Running the Rivers
of the High Country

With contrasting waterways from the calm New River to the turbulent Watauga River, the High Country offers a canoeing and kayaking experience for outdoor boaters of all skill levels. With numerous public river access points and several outfitters in the area offering rentals, shuttles and guide service, the adventure on the river is just a short drive or phone call away.


The New River is a gem and the centerpiece of the New River State Park, which has miles of river to canoe and tube and thousands of acres to peruse. Here’s a description of the park: “Rugged hillsides, pastoral meadows and farmlands surround what is believed to be one of the oldest rivers in North America the New River. Its waters are slow and placid. Its banks are fertile and covered with wildflowers.”

The Watauga River is a bi-polar river that has calm sections perfect for tubing and canoeing through Valle Crucis and turbulent sections that even experienced kayakers should scout before attempting the whitewater rapids.

Calm, Canoe Runs along
the New and Watauga Rivers

Listed below are some of the “regular” runs along the New River that local outfitters send customers down.

Runs in and Around Todd
• Pine Run Road Bridge to Todd’s General Store off of Railroad Grade Road
• Castleford Road off of N.C. 194 to Green Valley Community Park off of Big Hill Road
• Green Valley Community Park off of Big Hill Road to Todd General Store off of Railroad Grade Road

Runs in and around Jefferson
• N.C. 88 Bridge to Wagoner Access Road (5 miles)
• Wagoner Access Road to U.S. 221 Access (11 miles)
• Wagoner Access Road to J.E. Gentry Road Bridge (5.5 miles)
• J.E. Gentry Road Bridge to Fulton Reeves Bridge (3 miles)

Calm Watauga River Canoe Runs Through Valle Crucis
• Low-water bridge at Old Ford Trail to Dewitt Barnett Road
• Dewitt Barnett Road to high-water bridge at Watauga River Road
• Valle Crucis Community Park to high-water bridge at Watauga River Road
• Low-water bridge at Old Ford Trail to high-water bridge at Watauga River Road

Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking

While plenty of curbside kayaking excursions for experienced kayakers throughout Watauga and Avery counties exist, the whitewater group rafting trips generally start from outfitter outposts in Elizabethton, Tenn., and make their way to the Watauga Lake.

For those with some gnarly paddling skills, the High Country has plenty of rivers to explore that are easily accessible. American Whitewater, a nonprofit organization, is an excellent resource for running rivers in North Carolina and beyond. The organization’s website lists directions, descriptions and warnings about particular runs and notes whether current water levels are appropriate for running an individual river. Below are some of the popular runs in the High Country, which includes river, generic location, name of run and difficulty rating. Click here for more details on North Carolina rivers and those below.

Popular Runs:
• Watauga River – SR 1557 to NC 105 – Red Roof, Class II - IV
• Watauga River – NC 105 to US 321 Bridge, Class I-II
• Watauga River – US Route 321 Bridge Paddle Access to Guy’s Ford Bridge, Class II (IV)
• Watauga River – Guys Ford Bridge to AW Sherwood Horine Access, Class IV+
• Elk River – Route 1326 to Route 1305 (above Big Falls), Class IV-V
• Elk River – Twisting Falls Gorge: Big Falls (Route 1306 to bridge above Stone Mtn. Church), IV-V (V+)
• Boone Fork – Julian Price Park to Watauga, SR 1557, Class III-IV (V+)
• Laurel Creek – slides section near US 321 and Trashcan Falls, Class IV, V

Just like climbing, find a local kayaker to help you navigate the area, find some of the best runs and learn about the interesting local history of the sport. It is also ideal to ask them about safety concerns for each individual run such as what lies downstream or bad accidents in the past. One good place to start might be local outfitters or merchants such as Footsloggers, which has staff that works in the same industry as it plays. Since you can never play it too safe, check out four safety measures outlined by American Whitewater before you begin your next adventure.

Here are some simple things YOU can do to stay SAFE

• Wear your Life Jacket regardless of boat type or difficulty of water. A third of all whitewater accidents could have been prevented if the victim was wearing a life vest; many deaths occur in very easy rapids!

• Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs. Alcohol dulls reflexes and survival responses and is often linked to fatalities. Celebrate at your campsite or home.

• Know the river to prevent unpleasant surprises. Find out what lies downstream. Check the AW site, guidebooks, Google earth, and get advice from paddlers who have been there!

• Avoid extremes of weather and water: Very high flows and cold temperatures pose special challenges to paddlers. If you don't have the specialized gear and skills needed, wait until conditions improve.

• Avoid dams: Small low-head dams are responsible for over 8% of river fatalities. Most are much worse than they look! Know the location of dams before launching on a river, and avoid getting too close to the upstream or downstream sides of them.”

Below is a story about a section of the Watauga River, described above as the Guy Ford Bridge to AW Sherwood Horine Access, that was considered “outer-limits steep” in the ‘70s before technology of kayaks and the skills of boaters improved. Today, it is considered a classic.

Boatin’ the Rugged Watauga Gorge


Winter 2010. Last week's rain flashed the High Country and gave kayakers a three-day window to paddle the Watauga Gorge, a classic whitewater run on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

In a normal wet year, there is enough water to paddle everyday during the High Country whitewater season, which spans from early November to early May, Michael Mayfield, a local paddler, said.

Unfortunately for kayakers, this hasn't been a wet year. The southeastern U.S. has been in a drought since March because of the global weather pattern, La Nina.

"There have been many days this fall when the gauge (for measuring water levels) wasn't even working because the river was so low," Mayfield said. "The river hasn't been this low in 70 years."

Though Mayfield has paddled the gorge more than 350 times since 1978, he has only run the gorge once since March when "suddenly the river went from running all the time to not at all."

The Watauga Gorge run begins at Guy Ford Road near Bethel and flows into Tennessee. It is 5 miles long, drops 100 feet per mile, and flows through a rugged, remote wilderness.

"It's beautiful. It's pristine," Isaiah Stronach, a local paddler, said. "It's classic whitewater."

In the mid '60s, the East Tennessee Whitewater Club paddled the Watauga Gorge with canoes, at least 16 feet long and made of fiberglass, which broke easier.

"In the '70s, it was considered outer limits steep," Mayfield said. "It's not in that category any longer. There are much steeper things people have run."

Since then, kayakers' skills have improved, and modern kayaks have been developed with safety and treacherous water in mind. This technology and increased boaters' confidence to explore more extreme whitewater areas caused Watauga Gorge's difficulty rating to be downgraded.
Still, the river commands respect.

"You never know when you are going to get a beat down. The best way to approach a river is with humility," Stronach said. "It's a solid Class 4 run with a little bit of Class 5 thrown in to keep everyone honest."

(Stronach explained the international scale of whitewater difficulty ratings and compared Class 1 to waves in a bathtub and Class 6 to Niagara Falls - a death wish.)

Because of the challenging, continuous rapids, seasoned boaters initiate first timers down, showing them the lines and the surprises of the gorge, such as a drop in a half mile rapid called Edge of the World, where the horizon disappears.

Experienced kayakers paddle appropriate lines according to a river's flow levels, which are measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). For the Watauga Gorge, 250 to 400 cfs is an ideal flow, though it has been run lower and higher.

"The Watauga is an incredible river because you can run it at so many levels. The lower the water, the steeper the run becomes, almost a creek feel," Stronach said. "Once you have more water, it takes on that river feel and the lines become wider.

"High water is whole different game. Trees fall into the river. Holes become much bigger and violent. The speed and movement of the water is greater. Your anticipation has to be on point because you can misjudge something and end up in a bad situation."

Lee Belknap first paddled the gorge in 1982. For many years, each spring, Belknap would drive from Virginia or South Carolina to kayak his favorite river, the Watauga.

"I tell people there are two kinds of boaters - the backpacker and the motorcyclist," Belknap said. "The backpacker is there for the nature, and the motorcyclist is there for the adrenaline."

These days, the motorcyclists are outnumbering the backpackers. They tend to fade away, though, Belknap said, because it becomes too dangerous for them to feed their adrenaline addiction.

"I've always liked the aesthetics," Belknap said. "There's a few of us out there who still like the intricacies of the water and enjoy the scenery."