The Tallulah River is both a small stream of outstanding beauty and a dramatic whitewater run that pushes the limits of navigability for Tallulah River paddling. The headwaters are unbelievably clear, attracting avid anglers and occasionally paddlers interested in a technical Class II-III run amid moss-covered boulders. At the other end of the river is the celebrated Tallulah Gorge, home to read-and-run whitewater from Class IV+ to Class V and an exploding wall of water that could only be called The Thing. In between these two extremes are four dams and very little navigable river other than the middle run described below.
Get an Overview of the Savannah Watershed where the Tallulah River is located
USGS and County Maps for Tallulah River Paddling
MAPS: Hightower Bald, Tiger, Tallulah Falls, Tugaloo Lake (USGS); Rabun, Habersham (County)
Coleman River Confluence to Plum Orchard Road
Class: II (III+); Length: 4.7 miles; Time: 4 hours; Gauge: Web, visual; Level: 2.45 feet; Gradient 23 (45) feet per mile; Scenery: B
Exceptional scenery and whitewater make this trip very worthwhile. Huge boulders surrounded by draping hemlocks dominate the scene. The Tallulah River paddling run is a fairly technical Class II with two Class III rapids located in the first mile, interspersed with deep pools. Higher water brings some of the rapids to a Class III+ pitch. Its cold, clear waters make Tallulah River an excellent whitewater run for Tallulah River paddling in the winter and spring, or after any heavy rain. Hazards include strainers, deadfalls, undercut rocks, and difficult rapids.
The put-in is half a mile above the junction with Coleman River, just above the Forest Service’s Tallulah River campground. Above this point is a treacherous Class V run (in the upper gorge) and above that, more Class I-II water. The upper gorge run is more dangerous than the downstream gorge, dropping 250 feet in a 1-mile stretch with numerous undercuts, sieves, and logs constricted into the tight channel. Farther up FS 70 is another Forest Service campground at Tate Branch; primitive camping is available on the east side of the road.
This section of river is popular for trout fishing. Do not trespass onto private property, and do your best not to disturb any anglers you encounter on the river. It is recommended that paddlers takeout on river right at Plum Orchard Road above Lake Burton.
From Clayton, take US 76 west, turning right onto Persimmon Road before crossing Lake Burton. Turn left onto Plum Orchard Road (which is also called Cat Gap Road) and continue to the river. To get to the put-in for Tallulah River paddling, return to Persimmon Road and continue north 2.3 miles to make a left onto FS 70 (Tallulah River Road). The put-in is located at the bridge half a mile above the confluence with the Coleman River.
A telemetry gauge is located at the end of this section, and levels are reported on the USGS Internet site for the Tallulah near Clayton. The gauge is readable from the stream, located on the river-right side below the take-out bridge. For additional information, contact the Forest Service’s Tallulah District at (706) 782-3320.
Paddling from Tiger Creek Confluence to Tallulah Falls Lake
Class: I-II (III) ; Length: 6 miles; Time: 3.5 hours; Gauge: None; Level: Unknown; Gradient: 13 feet per mile; Scenery: C
The Tallulah is impounded several times before reaching this section, creating three mountain lakes: Lake Burton, Nacoochee Lake, and Lake Rabun. The reservoirs consume most of the upper river’s flow, making paddling below the Mathis Dam at Lake Rabun possible only when the local rainfall is sufficient to fuel Tiger Creek, which meets up with the Tallulah at the first crossing of Old US 441. Put in here or on Wolf Creek Road over Tiger Creek, half a mile above the confluence.
The first 2.5 miles of this section of Tallulah River paddling are mostly docile. It’s pleasant scenery, though houses and farmland have taken the place of the woods throughout this flatter section. Old US 441 is never far away, and new US 441 crosses the river twice. The 2-mile section after the first crossing contains a couple of small Class II shoals and slides.
One-quarter of the total gradient for this section is concentrated into one Class III rapid that beings immediately above the last crossing of Old US 441. After threading through the boulder slab ledges, the rapid continues as an intermittent Class II for a few hundred yards, ending in a low dam that spills into the lake pool. The road shadows this stretch of river, creating a park-and-play opportunity on the upper reaches of the rapid. The path leading to the river at the small dam above the lake is steep. The take out is 1.6 miles farther down the lake.
Approaching Tallulah Falls from the south, turn left onto Main Street immediately before crossing Tallulah Gorge, then right onto River Street to the landing. Parking is available behind city hall. For upper access points, return to US 441 and turn left, taking the immediate left after the bridge onto Old US 441 to reach the access at the first bridge and Tallulah Falls State Park’s Shortline Trail. Continuing on US 441 to the third left onto Old US 441 is the easiest way to reach the upper put-in.
None. Runnable only when significant rain falls in the Tiger Creek watershed.
Tallulah River Paddling Through Tallulah Gorge
Class: IV+ (V); Length: 3.4 miles; Time: 2-3 hours; Gauge: Web; Level: 500 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 260 feet per mile; Scenery: A+
Tallulah Gorge has long been a leading attraction in the Southeast. A century before the invention of rotomolded plastic, Royalex, or kevlar, this spectacular 2-mile gorge was nicknamed the “Niagara of the South” by tourists arriving in horse-drawn buggies. The river leaps down 600 feet through five waterfalls-I’Eau d’Or, Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, and Bridal Veil-carving a magnificent granite gorge more than 1,000 feet deep. Sadly, turn of the century conservationists lost the battle to preserve the canyon’s natural state. In 1913, Georgia Power built the dam that to this day generates a portion of Atlanta’s electricity and reduces the Tallulah River to a veritable trickle. Since 1997, thanks to the combined efforts of American Whitewater, Georgia Power, GADNR, and several local paddling clubs, the river once again comes to life during release weekends, when Georgia Power releases 500-700 cfs from the top of the gorge.
The first challenge paddlers face is the put-in, which is just below the first three (unrunnable) waterfalls, down some 600 stairs that snake their way down the canyon wall. Last step, the Class IV + entrance rapid, gives you an idea of the river’s speed and is so immediate that the only scouting opportunity is the put-in platform itself a Class IV boof move off a 6-foot ledge follows, at which point almost everyone eddies out left to scout Oceana (Class V +). A good percentage of those paddlers choose to walk the 100-foot slide on the right bank, sobered by the jagged ledge of granite that runs horizontally across it and creates an almost river-wide break in the face of the slide. The highest point of this abutment is respectfully referred to as The Thing, both for its bizarre geology and for its potential to rearrange both boats and boaters. A significant number of Tallulah River paddling injuries have occurred here. One fact about Oceana that should give you pause is that each year the percentage of Tallulah paddlers who choose to walk the rapid grows higher as more folks assess and re-assess the difficulties and consequences of this rapid.
What follows downstream is a fast section of read-and-run Class IV + water called The Gauntlet requiring, as one newcomer put it, “a long series of moves and readjustments made on the fly: miss the hole, boof the ledge, brace, grab the eddy-all done faster than you can think it.” Significantly, The Gauntlet dumps out directly into the Class V Bridal Veil, a giant slide that ends in a sticky and uniform river-wide hole. Your best bet is to punch The Gauntlet’s final hole on river right and then swing immediately far left just as you approach the horizon line of the falls. Scout from river left.
The rest of the river is characterized by a series of slide-like drops, many of which are like Bridal Veil in that they slope directly into sticky holes, and some of which, like the Class III Zoom Flume following Bridal Veil, are friendly enough to warrant such carnival names.
Entrance into the stunning stretch of the river known as amphitheater begins with a boof called Lynch’s Wrench and several shallow holes, including one on river right that has earned the name Typewriter. There are several good routes through this section, but whichever one you choose, be assertive about it, especially if you choose to punch the river-right hole. Only after eddying out on the left do you get a clear opportunity to appreciate the height and breadth of the sheer cliff face that gives this section of the river its name.
Several more slide-type drops await around the bend, most notably Tat, the second half of the Class III and IV double slide with the deceptively innocuous name Tit and Tat. Not only does Tat boast Tallulah’s most noticeable undercut (on river left), it also has a river-wide hole at the bottom of the slide. To avoid joining the many paddlers who have suffered the indignity of significant surf time in this hole, run this rapid from top middle to bottom right.
TOM’S BRAIN BUSTER (IV +) is the next rapid and should be scouted on river right. The line along the right side is straightforward, but keep in mind that this rapid’s shallow depths are no doubt responsible for its appellation; Tom’s is a good place to keep your boat under you.
ROAD TO AINTREE (IV) is harder to scout; a long series of gradually descending shoals ends once again a rough and tumble hole. An assertive run down the right, punching the many sticky holes on the way, is the standard route, although some boaters choose to skirt the holes entirely with a more technical far-left line.
PADDLESNAKE LEDGE (IV), the last significant rapid, is the final slide on Tallulah; run it left of center and angle right. Just around the bend are Powerhouse, with a deceptively sticky hole on river right, Maxwell’s Last Drop (don’t miss the last good boof on river right), and the mile-long Tugaloo Lake.
Whatever you do on Tallulah, make sure that you take the time to pull over-both for scouting and sightseeing. As one paddler summarized the river: “Tallulah is exquisite: steep walls, and patchworks of sun and shade spattering patterns on clear cold water. The river even smells clean. I know, because a portion of it ended up in my sinuses.”
The gorge is open only to private boaters with qualified craft and Class V paddling skills. To get to the put-in, take US 441 north from Clarkesville and turn left into the grassy parking area immediately before crossing the river. There is a small fee for parking. Use the walkway under the bridge to cross the road and reach the stairs that lead to the put-in. As of 2001, permits are no longer required and you need only to sign a release form before entering the gorge. To relieve parking congestion at the take-out, a number of organizations provide shuttle service back to the put-in. Use of the gorge is restricted to the developed put-in and take-out facilities to protect the native persistent trillium, which is on the federal list of endangered species. Strictly minimize all contact with the river banks while in the gorge and pack out all your trash.
Flows are usually 500 cfs on Saturday and 700 cfs on Sunday of scheduled release weekends, which are currently the first two weekends in April and the first three weekends in November. Releases begin at 9:30 a.m.; the last runs of the day for Tallulah River paddling must start down the put-in stairs by 3:00 p.m. The USGS reports data online for the gauge located above the powerhouse.
This Tallulah 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.