Located approximately 40 miles west of Rome, Georgia, the Little River Canyon is an impressive sandstone-granite gorge through which a sparkling clear stream runs. The Little River Canyon paddling has deep mirror-surfaced pools, gentle ripples, and boulder-smashing, highly technical whitewater. The water is usually clear, with deep, shimmering, turquoise pools. Cedars, pines, hardwoods, and, in spring, a profusion of wildflowers adorn the cliffs on either side of the river. Small tributaries plummet to merge with the primary flow, creating many intimate coves with excellent photographic potential. Paddlers shouldn’t become too enthralled with the scenic vistas, however, because the river demands your fuIl attention at times. Rapids are numerous and good boat control is essential. If dependable eddy turns, ferrying skills, and good judgment are not part of your paddling program, then do not venture here. Boaters should have at least intermediate skills before attempting the easier Chairlift section.
Get an Overview of the Coosa River Watershed where Little River Canyon is located.
USGS and County Maps for Little River Canyon Paddling
MAPS: Jamestown, Little River, Fort Payne (USGS); De Kalb AL, Cherokee AL (County)
Paddling from AL 35 to Upper Two Put-In (Suicide)
Class: IV-V; Length: 3 miles; Time: 2-3 hours; Gauge: Web, phone, visual; Level: – 3 inches; Gradient:120, 80, 20 feet per mile; Scenery: A+
The Suicide Section of Little River Canyon Paddling is the best-known run in Alabama. It is a measure of the progress whitewater sport has made since the early 1970s that a run once considered death-defying is now made with regularity. But it’s a cool name, anyway.
Class III and IV rapids abound, undercut penalties are numerous, and the Class Vs are each distinctive. Put-in above AL 35 and the falls, or down the trail at the first AL 176 pull-off on river right. The double-drop portion of the 33-foot-high falls can be run on river left by the skilled and psyched when the level is above 6 inches.
After a couple squirrely rapids, a river-wide and very easy 8- foot drop can be run almost anywhere. Class IV + Mammoth Rock rapid is easily recognized by its namesake on river left at the bottom of a boulder garden. It can be run left, or by an easier sneak right. Terminal Eddy is best run out of the back of the eddy on river right. Watch out for the undercut on the left, which can harbor wood. Of course, calling attention to undercuts on Little River Canyon Paddling is somewhat redundant, because they are everywhere.
You have now arrived at the big three: Avalanche, Cable, and Pinball. Avalanche is quite obstructed, and most paddlers who run it boof into the pin-rich, river-left eddy and then re-enter the main flow. Avalanche gets easier as the water rises; below 3-5 inches it can abuse boat and body, but it goes. Walk or scout the rapid easily on the left. After some fun Class II and III water, look for cables above you to identify Cable Falls, a 12-foot waterfall followed by a boof to the right. This rapid is a straightforward Class V with consequences. The first 10-foot drop is a major pain when the water gets below 2 inches on the AL 35 gauge; alternate lines are required below 0 inches. The second drop is not trivial. Run close (but not too close) to the right edge of the main drop. If you swim left, you may go into an undercut. A short distance downstream is Pinball, a bonafide Class V – not a place to make mistakes. Above it, go left over a 4-foot drop, then ferry across to the eddy on river right to scout or walk. Scout right if you have not seen Pinball’s required moves and large undercuts before. The walk is pretty easy. Again, watch for wood here. Once you get past Pinball, Little River Canyon paddling is surprisingly flat for quite a while until you encounter the beginning of the Upper Two stretch.
Suicide is almost always run in combination with Upper Two. Some paddlers continue through the Chairlift section to the Canyon Mouth. Another take-out option exists at the Powell Trail a short distance below Bottleneck on the Chairlift section.
From Atlanta, take 1-75 north to Exit 290 for GA 20 west. Follow GA 20 as it threads north through Rome and turns west again. After crossing the border (GA 20 turns into AL 9 here), turn right onto AL 35 and proceed to the Little River Canyon National Preserve. If taking out at the canyon mouth, return on AL 35 to AL 273 south; if using the Chairlift put-in as your take-out, take AL 176 south along the river-right side.
Check levels at the southeast (river-left) corner of the AL 35 bridge. Using USGS Internet levels for Little River Canyon Paddling near Blue Pond, levels at the bridge can be estimated with the following formula: inches = (cfs volume-600)/100. However, this method will often underestimate the true level. The streambed at the USGS gauge is sandy, so readings can shift from year to year. Check the American Whitewater Web site for correlation updates. Suicide can be run as low as -3 inches; 1 inch is better. At about 7 inches it is pushy, and at 12 inches it is very serious. At levels higher than 8-12 inches, paddlers opt for the creeks feeding the canyon. Alabama Power provides level information at the same location as the USGS gauge, but levels may differ slightly from the more accurate USGS flows. Call (800) 525-3711 and follow the prompts: 6, 2, 2.
Upper Two Put-In to Eberhart Point (Upper Two)
Class: II-IV); Length: 2.5 miles; Time: 1.5 hours; Gauge: Web, phone, visual; Level: – 4 inches; Gradient: 80, 100 feet per mile; Scenery: A+
This is a really fun part of Little River Canyon paddling. The Upper Two begins below a good surfing wave at the bottom of the Suicide section. After some warm-up, Screaming Right Turn (Class IV) appears immediately followed by Roadblock (Class IV+, maybe V) and Humpty-Dumpty. Roadblock, an 8-foot V-hole drop, is the stickiest and most dangerous spot on any commonly run Alabama whitewater river. One boater has died here, and near-death experiences are not uncommon. Be aware of the line and consequences before you run it. Portage is easy on the left. Humpty-Dumpty is a three-part Class IV + or V with undercuts that get harder at each drop. Listen for the sound of toilets as you scout or walk on river right. At lower levels (-2 inches or so), the true ugliness of Humpty- Dumpty can be seen. You will see a vortex flow going under rocks on the right next to the second drop, while the center line becomes too narrow to run on the last drop. Next, there is some really good Class IV fun, including Mr. Bubbles and the Narrows. Deep Throat forms a spectacular plume at levels around 12 inches. It is run left at the bottom to avoid the pin-friendly throat. Deep Throat signals the end of the Upper Two.
The Upper Two put-in trail is off CR 176 and is amusingly labeled “Lower Two” on a large National Park Service sign. Some people take out at the top of the Chairlift section if they started their day with Suicide, but almost anyone who puts in on the Upper Two goes to Canyon Mouth Park at the bottom of Chairlift. Another take-out option exists at the Powell Trail a short distance below Bottleneck on the Chairlift section. A put-in just below Humpty-Dumpty (Upper One) is also a possible starting point for trips extending onto the Chairlift.
The shuttle is not short. The best way is probably up AL 176 to AL 35 east, then down AL 273 to the Canyon Mouth Park.
See the first section. Zero inches is a preferred minimum on the AL 35 bridge gauge, but it can be run as low as -4 inches or approximately 225 cfs. The run gets pushy at 10 inches.
Eberharts Point to AL 273 (Chairlift)
Class: II-III (IV); Length: 6.0 miles; Time: 3-4 hours; Gauge: Web, phone, visual; Level: 0 inches; Gradient: 33 (50)feet per mile; Scenery: A+
The put-in for this section of Little River Canyon Paddling is one of the more memorable parts of the trip. It is an arduous carry to the river, but do not succumb to the urge to weep and toss your boat into the abyss. The river is well worth the struggle. Begin near the original site of the old chairlift at Eberharts Point on the Canyon Rim Parkway (AL 275/CR 176) and hike approximately 600 feet from the rim to the canyon floor. The lift itself now sits rusting a few hundred yards from the put-in trail.
Aspiring intermediate paddlers, who will greatly enjoy this run, will find the first 1.5 miles of this section challenging. Circle Back and Eddy Hop are the first two Class IIIs. Be aware that Eddy Hop harbors an undercut. Blue Hole Memorial (Class III+), with another undercut on the left, is the final warm-up for the main course of Little River Canyon paddling, Bottleneck. Bottleneck is a forgiving but tricky Class IV-. Above the final drop, there is a series of fun drops with big eddies. The key to Bottleneck is arriving at “the highway” on the last drop at the right spot with the proper angle. The final drop will show you if you are on line. Bottleneck will often flip you, but to date, it hasn’t proven to be a keeper. Run a bit too far left and you are going to flip. Approach at too much of a right angle, even on the highway, and you stand a good chance of flipping. After Bottleneck, the run is pretty much Class II and II+. However, at high water (over 12 inches) Chairlift is big-time Class III and IV and Bottleneck is meaty. Towards the end, it gets pretty flat, especially for paddlers tired by Suicide or Upper Two. The last Little River Canyon paddling rapid is at the confluence with Johnnies Creek at mile 5.
Another option for those seeking the easiest possible run is to put in on the Powell Trail below Chairlift. Camping is available in the area at Desoto State Park on AL 89.
From the put-in for Little River Canyon paddling, take AL 176 east (downstream). Turn left onto CR 127, which turns into CR 43. Then take CR 275 into Canyon Mouth Park.
See first section. Zero inches is a preferred minimum on the AL 35 bridge gauge, and 10 inches near the maximum.
This Little River Canyon 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.