This tricky Class II+ should be entered on the left, heading toward the right. After the small initial drop, make a quick turn to the left and back downstream. The pillowed rock in the center of the chute can pin or capsize your boat if you do not make your turn quickly. Rock Garden, noted more for its scenic value than for the difficulty of its rapids, is next. You weave between huge boulders and fingerlike slabs of granite that often overshadow the stream. The rapids are mild, but you should stay on your toes.
Three Rooster Tails Rapid is the next challenge. After a sharp bend in the river, the channel narrows and spills over a series of funneling rocky ledges beneath overhanging rocks. Three pluming waves (the rooster tails) can be seen in the center of the route. The easiest run is just to the right of these pluming waves. Just below this rapid the river widens and slows to relative tranquility. As you look far downstream you will see Dicks Creek (Five Finger) Falls cascading over a 50- to 60-foot drop into the river on the right. Slightly upstream of this falls, on the Chattooga River, is a low shelf of rock that forms part of a definite river horizon line. Stop on this shelf for a mandatory scouting of Dicks Creek Ledge.
Dicks Creek Ledge is given a Class IV rating in Forest Service literature. There are several possible routes; one of them is a portage over the rocks in the center. Most who run the rapid try to make the S-turn over the two drops. Start the first drop heading toward the right, and be prepared to make an extreme cut back to the left at the bottom of the second drop. The S-turn maneuver becomes increasingly difficult at higher water levels. A short distance beyond Dicks Creek Ledge you will observe a large rocky island. Down the right side of this island is a series of Class III drops called Stairsteps Rapid. This is not one of the major rapids on Section III. If you are doing well at this point, selecting an appropriate course through the Stairsteps should not be difficult.
Just below Stairsteps is another island, which precedes Class III Sandy Ford Rapid. The favored route is also to the right of this island. Sandy Ford, a mid-section access point, is located on the left immediately after this rapid. It is recognizable by the sand beaches on both sides of a pooled area. Gravel road access is on both sides of the river, but the Forest Service road on the South Carolina side is recommended.
As you round the bend below Sandy Ford you will come into a large pooled area that leads into the entrance to the fabled Narrows. The Narrows’ combination of whitewater, high rock faces, and drooping ferns has made this a favorite spot on the river. If you’ve brought your camera, this should definitely be recorded on film. To scout the entrance, get out on the lower left end of this pool.
In the Narrows, Chattooga River paddling drops over a series of ledges, decreasing in width as it drops. The biggest holes are just to the left of center; the least turbulent path is to the far right. Take your pick. Open canoes needing to bail and others needing a breather may eddy out on the left below the first series of drops. The river continues to narrow and drop until it’s only a few feet wide, which creates some strangely turbulent currents. The final drop in the Narrows is around the right side of an undercut rock midstream. It should be noted that the area immediately below this series of drops has fast moving and highly irregular boiling currents, strong eddy lines, and numerous undercut rocks. For these reasons, the Forest Service has given the Narrows a Class IV rating. If you should find yourself swimming in the Narrows, avoid all contact with rocks, except from the downstream side.
One of the more dramatic rapids on Section III is not far downstream. Second Ledge is a breathtaking and heart-stopping 6-foot vertical drop. It may be scouted from the left bank at any water level, and from the rocks in the center of the stream at lower levels. Most paddlers run straight over the top of the drop on the left. Keep your boat parallel to the current and maintain brisk speed. Be ready to brace firmly when you hit the aerated water at the bottom. Second Ledge is not extremely difficult, but it does get your adrenaline pumping.
Less than 2 miles from Second Ledge is Eye of the Needle, a Class III plunge. Most of the current is pushed against the left bank down a narrow chute that cuts slightly back to the right. The current does most of the work for you in this rapid, but beware of leaning too far to the right as you progress down the chute. You may need a strong brace to stay upright.
For approximately the next 4 miles Chattooga River paddling alternates between long pools and Class I and II rapids. Two additional access points are available in this segment; the first is reached by a steep path from the end of FS 723, the second by a half mile trek from the end of FS 769. The second of these is more easily spotted from the river, and is marked with a post engraved “Fall Creek.” The creek itself enters the river downstream of this point, cascading 25 feet into the river. The next two significant Chattooga River paddlingl rapids are just ahead.
Roller Coaster is a fast, bucking, Class II ride down an extended series of large standing waves. Go for the center of the waves for the most excitement. There is a large pool at the base of Roller Coaster in which to bail and recover if necessary. Immediately around the bend is Keyhole, or Painted Rock Rapid. Much of the current pushes strongly toward a huge undercut boulder at the bottom of the drop. To avoid this rock, begin to the right of center and continue to work right as you descend. You may also run down the extreme left, but a move to the right of the boulder is still essential. If the water level is extremely low, the far left or far right may be your only choices. Painted Rock is rated a Class IV rapid by the Forest Service but is generally considered to be III+ difficulty. Roughly 3 more miles of Class I and II water brings you to the Class IV+ Bull Sluice. You will know you’ve arrived at Bull Sluice because of the extremely large boulders extending from the Georgia side of the river, which seem to block the entire stream. Even those who have run this rapid many times before still stop to scout it. Pull out well above these rocks on the Georgia (right) side and walk down to do your scouting. Inexperienced paddlers and those unfamiliar with the sluice have been known to enter the Class III entrance rapids just above it only to find themselves committed to running the thundering lower drops against their will.
Changing water levels alter the difficulty of Bull Sluice considerably and may also alter your plan of attack. Bull Sluice has been run in an infinite variety of crafts by an infinite variety of people. On any given day you will see examples of the worst and best whitewater technique at Bull Sluice. The rapid should not be taken lightly; there have been fatalities here, and on several occasions people, both in and out of their boats, have been stuck in the upper hydraulic for uncomfortably long periods of time. The lower drop is much rockier beneath the surface than it appears. Look at it carefully before you decide to run it. The portage is on the right side over the boulders.
If you decide to run Bull Sluice, here is one of many possible routes. Follow the Class III entrance rapid down the river-left side and hit the eddy on the left, which is just above the major drop. If you are in an open canoe and have taken on much water, this is the place to bail it out. It is a good spot of level river from which to reconnoiter what lies ahead. Peel out very high from this eddy and head straight over the first of the double drops just to the left of the center of the upper hole. The current will tend to push you to the left, so use it to your advantage to hit the second drop head on. Good luck!
A few hundred yards below Bull Sluice is the US 76 bridge. This marks the end of Section III and the beginning of Section IV. Boating access is from the large paved parking lot on the South Carolina side of the bridge. The Forest Service also provides a footpath access to Bull Sluice for those who may want to get a glimpse of the giant rapid without actually getting in the water.
The take-out for Chattooga River paddling is located on US 76 east of Clayton. The parking lot is the first left immediately after crossing the river. All put-ins for this section of Chattooga River paddling are reached via the Chattooga Ridge Road, a left turn 2 miles farther east on US 76. Other access points, from highest to lowest, are at Earls Ford (down Earls Ford Road), Sandy Ford (a left turn on FS 721A off of Earls Ford Road), FS 723 and FS 769 off of Fall Creek Road, and Thrifts Ferry accessible via a dirt road 1 mile east of the bridge on US 76.
For Chattooga River paddling most boaters refer to the visual gauge located at the US 76 bridge (see first section). Levels for this location are also available on the USGS Web site but are not exactly the same as visual levels. Section III can be run as low as 0.8 feet, but below 1.5 expect to be scraping along, particularly in the higher reaches. It is much more fun at 2 feet and above, and should only be run by expert boaters above 3 feet.
This Chattooga River paddling guide is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.