Canoe, Kayak, and Raft Georgia’s Chattahoochee River from Near It’s Origin to Columbus

Kayak, canoe, or raft the Chattahoochee River from Robertstown to Columbus

By Suzanne Welander

chattahoochee river
Suzanne Welander

Spilling off of the southern slopes of the North Georgia mountains, the Chattahoochee River is the only Georgia river to span all three of the state’s geological regions. Sparkling headwaters fall from the mountains, lope across the Piedmont hills and through Atlanta, and crash over the Fall Line in Columbus. Below Columbus, the river turns south to spill through successive dams throughout the Coastal Plain, rarely flowing freely again. The river provides a wide variety of many beautiful experiences for paddlers. The quality of the water itself improves every year, thanks to the many citizen, nonprofit, and governmental groups working together to preserve and protect the river.

FS 52 to Robertstown

Class III-IV, Length 5.6 miles, Time 3-4 hours, Gauge Web, Level Unknown, Gradient 57 (85) fpm

DESCRIPTION The river is extremely small in this section. The scenery and gradient combine to make a run that borders on spectacular – on the rare occasion of the right water level. The river drops extremely fast through a rocky and deadfall-ridden constricted channel bordered by hemlock, mountain laurel, and rhododendron. There are many sections barely wide enough for a boat to pass through and occasional blind turns and drops with little margin for error. Scout as much of the river as possible from the road before putting in, and scout all major drops while on the water. This seldom-traveled run is for expert boaters only.

The highest potential access is on the FS 44 bridge over the river, but putting in here is problematic. Extreme deadfall blockages on this upper section often force boaters to backtrack upstream rather than allowing them to continue downstream. If it is clear, there are four rapids in the first 2 miles that approach the limits of navigability. Portaging here is harrowing, involving slick, steep rocks and rhododendron thickets.

The usual put-in is where the Chattahoochee River Road (FS 52) crosses Low Gap Creek near the Forest Service campground. The river is mostly Class II-III below Low Gap Creek and is less choked by trees than in the sections above. The creek is sizable enough to provide passage to the river when it’s running. Either carry down the path along the left side of the creek or run the creek down to its confluence with the Chattahoochee. Shortly downstream, the road rejoins the river. There are multiple opportunities to access the river or to camp in the remaining miles down to the valley.

Paddlers can add 1.4 miles to their run by putting in below the FS 44 bridge and upstream of Low Gap Creek. To find this access point, park near the gated Forest Service road you encounter on FS 52 after crossing Jasus Creek. Slide your boat and gear down the ridge to the river (bearing north to the river instead of south into the gully). Putting in here adds more Class II-III water to the run.

SHUTTLE From Helen, head north on GA 75, turn left onto GA 75 Alt, then immediately right onto Chattahoochee River Road. Continue to the take-out. The easiest route to the put-in is to continue north on the same road. However, the road is sometimes gated by the Forest Service. An alternative route to the put-in is to return to GA 75 and head north. Turn left onto Wilkes Road, immediately before Unicoi Gap. The road will climb over the ridge and wind down to the Chattahoochee. Follow the road to the campground.

GAUGE There is a USGS telemetry gauge that provides data for the river downstream at Helen. The minimum level using this gauge is unknown. Flow flushes through quickly and the lower river must be near or approaching flood stage in order to find sufficient flow at the headwaters. Scout the level from the road to determine feasibility.

Robertstown to Helen

Class I, Length 3-4 hours, Gauge Web, Level 100 cfs, Gradient 26 fpm

DESCRIPTION Upon reaching the valley floor, the river calms into steady Class I riffles and remains that way through the town of Helen. The gradient through this section is a surprisingly steep but even. It makes for a fast ride through the town of Helen, which deserves some mention at this point. The economy here was once based on agriculture and logging. In the sixties, some area residents decided that revitalization was needed and began remodeling the town as a Bavarian alpine village in an effort to boost tourism. They were successful. Helen is now a major North Georgia tourist attraction. Commercial businesses – restaurants, bars, hotels, water parks, zip lines – cluster at the riverbanks throughout the center of town.

Other than boisterous summer tubing traffic, there are no immediate obstacles that may present problems at higher levels except for one low wooden bridge near Robertstown. Cool River Tubing at the Brocken Strauss bridge in Helen is the last opportunity to take out before encountering a dam that cannot be portaged at Nora Mill in Nacoochee. A trout fishing outfitter located immediately upstream of the dam has aggressively challenged private boaters using the river near Nora MilL The next best location to get into the river again is downstream at the second crossing of GA 75.

SHUTTLE From Main Street in Helen, turn onto Brucken Strauss and proceed to the river. The road will cross the river twice. Access is permitted at Cool River Tubing; it may also be possible at Brucken Strauss’s second crossing of the river. To the put-in, return to Main Street, which is also GA 75. Head north out of town. Turn left onto GA 75 Alt, then take an immediate right onto Chattahoochee River Road.

GAUGE Using the USGS gauge at Helen, a good minimum is 100 cfs.

GA 75 to Lake Lanier

Class I-II (II+), Length 30.1 miles, Time Up to 3 days, Gauge Web, phone, Level 2 feet, Gradient 14 fpm

DESCRIPTION Below Nora Mill, the river bends and passes beneath GA 75 twice. After the second crossing, the river flows adjacent to the Nacoochee American Indian Mound. River access is possible at the southeast corner of this bridge, though traffic on the road is fast and heavy, especially on weekends. As it winds through the Nacoochee Valley, the river offers a pleasant, pastoral float, mostly through open farmland with some wooded areas. There are often downed trees in the river that can cause problems.

The Upper Chattahoochee River Water Trail begins at the river’s confluence with Sautee Creek and ends in Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Park in Hall County. The water trail includes eight access points that create six sections along this corridor. Wildwood Outfitters provides access to several large Georgia Department of Natural Resources sites that are not yet fully open to public access, including paddle-up camping at Buck Shoals State Park. Additional camping opportunities and facilities are available at Don Carter State Park. Read more about the Upper Chattahoochee River Water Trail.

Section I of the river trail starts at Sautee Creek. River access, for putting in only, is available at the GA 17 bridge over the creek. It is a short float down the creek to the main stream of the Chattahoochee. Be ready to portage around downed trees, which can easily span the creek. From the Sautee Creek junction down to GA 255, the deep forests that formerly bordered the river corridor have now been developed with many houses, creating a subdivision facing the river. Many landowners have unwisely thinned or removed the river buffer from their land. The forest occasionally reverts to an undisturbed state; paddlers can still see large white pines and frequent rock outcroppings. Rapids are fairly frequent but never go beyond a Class I category. This is the easiest section of the water trail.

Section 2 of the water trail starts at GA 255. Below 255. there are fewer houses, and vistas occasionally open to rolling pasture. The rapids become more challenging starting in this section. This segment begins with several Class I rapids and smooth pools. Then the river enters a long, slow area nicknamed the Dead Sea because its stillness offers a marked contrast to the rapids above and below. The Dead Sea is the first warning sign that Smith Island rapid is near; the next indicator is a large, gently sloping granite face on the right. This rapid should be scouted by first-timers or by anyone running the river at extreme water levels. Do not scout from the island, which is private property. The left side of the island is generally the best route. It is a Class II rapid at almost any water level, and at high water it becomes a solid Class III. Enter the rapid from the left side of the main stream at the top of the island, then gradually work back to the right side (left bank of the island) for the final plunging chute. This chute ends in a fairly deep pool next to a large rock face. Recover on the island if necessary.

Section 3 of the water trail begins at the GA 115 bridge. This 4-mile run is the most difficult of the water trail. Referred to by some paddlers as the “Upper Hooch,” this solid Class II section is one of North Georgia’s most popular whitewater runs. Many paddlers have honed their skills here. The riverbed widens; rapids are frequent, lengthy, and challenging enough to keep paddlers occupied. Scenery improves, with steeper banks, rock outcroppings, and fewer houses. Be aware of water levels and rainfall in the area before you put on. High water steps the difficulty of this section up to a turbulent Class III and even IV. This section is no longer a place for beginners under these conditions.

The first rapid of note within this section is Buck Shoals. The entrance is marked by an island not far from the put-in. One quarter mile of fairly continuous Class II water awaits. In extremely high water, the waves here may exceed 4 feet. At low-to-average water levels, one encounters a more technical run. A large granite outcropping on the right indicates the approach of the next major drop, Class II+ Three Ledges. This is the most difficult rapid in this section. The traditional route is to run just to the left of the flat, protruding rock at the first ledge, moving to the center for the second and third ledges. The next long pool, with granite outcroppings on the right, denotes the approach to Horseshoe rapid (Class II). A long, low ledge of rocks forces the river to hook around them, thus giving Horseshoe its name. Enter on the left, and be ready to cut hard back to the right. Just below Horseshoe, the Soque River enters. followed shortly by a small creek falls. The Duncan Bridge Road take-out (and the outfitter) is ahead. The outfitter’s land is now owned by the state, and there is a small parking fee here, as well as at the public access area on GA 115.

Section 4 of the water trail starts at Duncan Bridge Road and ends 11 miles downstream near Belton Bridge Road. Conveniently, the state has opened Mossy Creek State Park, creating access at the creek’s confluence with the Chattahoochee midway through this run. The 5.3-mile section between Duncan Bridge and Mossy Creek holds Class I and II rapids remarkably similar in character to those of the more frequently visited section above it. The scenery remains quite good, despite the pace of riverside residences picking up again.

The next take-out is 5.7 miles farther downstream. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains a boat ramp on river left below Belton Bridge Road. Between Mossy Creek and this take-out, the river becomes slack as it encounters the headwaters of Lake Lanier.

SHUTTLE To reach the take-out for the most popular whitewater section at Duncan Bridge Road from US 23, take GA 384 west and follow to the far side of the river, where you’ll find the outfitter and parking. From Cleveland to the take-out, drive east on GA 115, turn right onto GA 384 and follow to the river. From there to the put-in, go north on GA 384 toward Cleveland, turn right onto GA 254, then right again onto GA 115. The state-owned launch site is on the far side of the river. The outfitter provides shuttle service for this and other segments of the river trail.

GAUGE There are two USGS gauges in this section of the river. The gauge at Leaf reports the most accurate levels for the river above Duncan Bridge Road. A level of 1.5 on the Leaf gauge is super low; expect some scrambling to dodge rocks and scrape over ledges. A level of 2-3 feet is good for any paddler, above 3 feet for experienced paddlers. For runs below Duncan Bridge, use the gauge at Cornelia, which is downstream of the river’s confluence with the Soque. The lower section is plenty enjoyable for a low-water run at 320 cfs on the Cornelia gauge. The local outfitter can provide river level information and advice over the phone.

Buford Dam to West Point Lake

Class I-II, Length 114 miles, Time, up to 12 days, Gauge Web, Level 850 cfs, Gradient <3 fpm (11)

DESCRIPTION The Chattahoochee River through the Piedmont from Buford Dam to Franklin (industrial Atlanta excepted) is pleasant paddling. Modest bluffs and some exposed rock combine with a young forest dominated by pignut hickory, river birch, tulip poplar, sassafras, water oak, black walnut, box elder, and loblolly pine that approaches and retreats from the river’s edge. Undergrowth consists of honeysuckle, various asters, Christmas fern, trumpet creeper, and river cane. Throughout metropolitan Atlanta, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) protects a patchwork of nearly 10,000 acres of metropolitan riverside land.

The Chattahoochee River National Water Trail starts at the foot of Buford Dam. This is the first designated National Water Trail in the country. The water trail encompasses 48 miles of river trail within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. The National Park Service currently maintains 12 boat ramps along the water trail. Six more are maintained by the cities of Duluth, Roswell, and Sandy Springs; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The trail provides many pleasing options for families and novice boaters. The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOG) will be providing outfitter service along the trail, including rentals and shuttle service, starting in 2015. Read more about the Chattahoochee River National Water Trail.

Starting at Buford Dam, the river flows between clay banks of 6-10 feet as it winds through the Piedmont en route to Atlanta. Tree-lined and pleasant, the river averages 120 feet in width and fiows with a moderate current. Water is clear with a greenish cast in this stretch during most of the year. Small ripples and occasional small shoals keep the paddling interesting in the first miles. For a metropolitan river, the corridor is amazingly well forested. These forested stretches can be long, and they alternate with houses and an occasional golf course. Starting at Holcomb Bridge Road, the parade of homes picks up as the river passes through a wealthy suburban residential area interesting because some of Atlanta’s finest residential architecture is nestled among the hills and bluffs that border the river. Paddlers can get the Buford Dam release schedule by calling 770-945-1466 or toll free at 855-DAM-FLOW (855-326-3569).

The backwaters of Morgan Falls Dam still the river’s current beginning above Don White Memorial Park. The water is slack for the next 4 miles but hosts a community of Atlanta’s crew boaters. Interesting trips can be made exploring the wildlife among the sloughs around Wileo Drive. Downstream of the Morgan Falls Dam, the parade of homes picks up again and continues for about 4 more miles. For the water release schedule for Morgan Falls Darn, call 404-329-1455.

The popular Class II whitewater section known as the “Metro Hooch” begins at the Powers Island put-in above 1-285. Half a mile below the 1-285 crossing, two stairstep shoals of low Class II difficulty keep paddlers awake. With the exception of the apartment complexes clustered close to the river at the beginning of this run, the beautiful natural scenery offers a refreshing and surprising respite from the nearby asphalt and engines. Rocky bluffs and dense forest rise from the river, creating a natural oasis that recalls the river’s native state. Shoals are spaced at equal intervals throughout the run. The last bend introduces first the sounds then the sights of the city as the 1-75 bridges loom into view. Stay to the right for the take-out for this section at the Paces Mill Recreation Area. It is arrived at quickly after passing beneath the bridge.

Continuing downstream, small shoals persist until 1.5 miles below Paces Ferry Road, where there are two partial dams. Both can be run without danger. A clear downstream “V” marks the route through the first, while the second should be run on the far right. Just upstream of the confluence with Nancy Creek is a park-and-play spot known as the Wave. Access this spot via Atlanta Road, paddling upstream from the Nancy Creek confluence.

Water quality worsens as the river progresses through Atlanta. Below the Wave, the Chattahoochee is bordered by sewage treatment facilities and a congested industrial corridor with factories. junkyards, and freight yards. This is the most abused section of the river, and it does smell of it. Pollution on the river, though still a concern, has lessened considerably since the well-publicized Escherichia coli peaks of the 1980s temporarily closed the river to recreation. Every year, more people can be found rafting, tubing, and paddling the river. Still, around 150 entities are permitted to discharge treated sewage into the river and its tributaries between Helen and West Point Lake. Permit violations still occur.

Downstream of Atlanta, the river bends through agricultural tableland and lush forests of the Chattahoochee Hill Country. Streamside views are rarely interrupted by any structures, residential or otherwise. The river’s course tends toward long, straight sections followed by broad, looping bends. The river’s arc around Chattahoochee Bend State Park is particularly lovely. The park, one of the largest in the state, offers many different camping and lodging options, including riverside camping on raised platforms. Make camping reservations through the state park.

Shoals are intermittent and usually consist of small ledges that are straightforward and rarely exceed Class I+ in difficulty. An exception is Bush Head Shoals, a legitimate Class II section about 7 miles downstream of Hollingsworth Perry Road in Heard County. The best route here is to the right around the large island at the top of the shoals, moving to the middle of the stream at the downstream base of the island to run the lower shoals. Not far after Bush Head Shoals, the river’s current is stilled in the backwaters of West Point Lake. If it’s exposed, Daniel Shoals, near the city of Franklin, is borderline Class II and should present no difficulty.

Between Franklin and Columbus, the river is impounded many times and rarely flows freely. Riverbanks diminish in height marking the river’s transition from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain. Released below West Point Dam, the Chattahoochee falls from one impoundment to another all the way to Columbus. The scenery is pretty, but the lack of current and an abundance of portages in this dam-and power plant-infested section make for a slog through the slack waters of the reservoirs. A blue trail is planned for this area. Boat ramps, for those interested in paddling the reservoirs, are easy to locate.

SHUTTLE The most popular run on this segment of river is the Metro Hooch. The take-out is at the West Palisades/Paces Mill Recreation Area located on US 41. Exit 1-75 on Cumberland Boulevard. Head west and turn south on US 41. The entrance to the recreation area is a right turn before crossing the river. To get to the put-in from there, take US 41 north and turn right at Cumberland Boulevard. Stay on this road as it crosses over 1-75 and bends north. Turn right onto Akers Mill Road before passing underneath I-285. Then. tum left onto Powers Ferry Road, followed by an immediate right onto Interstate North Parkway on the other side of I-285. The entrance to the Cochran Shoals/Powers Island Recreation Area is on the left after crossing the river. Put in at the small channel between the island and the shore, or at the larger main channel.

GAUGE Flows in the Metro Hooch section are impacted by releases from Morgan Falls and Buford Dams. Using the USGS gauge for the Chattahoochee at Atlanta, the minimum is 850 cfs. Flows above 1,500 cfs make the rapids in the Metro Hooch section more interesting; from 2,500-5,000 cfs, they are partially to completely washed out. Higher flows carry more pollution – have the skills necessary to avoid a swim, or have a bombproof roll. For trips closer to Franklin, use the USGS Chattahoochee gauge near Whitesburg. A good minimum for trips in this section of the river is around 1,300 cfs.

Columbus Whitewater Park

Class II-III+ (IV), Length 2.2 miles, Time 1.5 hours, Gauge Phone, Level 8,000 cfs, Gradient 21 fpm

DESCRIPTION Something remarkable happened in Columbus in 2012. A coalition of civic, business and government interests cooperated in an effort that demolished two 19th-century mill dams that had impounded the river into torpid lakes for 184 years. The two decommissioned dams had made Columbus the second largest industrial city of the South in their time. The removal of the long-dormant dams made the resurrection of the river the centerpiece of a broader economic and ecological renaissance for the entire downtown river corridor.

Today, water once again crashes over renowned Coweta Falls in one of the most dramatic plunges any Georgia river makes over the Fall Line. Flows commonly in the 8,000 cfs range give the feel of western-style whitewater: big waves, pushy current, wide channels. The 2.5-mile resurrected stretch of river is currently billed as the world’s longest urban whitewater course.

The revitalization worked. A rafting company runs frequent trips. The raft traffic isn’t as busy as the Ocoee River’s; however, you’ll see plenty during your visit. Nonpaddlers come to watch paddlers work on their rodeo moves, walk and bike along the paved streamside trail known as the River Walk, take a floating yoga class on stand-up paddle boards in a backwater eddy, or just enjoy the scenery.

Releases from the North Highland dam at the top of the run determine the daily flow. The dam releases a constant 1,100 efs when not generating power. At this level, water trickles through exposed, rocky shoals. The river is technically runnable at this level, and it’s still possible to play in certain features. Most days, though, power generation supplies a honking 8,000 cfs. Georgia Power courteously publicizes the dam release schedule. Call 706-317-6000 to hear the release schedule for that day.

The first two-thirds of the run has three good Class II-III warm-up rapids in which water funneled by shallow ledges creates long pushy wave trains. The first rapid, newly named Ambush (Class II), is near the right (Alabama) side immediately below the put-in. A glassy downstream-V ends in a hole. Here, as with rapids farther downstream, paddlers will encounter boiling eddy lines associated with big water volumes uncommon in the Southeast. Ambush requires an earnest leftward ferry to avoid being hauled into a rock wall by the current.

Approximately a mile of moving water with minimal rapids separates paddlers from Class III Tie-Snake rapid. The preferred line here boofs a small rock ledge on far right and rides the boil line past the hole on river left. There are more potential routes through this rapid, and their character varies with different flow levels.

Class II Monkey Wrench, another well-defined downstream-V followed by a big splashy wave train, signals it’s time to choose your plan of attack for the river-wide assortment of drops that collectively comprise Coweta Falls. Head left for Class III Wave Shaper closely followed by The Good Wave, or head right for Class IV Cut Bait. Many playboaters opt to do laps of this bottom section. It’s easy to ferry across the 800-foot-wide river if desired.

On the right (Alabama) side lies Class IV Cut Bait rapid. The dramatically turbulent hole in Cut Bait is a notorious raft flipper. It’s possible to play here, but most paddlers opt for the action on the Georgia side of the river. If paddling Cut Bait from upstream, scouting is recommended. Line up with the very large rooster tail, and use the current to accelerate your boat with a slight left-to-right angle – 12:30 to 1  angle is appropriate. Speed is crucial here. Head for the seam where the undercurrent is leaving the hole beating over from river right. Boof left hard, hit the top of the seam, and keep paddling. Watch your arm extension here; the violent currents in the hole increase risk of shoulder dislocation. Take heart that Cut Bait’s hole is less retentive than it was in the past because the river bottom was altered during removal of the dam. It’s still capable of recirculating a raft, but there’s a strong undercurrent beneath flushing out. The rapid is runnable at low water, but rolling becomes more hazardous due to rocks lurking in the shallow water.

The far left (Georgia) side has the most popular big-wave play spots at the Falls. During restoration, a rock and concrete structure was constructed in the riverbed along the Georgia side to engineer a competition rodeo hole. Scale models helped design and tune the feature before its construction began. Despite the research that went into constructing the resulting Class III hole called Wave Shaper, another Class III wave called The Good Wave located immediately downstream gets more playboat traffic. Great surfs are possible in both holes, but ease of access from the downstream eddy contributes to The Good Wave’s popularity. Be on the lookout for the rafts that drop into these holes from upstream.

You can take out here or farther downstream at the steps. It’s one block to the parking garage that provides free parking on the weekends.

The Columbus run is the last hurrah for the Chattahoochee as a river. Starting at the end of the whitewater section and stretching 93 miles south, the river’s current is impounded by successive dams. The lakes are pretty, but no longer a river. Access can be found at boat ramps on the reservoirs. Those paddling through to the river’s mouth in Lake Seminole will find many dams to portage, some with locks. The primary hazards are powerboat traffic. Below Lake Seminole, the combined Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers form the Apalachicola River, one of the largest rivers to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

SHUTTLE The parking garage at the take-out is located at 1028 Front Avenue in Columbus. To drive to the highest put-in on the Georgia side, go north on Second Avenue to 35th Street and turn left. Take another left onto First Avenue, then right onto the blacktop road that will take you to the small parking area near the dam and the end of the River Walk. Outfitter service is available for shuttles. In the future, you’ll be able to bike or hike the entire shuttle on the River Walk.

GAUGE Call Georgia Power at 706-317- 6000 for the release schedule. The USGS telemetry gauge at 14th Street in Columbus reports current and past flows, but what paddlers really need to know is when the fun releases will start and stop during their visit.

This Chattahoochee 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.

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