Scott Strausbaugh, Hydro, Watauga River, NC.  Copyright Chris Bell.  Click for larger image. Watauga River, NC/TN



IV-V- (very low) 100-150 cfs Runnable (some say) as low as 100 cfs, ideal is from 250-400 cfs.  The Watauga gets harder and harder the higher the flow.  There aren't many boaters willing to run it over 650 cfs and those that do often portage some of drops (especially Hydro).  The exception to this general rule is Watauga Falls, which is actually harder at very low levels than it is at moderate levels because the ankle-breaking rock just to the left of the landing zone becomes less padded.  To find out what the Watauga is running, call the TVA at 800-238-2264 or click here:  TVA Streamflows or here:  Watauga at Sugargrove
IV-V- (low) 150-250 cfs
IV-V- (ideal) 250-400 cfs
IV+-V (pushy) 400-650 cfs
V (screaming) over 650 cfs
Character: Pool and drop creek run
Scenery: Very scenic remote gorge
Distance from Downtown Asheville: 120 minutes
Length: 4.9 miles
Season: December-May
Other sections: Bob and David Benner's Carolina Whitewater:  A Canoeist's Guide to the Western Carolinas describes several sections upstream of the gorge, including the short but intense class IV+ "Red Roof" run;  Betsy Mayers' Paddling Asheville:  28 Gently Exciting Regional River Trips provides the best description of the 8.5 mile class II run downstream of the Wilbur dam.
Put-in: Guys Ford Bridge
Take-out: AW takeout on left channel of island after river flattens out (look for the stairs near the end of the island)
Directions from Asheville (to take-out): Head north out of Asheville on 19/23.  Take Exit 23 (Unicoi) twenty-three miles into Tennessee (note that 19/23 becomes I-181 at the state line).  Turn right at the bottom of the ramp, then right again at the "T" intersection a short distance later onto 173 East.  

Stay on 173 East when it makes a left turn in Unicoi (about a mile from the Interstate).  Take the first left after leaving Unicoi (onto Sciota Road;  this is seven-tenths of a mile from the last turn).  Turn right at the "T" intersection six miles later.  Note the red brick Church of God and the Green Mountain Church on your right just after the turn -- they will be your landmarks for this easily missed turn on your way home.

Turn right at the "T" intersection 2.6 miles past the churches.  Note the "Williams Garage Door" and "Jct 362" signs on your left -- they will be landmarks on your way home.  Turn left onto 19 East at the "T" intersection 2.5 miles past the "Williams Garage Door" and "Jct 362" signs.

Stay on 19 East 1.9 miles, then turn right at the Mountain City / Boone exit in Hampton onto 321 South.  Stay on 321 South when it turns right 9.8 miles later.  10.2 miles after this turn you will see a big, steeply excavated road cut on your right.  Just past this road cut is an unmarked paved road on your left.  Continue about 0.5 miles further to Testor Road.  This will be the second gravel road on your left past the paved road. 

Drive slowly down Testor Road, being respectful of the residents.  The road will come to an open area, at which point it will bend sharply to the left.  You'll see a gate next to an abandoned house on your right.  Continue to your left and follow the American Whitewater signs.  If I remember correctly, you'll take the second right after the gate and follow it until it dead-ends along some woods at the edge of a field.  There will be a high fence on your right and a changing blind near the woods and the trail to the river.  Use your common sense, do not park in front of the private residence or drive across the neighbor's lawn.

AW land is the field along the last 300 yards of the road. You can park on the field and on the side of the road.  PLEASE DO NOT park all over the field.  AW only owns 1 acre.  The rest of the field belongs to someone else.  BE DISCREET ABOUT CHANGING CLOTHES and use the changing blind.  And remember:   No dogs, no nudity, and no camping on the AW property!

Note:  The paved road you passed after the road cut leads to an alternate take-out (turn right at the "T" intersection 1.4 miles down this road, continue 0.8 miles to the Pioneer Landing Store and Cowan Town Road.  Drive 1.4 miles down Cowan Town Road and ask permission to take-out at one of the houses or the campground at the end of this road;  expect to pay $5 or so to park).


Shuttle: Return to 321, turn left, and drive 5.4 miles to Guy Ford Road.  The put-in is at the bottom of the hill.  Park in the parking area upstream of the bridge.  This parking area was created for boaters by the owner of the gas station / market you can see from the turn onto Guy Ford Road.  Please thank the owner with your business when you're in the neighborhood.
Other access points: Trail from highway 321 at the state line to Watauga Falls
Gradient Watauga Gorge elevation profile.  Copyright Chris Bell.  Click for larger image.
  Average: 103 fpm (123 fpm in middle 3.6 miles)
  By mile: 4.9 miles:
98, 114, 138, 113, 43 fpm over the last 0.9 miles
  Maximum: 170 fpm (over 0.24 miles)
  Maximum half mile: 151 fpm
  Maximum mile: 140 fpm
  Online: American Whitewater's Watauga River Page
  Print: Bob and David Benner's Carolina Whitewater:  A Canoeist's Guide to the Western Carolinas
Photos: Watauga Photo Archive
Other: The Watauga is near Boone, NC, which always seems to be 5-10 degrees colder than Asheville.  For the current weather in Boone, click here:


The gorge through which the Watauga flows is a delight.  It is deep and steep, with few access points and no litter.  The water runs clear except after a heavy rain.*  And there's rock everywhere -- on shore, up the canyon walls, and in the river.  Especially the river!  I've paddled the Watauga on a freak 80 degree day in early March and in a light snowfall a week later.  I've seen it when the trees were bare and covered with frost and at the peak of the dogwood, service berry, and redbud bloom.  I've had a ball playing in the justly infamous hole at the bottom at Hydro while doing low water warm weather runs mid-summer.  Every visit has been enchanting.  The Watauga is a special place.

When I first started paddling in the mid-eighties the Watuaga was considered cutting edge.  It is no longer, but it is still to be respected.  The steepest 3.6 miles of this 4.9 mile run average 123 fpm.  To get an idea how steep this is, the Nantahala has a 33 fpm gradient, Big Laurel Creek 50 fpm (with the steepest 1/2 mile at 80 fpm) and Wilson Creek 92 fpm.  The Watauga's bed is cluttered with rocks ranging in size from those pesky little "tips of the iceberg" on which it is easy for an inattentive boater to broach to house-sized boulders.  The clutter makes the rapids complex, with precise lines to be run.  While many of the rapids are unforgettable, one jumbled boulder garden can look like many other jumbled boulder gardens, which makes it easy to get lost.  If you're weak on a particular boating skill, be it precise maneuvering in boulder gardens, eddy-hopping in powerful water, boofing ledges, or running waterfalls, this is not the river to learn on!  It has drops to test all these skills and more.

Just downstream of the put-in is a nice series of small surfable waves and a hole.  While not the only playspot on the river, it is the only one I have seen get consistent use.  The first rapid of any consequence is named Cabin.  The cabin after which the rapid is named was a popular apré-paddle party spot until it burned down back in the mists of early Watauga history.  A few minutes past Cabin comes the first fairly continuous stretch of major rapids:  Bump-and-Grind, S-Kicker, and Hydro.  B&G and S-K'er are powerful boulder gardens.  The standard line through both is from extreme right to extreme left, with the diagonal crossing initiated a few feet above prominent boulders.  You'll know you've come to the first of these bad boyz by the broken wall of rock extending most of the way across the river.

Hydro is identified by the horizon line and the clusters of boats and boaters scattered along the left bank.  It consists of three ledges, the first of which requires a boof into the river-left eddy to avoid being piled into a Volkswagen Bus-sized boulder along with most of the current.  The second ledge is run from right to further right to avoid the worst of the assorted hydrological delights just below, all of which appear to have been placed to leave your boat stalled out and sideways as you drop into the keeper hole at the bottom of the third ledge.  The third ledge can be run on either the extreme left or the extreme right.  It is most often run on the extreme right, but the left line might be a little easier at higher water.  No matter which side you run, the hole is unavoidable.  Get up enough speed heading into it that you backender out of it rather than back into it.  If running the left line, keep paddling past the base of the drop as the current on the left creates a huge whirlpool that feeds back into the hole.  If you decide to walk the drop, you'll be putting on in one corner of this whirlpool.  Paddle aggressively!

The Watauga mellows for quite a while after Hydro.  Multiple routes are possible through the many class III-IV ledges and boulder gardens leading to the next rapid of consequence, Edge of the World.  Edge of the World is consequential not because of its difficulty but because of its fun factor.  It is split in two parts.  Upper Edge of the World is an easily read river wide class III+ ledge.  A couple hundred feet below the upper section a large boulder perches less than a boat length above a five foot high river wide ledge.  Micro eddies permit the intrepid traveler to circumnavigate the boulder with some of their boat dangling off the ledge.  Mess up and you fall off the Edge of the World into a sticky hole.  Great fun.  If circumnavigation isn't your thing, their is a good boof line just to the right of the boulder on the edge of the drop.

A couple hundred feet below Edge of the World is a rapid that can be eddy-hopped on the left or run on a super cool line on the right.  All I'll reveal about the second line is that you'll get a fantastic rush the first time you run it and that I want to be in the eddy below so that I can see the look on your face!

The Watauga continues in its mostly-mellow ways for another lengthy stretch.  Bear in mind, however, that mellow is a relative term.  For the Watauga mellow means it can be boat read by anyone who has any business on it.  There are plenty of pinning spots, undercut rocks, strainers, and sticky holes to avoid.  The routes, while boat readable, require lots of maneuvering.  Two of the most congested spots are run on the extreme right side of the river, one consisting of a cool set of small vertical drops in a very pretty tight little side channel and another past a side-cut boulder hanging over the current at head-smacking level (the Blarney Stone).  A hundred feet or so below the Blarney Stone the channel begins to wall out and one must scrape, slide and duck under trees to get through a shallow passage back to the main channel.

When the gradient begins to steepen and the river begins to get more congested you'll know you've arrived at the start of the second stretch of fairly continuous major rapids:  Heavy Water, Knuckles, Diana's Ledge, Watauga Falls, and Boof Falls.  The river narrows at Heavy Water to snake around a massive rock pile on river right.  This concentrates the current and gives Heavy Water a big-water feel.  I like to eddy hop through this rapid, taking care to hit the virtually must-catch eddy just above the nasty hole 4/5ths of the way down this long, complex rapid.  The trick to catching this river left eddy is to avoid the small, almost unseen gatekeeper rock about 2 feet below the eddy's top.  Exit this eddy very high and ferry hard across the powerful current to avoid the hole below.  The current makes an interesting S-turn off unseen boulders just below the hole, which makes for a super ride.

Knuckles is one of those rapids that is easy to run but would exact a significant penalty if run wrong:  a vertical pin in swift current in what is probably an inaccessible spot in the middle of the river.  Run Knuckles far left, but not so far left that you do as Charlie Walbridge once did and pin against the left bank.

Next up is Diana's Ledge.  Diana's Ledge is named after Diana Holder.  In the spring of 1987, Diana ran the low to moderate level route (a boof off the ledge's right corner) on a high water day.  According to eyewitness Sherwood Horine, Diana was trapped and unconscious in the hole below the ledge for 10 minutes.  By the time she floated free she was completely blue from lack of oxygen and her windpipe had spasmed shut.  Sherwood -- a medical student at the time -- was able to create an air passage by stretching Diana out.  Two breaths of air and she began to breath on her own.  Diana's first words were, "By the looks on your faces it must have been pretty bad!"  I'll say.  Fortunately for Diana she recovered completely.  

If you visit American Whitewater's Watauga River Page you will learn that the AW take-out is named in Sherwood's honor.  Sadly, this is because this fine, generous, hard-working and kind boater died in a mountain biking accident in 1998, shortly before the river access he helped create was dedicated.  The Sherwood Horine Watauga River Access cost American Whitewater almost $30,000 to purchase and develop, and continues to cost AW about $500 a year to maintain. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Sherwood Horine Memorial Access Fund to help defray these expenses.  Send donations to:  The Sherwood Horine Memorial Access Fund, American Whitewater, P.O. Box 636, Margaretville, NY 12455.  If you can't afford to send a donation but you are using the AW access, you sure as heck should make it a priority to at least be an AW member.  Here's the link to join online (please include my name -- Chris Bell -- in the comments box at the bottom of the form!).

Diana's story provides three lessons.  First, blocked windpipes are common in cold-water immersion victims.  If you paddle on cold days, learn how to free air passages.  Second, cold water dramatically extends the length of time a person can survive without breathing.  Don't immediately give up hope if someone has been trapped in cold water a length of time that would kill or turn into a vegetable someone trapped in warm water.  And third, run the Watuaga with someone who knows what routes are appropriate at what water levels.  This person will explain to you that Diana's Ledge doesn't even have to be run:  the ledge forms on the right side of a large boulder midway across the river.  There is a wide, clear, safe class II passage on the boulder's left side!

Prepare to scout Watauga Falls from the left bank soon after you run or sneak Diana's Ledge.  There are three keys to successfully running this 18 foot waterfall.  First, catch the eddy behind the boulder 20 feet above the lip of the falls.  Watch for the barely submerged gatekeeping rock located about where your stern will swing as you pivot into this eddy.  This is easiest to do if you first catch the slack water on river left just above the set up eddy and then ferry over to where you want to be.  Second, get up enough speed to as drop over the brink that you won't get stuck in the hole at the base of the falls.  Third, angle right as you head off the drop, and make your last stroke a strong left sweep.  Doing this will save you from breaking an ankle on the submerged boulder at the base of the waterfall.

Watauga Falls is easiest to run at moderate water levels.  As the level drops making the right angle boof becomes more difficult, and more of the ankle breaking boulder becomes exposed.  Should you break an ankle, or should you wish to enjoy the festivities at the falls without the inconvenience of paddling the entire river, it is good to know that one of the few few access points into the Gorge is located just upstream.  The trail down to the falls starts at a pullout off route 321 at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

One of the Watauga's last significant rapids is located just downstream of Watauga Falls:  Boof Falls.  You'll scrape over the right side of a shallow shoal to reach the pool above this smooth, steep 12 foot sliding drop.  Angle left as you head over the edge just to the right of a large boulder.  You'll pop into the eddy at the bottom and avoid pitoning on a submerged rock rumored to lurk somewhere right of center.  The rest of the run to the takeout is straightforward, with three drops of note.  They include a five foot ledge followed a hundred yards later by a six foot ledge.  The later ledge is Rewind, which tradition dictates must be run backwards for the rest of the run to count.  Run forwards it has a nice boof.

A bit further downstream you'll come to an inland.  Most of the river runs around its right side, but you want the narrow channel on its left.  Look for the stairs leading to the AW parking area on your left near the far end of the island.

So there you have it, the Watauga, a special river with several of the most memorable drops in the southeast.  While challenging, it is not impossibly difficult.  The two toughest drops -- Hydro and Watauga Falls -- are easily portaged.  If you're comfortable on Wilson Creek at +6 inches, and you don't mind that you'll be at the bottom of a nearly inaccessible gorge, you're ready for the Watauga.  It is complex enough, however, that unless you frequently run rivers as difficult or more difficult than it that you run the Watauga for the first time in the company of boaters familiar with its traps and charms.


*  Well, the water used to run clear, even after a heavy rain.  The description above was written in the late 80's.  Since then second home development in the Watauga's watershed has led to muddier waters. Click here to return to the text.


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