Georgia’s Hiwassee River leaves the state headed north, cuts across the forested foot of a couple of North Carolina peaks, and plunges into Tennessee via the frigid Appalachian powerhouse releases as the Hiwassee River. After all its mountain meandering, this river still has one ridge left to clear in its surge towards the Tennessee River. Hiwassee River kayaking is a fun ride; the Hiwassee is a forgiving stream, but one that accelerates a desire to hone your skills. Swift current and the river’s width, between 200 and 400 feet, can make recovery a difficult, chilly experience. In a beautiful, scenic setting, the clear water of the bouncing river makes a dramatic horseshoe bend at the foot of Tennessee’s Hood Mountain. It is truly a worthy member of the state’s scenic river system.
Get an Overview of the Tennessee River Watershed where the Hiwassee River is located
USGS and County Maps for Hiwassee River Kayaking
McFarland, Oswald Dome (USGS); Polk TN (County)
Hiwassee River Kayaking from Powerhouse to Reliance
Class: II; Length: 5.5 miles; Time: 3.5 hours; Gauge: Web, phone; Level: 1,500 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 15 feet per mile; Scenery: B+
For a non-paddling experience on the Hiwassee, take a look at the interesting and scenic I5-mile section of the river between the dam and the powerhouse. This bed is now mostly dry and only carries water during periods of extremely high natural flow from heavy rainfall. Hiking access is via the railroad tracks (still in regular use) for the entire distance. The scenery is beautiful, with mountains on both sides and unusual rock formations. There are high train trestles crossing over brooks, and at one point the track crosses over itself, which is famous in railroad circles. The railroad makes more than a complete circle, known as the Hiwassee Loop, to gain altitude. Nearer the powerhouse is the abandoned town site of McFarland and the Narrows, where the river is constricted between the tracks and high rocks of unusual formation.
Downstream from the powerhouse where the river is canoeable, the water is cold. Releases come from deep in the impoundment. It is rather unusual to find such cold water in a wide, shallow stream. Trout thrive; dunked canoeists shiver. Anglers and canoeists have almost learned to coexist on this stretch of rockbound water. When there’s no dam release, the waders line the rocky outcroppings in the riverbed, hunting the pooled-up fish. When the 1,500-cfs dam release comes along, tubers, rafters, and paddlers of all types come with it, plunging over those same rock ledges and recovering in those same fished out pools.
The first 5 miles of Hiwassee River kayaking below the powerhouse is Class I and II, with a couple of rapids rating a strong Class II. The put-in is at the powerhouse access ramp, about a quarter mile below the powerhouse. Another 2 miles downstream is the Big Bend parking lot, hidden in the trees at the foot of a series of ledges. If rain, cold, or mishap creates a need to take-out early, you should know how to find that access-there isn’t another one until the ramp at Reliance. Between the powerhouse and Reliance, you’ll encounter a mixed bag of Hiawassee River kayaking possibilities: swift current and bouncy waves at Cabin Bend; big, unstable drops at Number 2 Rapids and Oblique Falls; tricky crosscurrents at Bigneys Rock; follow-the-flow, water-reading exercises at the Ledges and the Stairsteps; peel-off and eddy-turn practice at the Needles; and big swamper waves at Devils Shoals.
Below Reliance, the river flattens out as it makes its final run out of the mountains. Downstream another 6 miles on river left is the U.S. Forest Service Quinn Springs Campground, located across Tennessee 30 from the fishing access. The Tennessee State Park’s Gee Creek campground is on river right, just below. The Gee Creek ramp is up the creek a few yards; the creek’s entrance is marked by an old Native American V-shaped fishing weir below the mouth of the creek in the Hiwassee.
From Blue Ridge, take GA 5 north through McCaysville and into Tennessee, where it turns into TN 68. Go west on US 64 along the Ocoee, then north on TN 30 to Reliance and the take-out. The take-out can also be reached from the west via TN 30 from US 411. To reach the put-in for Hiwassee River kayaking, take the bridge across the river and take the first right onto FS 108, following it to the Putin at the Apalachia Powerhouse.
The TVA provides flow data on their Internet site or by calling (800) 238-2264 and following prompts for releases at Apalachia Dam. The minimum required flow is 1,500 cfs. The recommended maximum is 5,000 cfs for open boats, 10,000 cfs for decked.
This Hiwassee kayaking 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.