Are the Free-Flowing Chattooga River Rapids the Southeast’s Best White Water Boating?

The Chattooga River begins on Whiteside Mountain in North Carolina and flows 57 miles unimpeded by any dam to Lake Tugaloo between Georgia and South Carolina. Along the way, it flows over approximately 25 named Chattooga River rapids including the legendary Bull Sluice, the Narrows, and Five Falls. The combination of the Chattooga’s free flowing character and its many memorable rapids combine to make it the iconic white water river in the Southeast. There are rivers with more dramatic rapids to be sure – West Virginia’s Gauley and Tennessee’s Ocoee are two that come immediately to mind. But both of those are dam-controlled rivers. There is a predictability about them. Given the consistent release of water from dams, the character of these rivers is very much the same from day to day much to the satisfaction of professional white water rafting outfitters an individual boaters.The feeling that the Chattooga River is a special place comes across in every conversation with river guides and white water boaters who know the river well and especially if you canoe, kayak or whitewater raft the river yourself. View an interactive Chattooga River Map with all named Chattooga River Rapids

Here is a comprehensive guide to the Chattooga River with an interactive map that includes 25 Chattooga River rapids, virtually all of the major rapids on the river over class 2 and some of those. The map features comments by professional white water rafting guides who guide trips on the Chattooga every day as well as Suzanne Welander, the author of Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia.

Headwaters of the Chattooga and Chattooga River Rapids

Looking at the Google Map, it appears that the headwaters of the Chattooga are right below Cashiers Lake. The river actually starts on Whiteside Mountain as a mere trickle. Beginning at Ellicott Rock, which marks the place where North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina come together (map), the river creates approximately 40 miles of boundary between Georgia and South South Carolina. The river drops from approximately 3,000 feet at the headwaters to 950 feet where it flows into Lake Tugaloo.

chattooga river rapids
The headwaters of the Chattooga are on Whiteside Mountain in North Carolina

Who Owns the River

The Chattooga is under the control and protection of the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina with the Sumter National Forest taking lead on most policy issues with regard to boating on the river. Other groups with a seat at the table include the whitewater commercial outfitters who operate rafting trips on the river: the Nantahala Outdoor Center, Southeastern Expeditions, and Wildwater; the Chattooga River Conservancy; and fishing organizations, including Chattooga River Trout Unlimited. Since 1974 The Chattooga has been protected as a National Wild and Scenic River.

What Does it mean that the Chattooga is a Free Flowing river

The Chattooga is a “free flowing” river meaning that there is no dam on the river from its headwaters to where it flows into Lake Tugaloo. The water level and the intensity of Chattooga River rapids is entirely dependent on rainfall. Other popular southeastern whitewater rivers are dam controlled, meaning that the amount of water in the river each day is determined by upstream dam releases. Examples of popular southeastern whitewater rivers that are dam controlled include

  • Nantahala River (North Carolina)
  • Gauley River (West Virginia)
  • New River (West Virginia)
  • Pigeon River (Tennessee)

Whereas the rapids on a dam controlled river are somewhat predictable day in and day out, the rapids on a free flowing river like the Chattooga change day-to-day and even hour-to-hour. It takes a professional whitewater rafting guide years to learn all Chattooga River rapids at different water levels. The Gauley, one of the most respected white water rivers in the country has an average flow of between 2,200 and 2,400 cubic feet per second. Southeastern Expeditions Jonathan McKenzie recalls rafting the Chattooga from about 100 cubic feet per second to 5,000 CFS. Every few feet in water level up or down has an effect on the way each rapid is run.

The Importance of the 76 Water Gauge

The water gauge on the old bridge abutment at the 76 Bridge on the Chattooga is the main water gauge. All references to levels at any other place on the river refer to the water level on this gauge. For example the U.S. Forest Service prohibits commercial white water rafting companies from running the Five Falls section of the river if the water level is over 2.5 feet. The outfitters have placed markers on trees and rocks on the river bank above Five Falls to let them know what the water level is relative to the 76 Bridge gauge. Commercial whitewater rafters can operate on the river at water levels of 0.6 feet and below and as high as 5 feet but like with Five Falls there are specific parts of the river where rafting may or may not be allowed at specific water levels.

chattooga river rapds
In the Narrows the river is confined between canyon walls

Seasons on the Chattooga

Commercial whitewater rafting outfitters operate on the Chattooga from the beginning of March to the end of October on a scheduled basis. Depending on the weather, the rafting season may extend beyond that. White water boaters run the Chattooga River rapids year round.

Geographical Sections of the River

The Chattooga is divided geographically into 6 different sections. All of these are shown on the Chattooga River Map

  • SECTION 00 Begins at the confluence of Green Creek with the Chattooga
  • SECTION 0 Begins at Bull Pen Road Bridge or what some call the Iron Bridge
  • SECTION 1 Begins at Burrells Ford Bridge
  • SECTION 2 Begins at the Highway 28 Bridge
  • SECTION 3 Begins at Earls Ford
  • SECTION 4 Begins at the Highway 76 Bridge and ends at the take-out at Lake Tugalo

Major Chattooga River Rapids

There are 25 Chattooga River rapids that are significant enough to have names. All of those are included on the Chattooga River Map with a brief description of each one. The major rapids on the river include…

The Narrows

This section or river is constrained by canyon walls on both sides. Sometimes the river may be 50 feet wide, although sometimes it’s narrower. Canyon walls pinch the water forcing currents to the bottom of the river to re-emerge as “wave trains” or a series of fairly uniform standing waves coming one right after another. The deeper the river the higher the wave trains. Along with Bull Sluice and Five Falls, this is one of the most dynamic sections of the river, meaning that it undergoes dramatic changes in personality based on fairly small changes in water level. Contrast sections of the river like the Narrows with areas like Dicks Creek Rapids and Second Ledge where the river is spread out over a wide area and changes in water level produce less dramatic changes. Experienced boaters say the ideal water level to run the Narrows is 4 feet.

Bull Sluice

Bull Sluice is the most famous and most photographed of the Chattooga River rapids. A convenient trail connects the Hwy 76 parking lot with the river. On most summer days spectators sit on the rocks to watch rafters and white water boaters take on Bull Sluice. One experienced white water rafting guide said that Bull Sluice is the rapid that produces the most butterflies for professional guides. A guide can do everything right and still flip. Or do everything wrong and come through smiling. Bull Sluice is one of the most dynamic rapids on the river meaning that it changes character depending on water level. There are three different routes or “lines” through Bull Sluice – Double Drop, The Virginia Slide, and Triple Drop. The line professional guides take depends on the water level. The Forest Service requires that all commercial rafting companies scout the rapid with their guests before attempting it.

Woodall Shoals

The Chattooga River rapids at Woodall Shoals contains a “hydraulic” where below the rapid water flows back upstream – on some rapids with tremendous force. Because of its hydraulic, Woodall Shoals has been responsible for more deaths on the Chattooga than any other rapid. The nature and power of the hydraulic changes at different water levels. It can be avoided but should not be attempted unless a rescue person with a throw rope is stationed below the hydraulic. The rapid is rated class 6 because of the danger that the hydraulic represents.

Five Falls

While Bull Sluice may be the public face of the Chattooga River rapids because it’s readily accessible to non-boaters via a foot trail from the Hwy 76 parking lot. But it’s Five Falls, which has no public access, that boaters themselves remember about the Chattooga River rapids. The five rapids here are like five Bull Sluices back to back in just a quarter mile of river. The estimated gradient drop is between 70 and 100 feet over that one-fourth mile – very steep. Commercial rafting outfitters cannot attempt Five Falls if the water level is over 2.5 feet because of the potential danger.

chattooga river rapids
Bull Sluice is one of the most famous white water rapids in the Southeast

The Chattooga is a Drop Pool River

The Chattooga is a “drop pool” river meaning that after most Chattooga River rapids there is a relatively calm pool of water where you can collect your wits, be sure you’ve got all your gear, and get ready for the next rapid. The exception to this is the Five Falls section of the river where five class 4 and 5 rapids come right after another with no resting place in between.

chattooga river river rapids
Sock’em Dog, one of 5 class 4-5 rapids in the Five Falls section of the river

Problems and Pollution

Stekoa Creek is the largest and most polluted tributary of the Chattooga. It runs right through Clayton, Georgia, and carries runoff from the town and nearby agriculture fields. It’s also a Chattooga success story. Commercial rafting guides point out the creek and its pollution problems to their rafting customers and ask for their help in contacting local officials who are responsible for cleaning up the creek. Nantahala Outdoor Center has cards in its river headquarters that customers can fill out and mail. Thanks to those efforts and the work of the Chattooga Conservancy, the amount of pollution in the creek has steadily decreased over the years.

Read More About the Chattooga and It’s Tributaries

Outfitters who contributed to this article and the development of the map

JONATHAN MCKENZIE, 28, is a Marine Corps combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been guiding white water rafting trips on the Chattooga for 6 years for Southeastern Expeditions one of the original white water rafting outfitters on the Chattooga founded in 1972 after the founders of the company, Doug Woodward and Claude Terry, worked on the filming of the movie Deliverance as technical advisors and doubles. Last year he was named Southeastern Expeditions general manager with responsibility of all river guides training. He recently completed a 24-day trip through Grand Canyon.

What Jonathan says about his job

“From my first trip on the Chattooga River, I fell in love with it.”

RYAN DALE, 30, has been guiding for Nantahala Outdoor Center since 2010. He has guided hundreds of white water rafting tips on different sections of the river. He is going into his 5th year as an NOC Master Guide. He teaches in the Guides School and Paddling School. He has guided on 6 different rivers where NOC has whitewater rafting operations and has two descents of the Grand Canyon of Colorado on his resume, one on a self-supported kayak trip and the other on an oar-rig raft. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in recreation at Clemson University while continuing to work at NOC.

What Ryan says about his job as river guide…

“Our priorities on the river are safety first followed closely by fun. When I’m a trip leader out there I say that every day in my trip talk. I truly believe that is what we’re here for. We want to make sure that people have a memorable experience. The biggest takeaway is feeling inspired by the adventure they had and more connected to nature. Rivers are increasingly threatened. By showing people the river and exposing them to it we can empower them to have a voice in the conservation conversation. We want people to know what we as American people have and keep it, use it well and be smart and take care of the environment.”

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Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. BG selects guides and outfitters located in or in close proximity to the Natural Areas they provide activities in. These outfitters know the areas and care about protecting and preserving them in a way that outfitters based in other states never can. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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