Top Whitewater Gorge
Rapids and remote wilderness come together on the Big South Fork River.
The Southeast has rivers the way a well-stocked iPod has songs: one for every mood. But few compare to this largely unheralded stream on the Cumberland Plateau, which has so much diversity in 80 miles it’s like a giant paddling anthology. Want something upbeat? Put in at Burnt Mill Bridge and paddle 11 miles of fast-paced whitewater, where a string of Class II-III rapids leads into Double Falls, Washing Machine, and the Ell-all Class III-IV and packed close together in a 1-2-3 punch. The daytrip passes through a spectacular gorge lined with 600-foot cliffs, house-sized boulders, and hemlock-lined waterfalls. Prefer to tone it down? Choose the 25-mile, 2-day trip on the lower river, where you’ll find tranquil water and quiet riverside campsites (there are easy portages at Angel Falls and Devils Jump). And these are just two among many options on the Big South Fork. Everywhere on the river, look for otters, bobcats, and black bears.
Get there The gorge section starts at Burnt Mill Bridge, east of Allardt, TN (check status of bridge closure for best access). Take out at Leatherwood Ford, on Leatherwood Ford Road west of Oneida, TN. For the overnight journey, start at Leatherwood and take out at Blue Heron, off KY 742 west of Revelo, KY. Guided trips and shuttles: www.ky-rafting.com.
Season April through June for the gorge, April through October for the lower section (though it can get low in dry years)
Difficulty Easy to Advanced; Class I-IV, depending on section (the gorge is for experienced paddlers only)
Contact Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, (423) 569-9778; www.nps.gov/biso. Camping permits required.