For quality paddling in any shape or form, Chattanooga is inarguably a water lover’s dream come true. Within an hour of downtown, boaters can easily access world-class whitewater and scenic flatwater paddling destinations. At all times of the year you’ll find Chattanooga’s dedicated weekend warriors exploring the many nearby creeks and rivers with kayaks, canoes, rafts, and stand-up paddleboards. This rundown of some of the best local spots will help you plan your next excursion at one of Chattanooga’s many paddling attractions.
Ocoee River: This world famous river is a mere hour’s drive from downtown Chattanooga and is an experience not to be missed. The Ocoee is a dam-controlled, class III river that sees hundreds of thousands of boaters each year and was featured in the 1996 Olympics. The guaranteed seasonal flow and dynamic rapids make it one of the most beloved rivers in the world. Guided raft trips are a great way for people of all skill levels to explore the beautiful and exciting river. For kayakers, the Ocoee offers continuous and exciting rapids, eddies and play spots over its moderately challenging five-mile course.
Richland Creek: This creek, near Dayton, Tennessee, is not for the faint of heart. Getting to the put-in requires about a mile hike from the Laurel Snow parking area. The top quarter-mile of the run is the steepest section and is designated as class V. The bottom of Hut Rapid has one of the creek’s most noted features, a grin-worthy, 10-foot drop that guarantees catching some quality air time. Putting in right below Hut makes the creek a still-gnarly class IV run. A solid roll is absolutely mandatory to paddle this creek, and paddlers should plan to spend lots of time carefully scouting each rapid before dropping in. Richland Creek is at the apex of creek boating in the Chattanooga area and promises a thrilling and rewarding paddle for experienced kayakers.
Hiwassee River: Like the Ocoee, the Hiwassee River is also dammed and operates on a release schedule that provides guaranteed flow during the season. The Hiwassee is much tamer than other rivers in the area, making it perfect for a mellow paddling session. It’s popular for guided rafting trips or novice boaters looking to hone skills on a low-consequence river. The Hiwassee’s class I and II rapids make it great for families or people seeking a laid-back river day surrounded by beautiful scenery. The Powerhouse Boating Site is the usual launch spot, though there are other put-in options to make your trip shorter.
North Chickamauga Creek: Paddling the bottom section of the North Chick is a fantastic introduction to creek boating in the Southeast. This small segment is called the Bowling Alley, and is technical but low consequence, making it the perfect playground for boaters wanting to sharpen their skills. Bowling Alley is trailside and takes just a few minutes to run, so it’s a favorite spot for laps or to sneak in a quick weekday paddle. For a longer, wilder experience, you can paddle the creek’s first 12 miles through remote gorges and secluded class III-V rapids. The creek has a continuous and challenging gradient, with little time for relaxing or recovering. Be prepared for a long, pushy run and plan to scout often. For an experienced boater, paddling the North Chick means finding an incomparably unique perspective of Chattanooga’s wilderness while experiencing some of the region’s best whitewater.
Tennessee River: This impressive waterway cuts directly through downtown, providing tons of fun activities and making Chattanooga sparklingly picturesque. The 50-mile section of the Tennessee River from Chickamauga Dam to Nickajack Lake is a National Scenic River Trail, and it’s this section that serves as Chattanooga’s playground. There’s a popular launch spot just below the Chickamauga Dam, easily accessed from the Riverwalk. You can float downstream to downtown, where your paddle will be dominated by gorgeous views of the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Walnut Street Bridge and the Tennessee Aquarium’s spectacular facade. You can explore McClellan Island, a 19-acre nature preserve with hiking and wildlife. You can also opt to put in right there at Coolidge Park, and head downstream through Moccasin Bend and into the Tennessee River Gorge. In the downtown area, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards from L2 Outdoors or River Canyon Kayaks.
West Fork of the Chickamauga Creek: Just a 25-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga, the West Fork of Chickamauga Creek is a lovely spot for a light paddle. You can start from Lee and Gordon’s Mills in Chickamauga, GA, and follow your nose up or downstream depending on your desired trip length. Upstream from this put-in the water is deep and calm, optimal for stand-up paddleboarding or taking a quick out-and-back. If you go downstream, you can turn your trip into an all-day adventure. Along the way, you’ll catch sight of the Chickamauga National Military Park and encounter a couple of small rapids where you might get a refreshing splash. Paddle almost 9 miles and you’ll find a takeout at Reed’s Bridge Road.
North Chickamauga Creek: While the beginning of the North Chick is extremely challenging, it eventually settles into a lazy but deep stream perfect for a fun family outing. This gentle section of the creek can be accessed from Greenway Farms, just a few minutes from downtown but very nicely secluded. The farm has two put-ins, which are close together by car but almost two miles apart by water. If you launch from the farm’s second put-in, you can paddle downstream and reach the Tennessee River just below the Chickamauga Dam in only 1.5 miles. Paddling upstream will take you toward Hixson, but there are often obstructive downed trees. Greenway Farms offers plenty of parking and closes at dark, so make sure to plan your outing accordingly.
Lookout Creek: You’d be hard-pressed to find a better flatwater paddling spot than Lookout Creek, which offers gorgeous views of Sunset Rock and Lookout Mountain—and often glimpses of aquatic wildlife. One launch point is from Reflection Riding Nature Center and Arboretum, which requires an entrance fee and is great if you have time to explore the grounds. You can also park for free and put in beneath the Cummings Highway Bridge a little ways downstream from the nature center. You can relax and explore Cummings Bottoms, which has shallow ponds, and then continue another mile to the Tennessee River. This creek is extremely mellow and great for all skill levels, and it’s made even better by its central location.