Bob Hathcock, Cheoah River, NC.  Copyright Chris Bell.  Click for larger image. Cheoah River, NC
Grocery Store to Lake Calderwood Boat Ramp





4.15' /  670 cfs

The Cheoah River near Bearpen Gap near Tapoco, NC gauge is located at the bridge that marks the beginning of the lower section of the run.  The river can be run at 670 cfs, but I would need at least 800 cfs to be willing to make the two hour drive from Asheville.  As reflected in the ratings, the Cheoah gets harder as it rises -- especially the upper section, which is reported to be very dangerous at 6.8'.  5.3' is a very exciting, challenging level providing a thrilling ride unlike anything else to be found in the Eastern US;  levels over 6' are probably too high for mere mortals on all but the middle section.  These ratings are based on the river's current tree and brush-clogged status.  If at some point some of these trees and brush are removed, easier lines will open up and the penalty for mistakes will be lower.


4.50' / 950 cfs


 4.55' / 1010 cfs


4.70' / 1130 cfs


5.3' / 1660 cfs


 6.8' / 3837 cfs

Character: Very playable advanced to expert run
Scenery: Rustic roadside run, but tucked away in a spectacular and infrequently visited corner of NC
Distance from Downtown Asheville (to take-out): 135 minutes
Length: 7.1 miles plus .3 miles across lake
Season: After hurricane / severe storm (for now)
Other sections: Other runs in the area include Slickrock Creek, the Santeetlah, and Snowbird Creek.
Put-in: JoAnne's Gas and Grocery (ask permission to park);  many other access points both up and downstream
Take-out: The boat ramp on Lake Calderwood
Directions from Asheville (to take-out): Take I-40 West to Exit 27 (US 19 / 23 / 74 / Great Smoky Mountains Expressway).  Take US 74 West 46 miles to the point NC 28 splits off to the right toward Almond and Robbinsville and US 74 continues on to the Nantahala Gorge.  Take NC 28 11.5 miles to the left onto NC 143.  Follow NC 143 8.7 miles to Robbinsville.  In Robbinsville turn right onto US 129, following it 16 miles to the take-out at the boat ramp at the end of the little road off US 129 on the far side of the bridge over the Little Tennessee at its confluence with the Cheoah.  The river you'll be following the last 9 miles or so of your drive will be the Cheoah. 
Shuttle: 12 minutes each direction.  Retrace your route upstream JoAnne's Gas and Grocery Store (or any other point along the river you decide to put-in).
Other access points: A road runs alongside this river its entire length


Gradient   Cheoah elevation profile.  Copyright Chris Bell.  Click for larger image.
  Average: 83 fpm
  By mile: 7.07 miles (plus .3 mile paddle on lake):
65, 97, 83, 57, 72, 101, 99, 142 fpm over last 0.07 miles (and preceding 0.17 miles!)
  Maximum: 142 fpm (over 0.24 miles)
  Maximum half mile: 134 fpm
  Maximum mile: 114 fpm
  Online: American Whitewater's Cheoah Page
  Print: Bob and David Benner's Carolina Whitewater:  A Canoeist's Guide to the Western Carolinas
Photos: Cheoah Photo Archive
Other: Including beta on this run is in the realm of the hopeful.  Almost all the water almost every day of every year runs through a tunnel by-passing this mini-gorge downstream of Santeetlah Lake  (Robbinsville, NC).  The hydroelectric project that dewaters this reach is up for relicensing, however, and a number of groups are fighting to restore flows sufficient for fishing and boating.  Keep your fingers crossed, and check the gauge after heavy storms to see if enough water is being released for a run.  To learn more, visit the Tapoco Project Citizen's Resource Page.  It is unlikely scheduled releases will occur before 2003, if ever.

What can you do to help make scheduled releases a reality?

Kevin is AW's point man on the release negotiations and needs your input. The more folks who have run this river and the greater the number of levels at which they have run it the better!

The greater the number of people in an organization, the greater its negotiating power. Being able to say, "I represent 250 people" rather than 200 makes a big difference because the "powers that be" know most people are not "joiners" and frequently increase membership numbers by a factor of 10 (or more!) to get an idea of the true interest.

Groups involved in the relicensing project include:
American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Western North Carolina Alliance, Chota Canoe Club, Western Carolina Paddlers, Sierra Club (WENOCA Chapter).

Click here for information on joining American Whitewaterclick here for information on joining the Western Carolina Paddlers.

Ask permission to park near businesses and dwellings, spend money, be polite, and save the questionable language, alcohol, drugs and nudity for your own front yard!

Do so by visiting the Tapoco Project Citizen's Resource Page.

The Cheoah is an incredible resource;  do your part to insure future releases!



The Cheoah River is located in the extreme southwestern corner of NC, near Robbinsville. Normally the nine-mile section between the Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood is dewatered.  However, as part of a multi-dam relicensing project, four whitewater flow tests were conducted July 12-14, 2000.  I ran it at all four flows and at three of them it was a hoot!  Additional information was contributed by several people who paddled it while the hydroelectric plant's plumbing was being repaired in the winter of 2002, especially Sutton Bacon.  Those who have paddled both the test and winter release levels report that it gets more and more fun as the water rises, with 5.3' providing one of the most fun rides to be found on any river anywhere at any time.  The Cheoah continues to increase in difficulty beyond 5.3', however, and the upper and lower sections get into the downright scary zone past about 6'.

The Cheoah is unusual for rivers of its volume in the Southeast in that its gradient is relatively constant.  This means that with the exception of 2 or 3 half mile or so sections, it is unusually continuous, more so than anything else with a similar volume of water in the Southeast.  Some during the test releases were calling it "warm western-style paddling;"  those paddling it at the higher winter 2002 flows continued the Western analogies, comparing it to Pine Creek on the Arkansas and the Lochsa at high water.  No doubt contributing to the analogies was the water quality, which was crystal clear during the winter flows.  All who have paddled the Cheoah have agreed that with sufficient water and its historic tree and brush-free channel restored, it will become one of the crown jewels of whitewater world.

The portion of the Cheoah from JoAnne's Gas and Grocery Store to Lake Calderwood can be broken into three sections:  a 1.5 mile brushy and tree-clogged upper section with a number of sticky holes and a potentially troublesome river-wide ledge a bit downstream of the hydroelectric bypass pipe, a 4 mile relatively open and mild middle section that features some nice wave trains at higher water levels, and a 1.5 mile lower section with the most gradient and the best defined drops.

At flows of about 1000 cfs or under, the upper section is about a half grade and the middle section a full grade easier than the lower section, with the first two sections similar in difficulty to the Ocoee. The risks are greater, however, as much of the channel is heavily lined with trees and brush, giving the run a nature akin to paddling during a flood. The main technical challenge is presented by the frequent series of offset holes. Because of the trees and brush, it is not a good place to paddle if you don't have a rock-solid roll and the ability to read water well on the fly (bank scouting would not be fun).

The lower section is the best defined, with a number of classic drops. It begins at the bridge on which the Bearpen Gap gauge is located.  My favorites were the sequence of four drops with the biggest single drop on the river (a ledge about 8 feet high) being the third and the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Tapoco Lodge. There were many, many waves to surf and a number of very playable holes, including two potential rodeo sites:  one at Tapoco Lodge and one at the end of the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Lodge.

At the highest level paddled during the summer test releases (4.7 feet / 1,130 cfs), the upper and lower sections were much closer in difficulty as the offset holes were beginning to get sticky.  The hole below the river-wide ledge was beginning to look scary at this level;  recovery after a swim would be challenging due to the thickets of trees growing  in the water and on both banks for a considerable distance downstream.  The lower section didn't change much, so the result was a run that was a lot more fun but not any scarier (assuming strong class IV skills, and keeping in mind that the Ocoee only requires strong class III skills).  If more of the trees and brush were removed, the upper run would almost certainly get easier at every level as paddlers wouldn't be forced to run through the meat of the holes and the entrapment danger would be lower.

At the higher winter levels, the upper section got harder than the lower section.  At 6.8', Sutton Bacon writes it was "fast, tight, and continuous, with absolutely no eddies whatsoever;  this in a streambed studded with trees."  The holes that were beginning to get sticky at 4.7 feet get worse and worse as the water rises, and trees block all the good lines.  Sutton describes a rapid he and the person he was paddling with now call "Takeout" (because they walked off the river after running it) as follows:  "The next rapid was one of the biggest and baddest I have ever seen.  This is the formula I use to describe it -- same volume as the Upper Gauley in a streambed one fourth the size, a rapid EASILY twice the size of Insignificant, and then add a thicket of trees all over the place.  And believe me, we got hammered.  There were four monster holes, and each one had trees DIRECTLY in what would have been the normal line (in other words, at this level, skirting around these holes).  We finally reached the bottom and skid into an eddy, where we both clung for dear life to logs that had washed ashore.  We dashed up the riverbed thanking God for our continued life and hitched a ride back to the put-in."  It is noteworthy that while much of the middle and lower Cheoah is visible from the road, much of the upper Cheoah is not due to the dense vegetation lining its banks and the greater distance between the river and the road.  At higher levels get out of your car and bushwack through the brush to get a look at what's up before deciding to put on!

At the higher winter levels the middle and lower sections got more difficult as well, with the middle section becoming an exciting wave train filled ride and the lower a series of pushy, hole filled class V's (V+'s at 6.8') .  Once again, take a careful look before committing yourself to a raging run through the trees.  In addition, be aware that as of January 2002 a set of cable were down and creating a hazard in the river just below the last rapid (and just upstream of the powerhouse).  Presumably this is a temporary situation, but do be alert to the possibility this hazard remains.


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Revised: November 12, 2003.

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