Chattooga River Paddling Guide by Suzanne Welander
By Suzanne Welander
The famed Chattooga is one of the nation's most renowned rivers. Its reputation is well deserved – it is a spectacular wilderness river that frolics through rock outcroppings and forest thickets that contain virtually no sign of human habitation. Located along the Georgia-South Carolina border, the river is protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which divides the river into sections. The river above GA 28 (including Section I from Burrells Ford to the GA 28 Bridge) is the only stretch of river in Georgia where paddling is prohibited by law. The remaining three sections consist of 28 miles of pristine whitewater paddling that encompass something for all paddlers, from beginners to experts. Its excellence rivals any river in the country.
SECTION II GA Hwy. 28 to Earls Ford
SUMMARY: Class I-II (III); Length, 7.4 miles; Time, 4-5 hours; Gauge, website and visual; level 0.8 feet; Gradient, 11 feet per mile; Scenery, A. VIEW INTERACTIVE MAP.
DESCRIPTION: Section II of the Chattooga begins at the GA 28 Bridge (there is easy access and parking on the Georgia side of the bridge) and continues down river to Earls Ford. This section is approximately 7 miles long and is a good day trip for beginning boaters. Initially, the stream is shallow and rocky with only a slight gradient. Considerable volume is added when the West Fork of the Chattooga flows in from the right approximately 100 yards below the GA 28 Bridge.
The valley through which the upper river flows has a rich history. It was at one time the site of Chattooga Old Town, one of the largest Native American settlements in the Southeast. The town became a major Indian trading center after white men came to the area. The valley was ideally suited for agriculture, and the land-lustful transplants soon appropriated the valley as their own. A large farmhouse owned by the Russell family is one of the few structures from the early agricultural period that is still standing. It lies just off the river on the South Carolina side above Long Bottom Ford, another access for this section.
This area was also visited by colonial naturalist William Bartram and described in his Travels. A portion of the Bartram Trail named in his honor, joint the Chattooga River Trail and parallels the river on the Georgia side throughout Section II down to Sandy Ford Road in Section III.
For the first few miles of Section II, the Chattooga is a meandering, gentle valley stream. Through the valley, the river remains close to SC 28, and several seasonal dwellings in private ownership are scattered along the South Carolina shore. Near the end of the valley is the access point at Long Bottom Ford. Upon leaving the valley, the terrain begins to revert to a wilderness character, and the river quickens its pace. Large hemlocks and white pines thrust from the rocky banks and small islands. In the spring, the banks sport a profusion of wildflowers and flowering shrubs, including the flame-orange and white wild azaleas.
After passing several large islands in the stream, you will reach the long deep pool that precedes Turn Hole Rapid, the first rapid that most paddlers deem worthy of a name. The rapid is not very difficult, but it can trick the unwary. The approach is through a shallow shoal area that has several possible routes. The main drop is usually entered near the left side. It calls for a quick turn to the right, which is necessary to avoid being pushed into the rocky bank. At average water levels, you can run near the center of the stream, straight across the main ledge, if desired. The drop is about 3 feet.
Continuing downstream through another half mile or so of mild Class I and II rapids, you will round the bend to see a group of large boulders and rock slabs extending almost completely across the river. This is Big Shoals, rated as Class III by the Forest Service, and should be scouted. The approach to the rapid is blind due to the large rocks, and occasionally, long or entire trees have become lodged in the main chutes. Scout from the boulders to the right of center.
Big Shoals is a veritable whitewater gymnasium – an excellent place for a beginner to play and train. There are several routes to run and a large pool at the bottom for easy recovery. There is also a relatively simple portage back up and over the rocks if you wish to try it again.
The easiest and most popular route at Big Shoals is next to the right bank. There is a nice tongue dropping swiftly into a small reversal wave at the head of the pool below. Other possible routes are over the curler at the right center and, at most water levels, the chute on the far left side.
The reminder of the trip down to Earls Ford had many long, slow pools and a sprinkling of Class I and Class II whitewater. Look for wildlife in this section; many hawks nest near the stream, and deer are frequently seen early and late in the day.
You will easily recognize the Earls Ford take-out where Warwoman Creek, a fairly large stream, enters the river on the right. There is a well-trodden sand and gravel beach on the left. If you are getting out here, you are about to begin the worst part of your trip – the quarter-mile carry uphill to the parking lot.
SHUTTLE: Drive east on 76 out of Clayton to the take-out at Earls Ford. Approximately 2 miles after crossing the river into South Carolina, turn left onto Chattooga Ridge Road. About 6 miles ahead, turn left onto Earls Ford Road and proceed another 3.8 miles to the parking area. Put-ins are reached by returning to the Chattooga Ridge Road and proceeding north another 3.4 miles to SC 28. Turn left here; the entrance to Long Bottom Ford is 4.7 miles ahead or use the GA/SC 28 Bridge on the Georgia side of the river.
GAUGE: The minimum runnable level is 0.8 feet; maximum is 3.5. Most boaters refer to the visual gauge located at the US 76 Bridge. Levels for this location are also available on the USGS website, but are not exactly the same as visual levels. Recently, the staff gauge was unofficially moved in a misguided attempt to remove the discrepancy, resulting in further confusion. Levels provided here refer to the historic position of the visual gauge.
SECTION III Earls Ford to US 76
TRIP SUMMARY: Class II-IV (V); Length, 12.2 miles; Time, 6.5 hours; Gauge, USGS website and visual. Level 0.8 feet; Gradient, 25 feet per mile; Scenery, A+. VIEW INTERACTIVE MAP.
DESCRIPTION: Section III of the Chattooga stretches from Earls Ford to the US 76 bridge. Multiple access points along this stretch allow for day-trips of manageable length. Depending on the amount of time spent scouting or portaging, paddling all of Section III in one day is difficult, and definitely strenuous.
By the time the river reaches Earls Ford, the volume has increased significantly and the average gradient is much steeper than that of Section II. The first rapid encountered is a fairly straight drop to the right of center over a 3-foot ledge. From the large eddy and pool below this drop, look downstream and to the left for the entrance to Warwoman Rapid. This tricky Class II+ should be entered on the left, heading toward the right. After the small initial drop, make a quick turn to the left and back downstream. The pillowed rock in the center of the chute can pin or capsize your boat if you do not make the turn quickly.
Rock Gardens, noted more for its scenic value than for the difficulty of its rapids, is next. You weave between huge boulders and fingerlike slabs of granite that often overshadow the stream. The rapids are mild, but you should stay on your toes.
Three Rooster Tails Rapid is the next challenge. After a sharp bend in the river, the channel narrows and spills over a series of funneling rocky ledges beneath overhanging rocks. Three pluming waves (the rooster tails) can be seen in the center of the route. The easiest run is just to the right of these pluming waves.
Just below this rapid, the river widens and slows to relative tranquility. As you look far downstream, you will see Dicks Creek (Five Finger) Falls cascading over a 50-to-60-foot droop into the river on the right. Slightly upstream of this falls, on the Chattooga, is a low shelf of rock that forms part of a definite river horizon line. Stop on this shelf for a mandatory scouting of Dicks Creek Ledge.
Dicks Creek Ledge is given a Class IV rating in Forest Service literature. There are several possible routes; one of them is a portage over the rocks in the center. Most who run the rapid try to make the S-turn over the two drops. Start the first drop heading toward the right, and be prepared to make an extreme cut back to the left at the bottom of the second drop. The S-turn maneuver becomes increasingly difficult at higher water levels.
A short distance beyond Dicks Creek Ledge, you will observe a large rocky island. Down the right side of this island is a series of Class III drops called Stairsteps Rapid. This is not one of the major rapids on Section III. If you are doing well at this point, selecting an appropriate course through Stairsteps should not be difficult.
Just below Stairsteps is another island, which precedes Class III Sandy Ford Rapid. The favored route is also to the right of this island. Sandy Ford, a mid-section access point, is located on the left immediately after this rapid. It is recognizable by the sand beaches on both sides of the river, but the Forest Service road on the South Carolina side is recommended.
As you round the bend below Sandy Ford, you will come into a large pooled area that leads to the entrance to the fabled Narrows. The Narrows' combination of whitewater, high rock faces, and drooping ferns has made this a favorite spot on the river. If you've brought your camera, this should definitely be recorded on film. To scout the entrance, get out on the lower left end of this pool.
In the Narrows, the river drops over a series of ledges, decreasing in width as it drops. The biggest holes are just to the left of center; the least turbulent path is to the far right. Take your pick. Open canoes need to bail and others needing a breather may eddy out on the left below the first series of drops. The river continues to narrow and drop until it's only a few feet wide, which creates some strangely turbulent currents. The final drop in the Narrows is around the right side of an undercut rock midstream. It should be noted that the area immediately below this series of drops has fast moving and highly irregular boiling currents, strong eddy lines, and numerous undercut rocks. For these reasons, the Forest Service has given the Narrows a Class IV rating. If you should find yourself swimming in the Narrows, avoid all contact with rocks, except from the downstream side.
One of the more dramatic rapids on Section III is not far downstream. Second Ledge is a breathtaking and heart-stopping 6-foot vertical drop. It may be scouted from the left bank at any water level, and from the rocks in the center of the stream at lower levels. Most paddlers run straight over the top of the drop on the left. Keep your boat parallel to the current and maintain brisk speed. Be ready to brace firmly when you hit the aerated water at the bottom. Second ledge is not extremely difficult, but it does get the adrenaline pumping.
Less than 2 miles from Second Ledge is Eye of the Needle, a Class III plunge. Most of the current is pushed against the left bank down a narrow chute that cuts slightly back to the right. The current does most of the work for you in this rapid, but beware of leaning too far to the right as you progress down the chute. You may need a strong brace to stay upright.
For approximately the next 4 miles, the river alternates between long pools and Class I and II rapids. Two additional access points are available in this segment; the first is reached by a steep path from the end of FS 723, the second of these is more easily spotted from the river and is marked with a post engraved "Fall Creek." The creek itself enters the river downstream of this point, cascading 25 feet into the river. The next two significant rapids are just ahead.
Roller Coaster is a fast, bucking, Class II ride down an extended series of large standing waves. Go for the center of the waves for the most excitement. There is a large pool at the base of Roller Coaster in which to bail and recover if necessary. Immediately around the bend is Keyhole, or Painted Rock Rapid. Much of the current pushes strongly toward a huge undercut boulder at the bottom of the drop. To avoid this rock, begin to the right of center and continue to work right as you descend. You may also run down the extreme left, but a move to the right of the boulder is still essential. If the water level is extremely low, the far left or far right may be your only choices. Painted Rock is rated a Class IV by the Forest Service but is generally considered to by III+ difficulty.
Roughly 3 more miles of Class I and II water brings you to the Class IV+ Bull Sluice. You will know you've arrived at Bull Sluice because of the extremely large boulders extending from the Georgia side of the river, which seem to block the entire stream. Even those who have run this rapid many times before still stop to scout it. Pull out well above these rocks on the Georgia (right) side and walk down to do your scouting. Inexperienced paddlers and those unfamiliar with the sluice have been known to enter the Class III rapids just above it only to find themselves committed to running the thundering lower drops against their will.
Changing water levels alter the difficulty of Bull Sluice considerably and may also alter your plan of attack. Bull Sluice has been run in an infinite variety of crafts by an infinite variety of people. On any given day, you will see examples of the worst and best whitewater technique at Bull Sluice. The rapid should not be taken lightly; there have been fatalities here, and on several occasions people, both in and out of their boats have been stuck in the upper hydraulic for uncomfortably long periods of time. The lower drop is much rockier beneath the surface than it appears. Look at it carefully before you decide to run it. The portage is on the right side over the boulders.
If you decide to run Bull Sluice, here is one of the many possible routes. Follow the Class III entrance rapid down the river-left side and hit the eddy on the left, which is just above the major drop. If you are in an open canoe and have taken on much water, this is the place to bail it out. It is a good spot of level river from which to reconnoiter what lies ahead. Peel out very high from this eddy and head straight over the first of the double drops just to the left of the center of the upper hole. The current will tend to push you to the left, so use it to your advantage to hit the second drop head on. Good luck!
A few hundred yards below Bull Sluice is the US 76 Bridge. This marks the end of Section III and the beginning of Section IV. Boating access is from the large paved parking lot on the South Carolina side of the bridge. The Forest Service also provides a footpath access to Bull Sluice for those who may want to get a glimpse of the giant rapid without actually getting wet.
SHUTTLE: The take-out is located on US 76 east of Clayton. The parking lot is the first left immediately after crossing the river. All put-ins for this section are reached via the Chattooga Ridge Road, a left turn 2 miles farther east on US 76. Other access points, from highest to lowest, are at Earls Ford (down Earls Ford Road), Sandy Ford (a left turn on FS 721A off Earls Ford Road), FS 723 and FS 769 off Fall Creek Road, and Thrifts Ferry accessible via a dirt road 1 mile east of the bridge on US 76.
GAUGE: Most boaters refer to the visual gauge located at the US 76 Bridge (see first section). Levels for this location are also available on the USGS website, but are not exactly the same as visual levels. Section III can be run as low as 0.8 feet, but below 1.5 expect to be scraping along, particularly in the higher reaches. It is much more fun at 2 feet and above, and should only be run by expert boaters above 3 feet.
SECTION IV U.S. 76 to Lake Tugaloo
SUMMARY: Class, IV-V; Length, 8.3 miles; Time, 4.5 hours; Gauge, Website, visual; Level, 0.8 feet; Gradient, 46 feet per mile; Scenery A+.
DESCRIPTION: In spite of the myriad attractions of Section III, it is probably Section IV's reputation as the ultimate whitewater experience that brings the throngs to the Chattooga. Skilled boaters from throughout North America try to make at least one pilgrimage to Section IV. Because of the greater difficulty and frequency of this section, it should only be attempted by those with a high degree of competence. Since it is advisable that only advanced boaters attempt to paddle this section, this guide will give attention only to the more hazardous or unusual rapids.
Surfing Rapid, just around the first bend is exactly what it sounds like – an excellent spot for surfing or playing in the river. The best wave is to the far right.
Screaming Left Turn is located approximately 200 yards below Surfing Raid. Large boulders direct the main stream to the far right. The river then flushes through an extremely sharp turn back to the left – almost all the way to the left bank. The most straightforward route is to follow the main channel, avoiding the shallows on the outside of the curve where strainers sometimes lodge. Screaming Left Turn is designated a Class IV by the Forest Service. Approximately a half-mile farther downstream you will reach a point where the river is choked by a large mound of granite; only a horizon line is visible from upstream. This rapid is called Rock Jumble. Several bumpy routes are possible, but the best route is probably to the left of center, following the tongue of deeper water that begins there and washes right and toward the center. Just below, the river calms into a pooled area known locally as Sutton's Hole. It is a popular swimming hole and a good rest stop.
At this point, you are not far from what is probably the most dangerous spot on the river, Woodall Shoals. When you see a granite shelf extending far into the river from the South Carolina (left) side, you are approaching Woodall. Stop on the rocks on the left side to scout. Do not be deceived by the way this rapid appears. The first drop creates a vicious recirculation hydraulic that has taken the lives of many people. Carry around over the rocks to the left and re-enter well below the hydraulic, or take the rock slide near the far right bank if the water is high enough. The rest of the river provides enough thrills; so do not needlessly risk your neck at Woodall. Below the first drop, about 50 yards of Class III water takes you down to a large pool. There is a good dirt-road access via FS 757 on the South Carolina side if you wish to enter or leave the river from here.
Beyond the pool, the river begins to narrow and drop swiftly. When the river appears to drop out of sight on the left, stop on the right and scout the next rapid – Seven Foot Falls. A large granite outcropping splits the stream with a sheer 7-foot drop on the left and a more gradual descent to the right, which can only be run at high levels. If you choose the left route, boof the top right-hand corner of the drop with considerable speed. Aim for the aforementioned granite outcropping, expecting that the force of the water will push you left just before the drop. Ideally, you can then drop into the eddy with your hair still dry.
The next few miles provide many Class II-III rapids, with the first sizable series marked by Stekoa Creek cascading in from the Georgia side. The larger sheer drop of Long Creek, entering from the South Carolina, side is not too far beyond and is an excellent place to stop for a break.
As you continue downstream, Deliverance Rock, a gargantuan boulder on the right, looms into view. (It is so named because many of the scenes from the movie Deliverance were filmed there). Approach from the right side of the river. A standard line is to run from the right to the bottom-left of the rapid, steering well clear of Deliverance Rock itself, which is undercut.
Raven Chute is the next challenge and is easily recognized by the imposing cliffs that loom into view as you round a bend in the river. In the wintertime, when the vegetation is light, you can see the outline of the raven for which this Class IV rapid is named. The bird's head is silhouetted against the sky and his great wings are outstretched on either side. Scouting should be done from the left shore. Though there are several routes through this rapid, be careful about experimenting. Its hidden potholes and sieves have claimed at least one life. A good kayak route starts on the left and follows the top of the long curling diagonal wave to the right. At high water, it becomes very important to stay on the highest point of this curler; erring to the left will slam you against a rock wall and then dump you back upstream into a large re-circulating hole. Canoeists sometimes begin their descent further right, paddling across the curler and allowing the pile to push the bows of their boats right.
A mile or so of more moderate water beings you to FS 511, which can be discerned by a sandy beach on the right. FS 511 is a steep unpaved road, but it is the last opportunity to exit before the most formidable section of whitewater on the Chattooga – the Class III-V Five Falls.
All of the five drops should be scouted from the shore. The Five Falls section begins when most of the water is channeled to the left of the river; eddy out behind the large boulder in the center of the river. From here, you can see a rock garden below you on the left and a large downstream eddy at the edge of the horizon line on river right. Paddle smartly to this right-hand eddy, avoiding the rock garden and sieves on river left. At this point, there is an opportunity to scout the actual drop, a 3-foot fall against the right bank followed by a short pool. After the drop, head quickly across to the left bank to scout the second fall, Corkscrew.
From the left bank, you can get right on top of the drop and look into the chaos of Corkscrew. There are two big holes on the right-hand side of this rapid, but the left side is shallow and fraught with curler waves that will easily flip you. The preferred route is a sinuous curve that keeps the holes on your right and the shallows on your left. Eddy out on the right at the bottom. If you decide to portage, the right bank is slightly easier.
Scout Crack in the Rock from the right side. Here cracked boulders split the river into three narrow falls, each of which drops about 5 feet. Below 2 feet, the center is the preferred route, but make sure you have enough room to punch the hole at the bottom. Somewhere above 2 feet, a fourth crack – "far right crack" – opens and is easy to avoid but has nevertheless proven itself to be a consistently fatal funnel for swimmers.
Below Crack in the rock, ferry to the left bank to scout Jawbone, which is probably the rapid with the greatest number of potential hazards. Jawbone is two soft drops joined by a startlingly fast tongue of water curved like a jawbone. Most people enter this drop at the curve of the jaw and ride it straight to the bottom. Be careful, however, as there are two hazards along the way: the first is an undercut rock to the right of the first drop; the second is the infamous Hydroelectric Rock to the right of the second drop, a round shed-sized boulder with an underwater funnel at about surface level. Reports of those unlucky enough to take an unscheduled swim through this tunnel confirm that the passage is large enough for a person, but not large enough for a person and a boat. This hole is often lodged with debris; a swim into the hole could be your last. The dangers of Jawbone are further magnified by what awaits accidental swimmers at the next horizon line: an unlucky choice between the bizarrely configured boulder sieve called Puppy Chute, the undercut table rock nicknamed Allison's Rock, or the Class V hole called Sock'em Dog, all of which have claimed lives. To scout Sock'em Dog, ferry back to the left side of the stream below Hydroelectric Rock.
Sock'em Dog, impressive at all water levels, is the last of the Five Falls and is rated Class V by the Forest Service. If you do not like the looks of Sock'em Dog, portage on the left. Those running the drop generally begin in one of the two large right-hand eddies. Peel out wide in order to approach from the left of the channel with a right-hand angle; that way you can drive strongly across the current, which will tend to push you left. There is a smooth hump of water near the center of the top of the drop called the "launching pad." Keep up your speed and go over the top of the launching pad or just to the right of it. Crosscurrents are powerful. Boofing clean over the hole from the launching pad is the most impressive line. But erring to the right of the pad is preferable to landing in the left side of the hole, which is not only the stickier side, but also has a pinning rock knows as "Handkerchief Rock." The pool below is a good place from which to watch others or pick up your gear.
At the end of this calm area is Shoulder Bone Rapid. A jutting granite escarpment in the river is reminiscent of a shoulder bone, hence the name. The channel curves around to the left in a C-shape. Follow the water, but don't relax too much, as there is a hole midway down the middle of the channel.
A few Class II-III rapids remain before the rollicking Chattooga becomes the dispassionate Lake Tugaloo. The next 2 miles across the lake to the take-out are painfully slow, so you might as well enjoy the scenery. Take-out on the left at Tugaloo Lake Road. If this road is impassible, you must paddle on down to the dam where an access road is on the right.
SHUTTLE: The put-in is at the US 76 Bridge parking lot on the South Carolina Side. To get to the take-out at Lake Tugaloo from there, take a left out of the parking lot. Turn right at the first paved road, Orchard Road, and follow it until it ends. Turn right onto Damascus Church Road. Pass Damascus Church on the left, and shortly thereafter, you will see a sign for the Tugaloo Boat Ramp. Bear right down a windy and steep gravel road that takes you to the ramp. The other take-out is located at FS 757, also accessed off of Orchard Road. The 4-mile trip down FS 511, if needed, is reached by going east on Camp Creek Road from US 441 south of Clayton, then turning left after 1.4 miles onto Water Gauge Road and taking the right fork at FS 511B.
GAUGE: Using levels from the bridge gauge at US 76 (see first section), boaters run this section as low as 0.8 feet. A good first-time level is somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 feet. At 2.0, the difficulty of the river bumps up to another level; some of the Class IV rapids become class Vs and so on. At 2.5 and above, Five Falls is for experts only. The pools between the five falls disappear, Jawbone develops a terminal hole, and Sock-Em-Dog becomes a river-wide hole as well.
MAPS: USGS Maps: Satolah, Whetstone, Rainy Mountain; County Maps: Rabun, GA and Oconee, SC; U. S. Forest Service Maps: Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River.
A raft gets caught in the hazardous Bull Sluice Rapids on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River in Northeast Georgia and has to be dislodged with ropes from the rocks above the falls. (3:23)
The famed Chattooga is one of the nation's most renowned rivers. Its reputation is well deserved.