Whitewater season begins at Big South Fork

‘Tis the season for whitewater paddling on the Big South Fork River and its major tributaries.

Late winter and early spring are the prime seasons for whitewater paddling on the BSF, and it is during this time of year — particularly during the months of March and April — that whitewater enthusiasts travel from across the Southeast to paddle the Big South Fork.

Later, when the spring rains have subsided in May, the water levels drop too low to paddle the whitewater sections of the Big South Fork. Recreational paddling remains a popular activity on the Big South Fork throughout the warm weather months, but that’s better suited for the flat water that is predominant below the O&W Bridge, while the whitewater that is predominant above the O&W Bridge, particularly on Big South Fork and Clear Fork, as well as New River below the New River Bridge, makes for better wet-season whitewater runs.

With the exception of a couple of Class IV rapids — Angel Falls and Devils Jump — there is little white water to speak of downstream from the mouth of White Oak Creek. So whitewater paddlers will seldom venture that far down river, except to paddle to Leatherwood to take out. 

And with the exception of New River upstream from the New River Bridge, there’s little flat water suitable for recreational kayaking above White Oak Creek. Taking a recreational boat onto the white water sections of the Big South Fork downstream from New River Bridge and Burnt Mill Bridge on Clear Fork is not advisable. 

Here is a description of each of the river runs on the Big South Fork system. This is taken straight from the National Park Service’s website.

Peters Bridge to Brewster Bridge

Distance: 6 Miles

Difficulty: I-II

Average Drop: 7

Use Season: Winter-Spring

When there is enough water, this section makes a very nice half-day trip. the valley walls are close together and quite steep as the Clear Fork begins to cut into the Cumberland Plateau. Laurel thickets are common in this heavily wooded valley. The river is characterized by long pools and short, quick, easy drops.

Brewster Bridge to Burnt Mill Bridge

Distance: 10.5 Miles

Difficulty: II-III

Average: Drop 12

Use Season: Fall-Winter-Spring

This is a very beautiful section featuring numerous boulders in the streambed, precipitous bluffs, and moderate rapids. The only named rapid in Decapitation Fork, formed where the stream goes under an undercut rock. Though not particularly dangerous, it is rather striking and requires some maneuvering skill to negotiate.

Burnt Mill Bridge to Leatherwood Ford

Distance: 11 Miles

Difficulty: III-IV

Average: Drop 20

Use Season: Fall-Winter-Spring

This is the run usually made by paddlers wishing to float the gorge. The trip begins deceptively easily, but quickly develops into serious, powerful whitewater which is challenging to even expert and advanced paddlers. Emergency access exists at the O&W trestle, Pine Creek and by a steep footpath at the Honey Creek Pocket Wilderness. Numerous sheer, massive sandstone cliffs are visible on the run. The scenic values of the gorge are of the highest order.

White Oak Bridge to Burnt Mill Bridge

Distance: 11 Miles

Difficulty: II

Average Drop: 13

Use Season: Winter-Spring

White Oak Creek is a scenic 5.5 mile run past numerous rockhouses and bluffs as it heads for the Clear Fork River. The last half-mile of White Oak Creek has some nice Class II rapids. The 5.5 miles of Clear Fork river to the takeout are likewise beautiful and have no major rapids.

New River Bridge to Leatherwood Ford

Distance: 15.5 Miles

Difficulty: I-IV

Average Drop: 14

Use Season: Fall-Winter-Spring

New River, for its first six miles is a placid stream, the drop in the last two miles picks up considerably and some Class II-III ledges appear. The last 7.5 miles are run on the Big South Fork River which contains several Class III-IV drops. The trip will require a long day of paddling.

Zenith Mine to Leatherwood Ford Bridge

Distance: 8.5 Miles

Difficulty: II

Average Drop: 22

Use Season: Winter-Spring

North White Oak Creek in an enjoyable seven mile run of moderate difficulty down a 400 foot, strikingly beautiful gorge. Boulders of assorted shapes and sizes are strewn along the way. Rapids are short and may be rather tricky, so good maneuvering ability is necessary.

Leatherwood Ford Bridge to Station Camp or Blue Heron Mine

Distance: 8 or 27 Miles

Difficulty I-II: (Angle Falls & Devils Jump IV)

Average Drop: 5

Use Season: Fall-Winter-Spring-Early Summer

The stretch from Leatherwood to the Blue Heron Mine is a two day run combining moderate paddling difficulty with spectacular scenery. Angel Falls is two miles below Leatherwood Ford and should be portaged on river right at any level. Devils Jump is located just above the take-out and should be portaged on river left. The portages are not signed, be sure you are familiar with the landmarks which are associated with the approach to each rapids.

Blue Heron Mine to Yamacraw Bridge or Alum Ford

Distance: 4.8 or 12.2 Miles

Difficulty: I-II

Average Drop: 5

Use Season: Fall-Spring-Summer

The run from Blue Heron to Yamacraw is a popular canoe trip throughout the paddling season. In the fall the colors make this an exceptionally beautiful trip. The 7.8 mile trip from Yamacraw to Alum Ford is generally a flat water trip through late summer when the lake level drops enough to give the water some flow. Motorized boats may be encountered on this section of river.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garretthttp://gocumberlands.com
Ben Garrett is publisher of Go Cumberlands. He lives in Oneida, Tennessee with his wife, three kids and dog, Boone.

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