An intimate river with a consistently Piedmont flavor, the Yellow River stretches from suburban Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta to the south, draining portions of DeKalb, Rockdale, and Newton Counties before entering the backwaters of Lake Jackson. True to its name, the Yellow runs high in sediment, resulting in a water color from light to greenish brown. The upper section of Yellow River Georgia paddling has more gradient and contains a sprinkling of significant ledges. The gradient in the lower section is much less, with most of the fall occurring at two lengthy and impressive shoals, each one topped with an equally impressive dam. Higher, and consequently dirtier flows are needed to make running the Yellow’s rapids feasible.
Get an Overview of the Altamaha River Watershed where Yellow River is located.
USGS and County Maps for Yellow River Georgia Paddling
Snellville, Conyers, Milstead, Porterdale, Stewart, Worthville (USGS); Gwinnett, DeKalb, Rockdale, Newton (County)
Yellow River Georgia US 78 to Yellow River Mountain Bike Park
Class: II-III (IV); Length: 4.2 miles; Time: 2.5 hours; Gauge: Web ; Level: 250 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 15 feet per mile; Scenery: B-
This upper section of Yellow River Georgia kayaking begins downriver from a sewage treatment plant stationed north of US 78 and as such has the accompanying water quality problems. On the plus side, it is conveniently located in Gwinnett County near Stone Mountain for whitewater paddlers who can overlook this. Once the water level is high enough to enjoy this section, it also moves quickly, and boaters should be competent in their Class III moves before attempting a run.
The first 3 miles of Yellow River Georgia kayaking hold a few drops of Class II-III difficulty interspersed with flat water. At high water levels, three keeper hydraulics are formed. The first is preceded by a stretch of fast moving water that forms potential surfing waves. At the main drop, the riverbed creates a virtual low-head dam that spawns a dangerous pour-over hole. Avoid this by running the ledge on the very far right side, following the river as it cuts into the bank farther than it appears it will. A short distance downstream, an island splits the river into two channels, the right channel giving the better ride as you accelerate through it to the left. There have been confrontations with private landowners in this area; when scouting, keep a low profile and move along quickly.
At Annistown Bridge Road, there are two interesting drops: one above the bridge and another immediately below. These can be scouted from the roadway before putting in. Both are considered Class III difficulty at lower water levels, but at higher flows become far more dangerous given the proximity of the bridge pilings and the size of the hydraulics that form, particularly at the downstream ledge. The Yellow River Georgia kayaking route through the groove of the upper ledge is less rocky than appears; this drop can also be run by boofing off the flat rock to the right of the groove. The downstream ledge forms a fun play spot at lower water levels, but above 8 feet it becomes a retentive keeper hydraulic that should be avoided. Regardless of whether you pass to the right or the left of the bridge pilings, the best route is to the right of the hole, even if it means getting up-ended by the large pour-over boulder waiting for you there. Access at Annistown Bridge Road makes this a possible park-and-play spot.
Below this drop, the river moves quickly through the remaining mile to the Yellow River Mountain Bike Park, the best take-out for this section.
From the highest put-in on Stone Mountain Freeway (US 78), turn right onto Ross Road, east of the river. Turn right at Annistown Bridge Road; after crossing the river, take the first left onto Juhan Road. The park is ahead on the left.
Levels for the gauge located at GA 124 near Lithonia are available on the USGS Web site. A minimum of 250 cfs is needed to run this section, but levels of 1,000 cfs (5.25 feet) create better play spots. Above 2,500 cfs (8 feet), eddies become scarce as the river starts running into the trees; the keepers above the island and below the Annistown Bridge should be avoided.
Yellow River Paddling from the Mountain Bike Park to GA 36
Class: I-II (III); Length: 43.3 miles; Time: Up to 2.5 days; Gauge: Web; Level: 175 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 4 feet per mile (42); Scenery: B- to C
In this section of Yellow River Georgia paddling offers nearly 44 miles of mostly placid floating interrupted by two long and dramatic shoals. The river maintains a moderate current as it widens to an average of 45 to 70 feet, running between well-defined red clay banks. Signs of habitation are common since the Yellow flows along or through several large settlements. Outside of these, the Piedmont wilderness atmosphere remains largely intact. Wildlife is common and the flora is luxurious and diverse.
Other than a stretch of Class II water located downstream of GA 124, the first significant departure from the relaxing repartee is located 0.2 miles below the GA 20 bridge at Milstead. A sizeable dam stalls the river’s flow, and must be portaged on the left. Below the dam is a series of Class II, borderline Class III rapids-the most accessible stretch of significant whitewater in the lower section. The footpath reached via the gravel Yarbrough Road allows for many possible put-ins and easy scouting from the granite outcropping on river left. Abundant broken glass and other trash in the area indicate that this might not be the best place to leave a car. An alternate access point for the shoals (and dam) is at the river-left, downstream side of the GA 20 bridge.
These shoals start out wide, with a shallow island dividing the flow as the river passes over numerous small ledges. A Class III move is required to ferry from river left to river right downstream of the dam’s boil line if you choose to run to the channel to the right of the island. Below the island, the channels converge into a narrow cinch that creates a powerful mid-river hydraulic; at 1,000 cfs, this keeper hole is nearly river-wide. A large eddy below the hole makes for an easy stopping point for the short carry back up to the top. The gradient continues to drop downstream as the river is once again divided, this time by a larger island. Be prepared to avoid the right bank in the right channel as a considerable amount of the current bounces off the wall.
Continuing downstream below these shoals, Yellow River Georgia paddling resumes its tranquil demeanor, and only occasional deadfalls pose a hazard to navigation. Two miles below I-20 and above the Brown bridge west of Covington, a pipeline crosses the river. This spot is dangerous at most water levels and should be portaged.
The second significant stretch of rapids on this section of Yellow River Georgia paddling, Cedar Shoals, starts beneath the dam located immediately below the GA 81 bridge in the town of Porterdale. It is easy to take-out above the bridge on river left, but portaging to continue your trip downstream is problematic. An old factory building on river left blocks passage on that side; some of the river’s flow is still diverted into the basement of this building, exiting downstream of the dam. Portaging is physically possible on the right, but the property is private and posted. The rapids below the dam are considered to be Class II-IV depending on the water level; the channel to the right of the island is preferable. For boaters interesting in paddling a portion of these extensive shoals, there is another access point on river left before the end of the rapids at River Front Road. A sewage treatment plant blocks access farther downstream at the end of this road; the next feasible access point is 11 miles downstream at GA 212.
From the end of Cedar Shoals to Lake Jackson, the river runs flat with a few intermittent Class I riffles and very small shoals. The river corridor remains wooded and serene in spite of frequent signs of habitation. Once again deadfalls constitute the major hazard to navigation.
The final take-out is located on GA 36, south of Covington. Without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the carry down the dirt road on the northwest side of the GA 36 bridge is long. Most of the lower access points can be reached from GA 162. See the map for the locations of the higher access points.
The USGS Web site posts data for gauges located at Pleasant Hill Road and farther downstream at Gees Mill Road. Using Gees Mill Road gauge, the minimum level for the rapids at Milstead is 800 cfs. A minimum of 175 cfs suffices as a starting point for floating the flat sections.
This Yellow 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.