The Watauga River is a local favorite of mine and a great destination for Tri-City residents, especially in the summer.
Flowing cold and clear out of one of Tennessee’s most scenic impoundments — Watauga Lake — the dam-controlled waterway offers paddlers a lively mountain float in pristine waters. TVA manages the Watauga as one of its recreational rivers and thus has a dependable warm weather recreation release schedule for rafters, canoers and kayakers.
At the appointed hour — usually noon — paddlers assemble at the put in and Wilbur Dam begins releasing water, increasing the flow of the river and allowing for paddlers to proceed. Watauga enthusiasts enter the frigid, trout-filled aqua, immediately joining the swift stream for an 8.5-mile run. Paddlers ride fun shoals before reaching Bee Cliff Rapid, a Class III white flow also known as Anaconda. Fortunately, there is a cheat route and you can avoid the worst of the rapid if you so desire.
Beyond Bee Cliff Rapid, the river continues to speed, passing pastoral lands in a backdrop of fine scenery dominated by Holston Mountain. Streamside houses become common heading toward Elizabethton, but your eyes will be on the swift but easy Class I-II rapids, divided by occasional islands. The cold water sometimes generates a cool fog blanket that lies upon the river.
Stay off the river if TVA is not generating, as the current is otherwise negligible and you may have to pull your boat. However, when TVA is generating stopping points are limited, not only by private property but simply by high water inundating the shore. The fast waters will have you at Riverside Park in Elizabethton before you know it.
The Watauga River is born on the slopes above Grandfather Mountain just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina. Tributaries flowing from the highlands of Watauga County widen the westerly turning river. It cuts a gorge while entering the state of Tennessee in the Carter County. Here, the Watauga is soon dammed as Watauga Lake, where the Elk River adds to the flow. It is but a short distance between Watauga Dam and Wilbur Dam.
This paddle begins below Wilbur Dam. The Watauga then flows icy cold as it heads westerly to and through Elizabethton, passing historic Sycamore Shoals, where the Overmountain Men mustered during the American Revolution to fight the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina.
Beyond Sycamore Shoals, the Watauga speeds more before being stilled as Boone Lake, where it meets the South Holston River and ends. A small creek flowing behind my home here in Johnson City lies within the watershed of the Watauga River. Whitewater paddlers can ply the seasonally high section of the Watauga River upstream of Watauga Lake in Tennessee and North Carolina, but it is for advanced paddlers only. Watauga Lake makes for scenic stillwater paddling for sea kayakers and canoe campers. The best and most reliable run is below. Outfitters serve the river, so no worries if you are boatless.
The put-in is within earshot of Wilbur Dam. Enter still water before paddling into the fast flow just below the dam. The clear-green water is frigid to the touch. Make sure and have your life jacket on for the first mile at least — Bee Cliff Rapid comes quick. Sycamore, tulip trees and other lush vegetation lines the banks. Anglers may be vying for trout which inhabit the river. A protruding cliff lies just around the corner from the put-in. Commercial rafting operations often stop here so clients can jump off the 15 or so foot rock into the water. Tie your boat in well if stopping here.
The first rapid comes at 0.2 mile and is a welcome warm up. Like most other rapids on this paddle, it is a simple read-and-run drop with few or any exposed rocks. At 0.7 mile, the river begins to curve left and passes over some mild shoals. Move river left and you will soon hear the white noise of Bee Cliff Rapid, a.k.a. Anaconda. You may see the vertical tan wall on river right that gives the rapid its name. Keep within 5 feet of the left shore and you can successfully run an even gradient, avoiding the froth of white in the middle of the Watauga.
From here on out you’ve got it made. Enjoy the splashy shoals and mountain scenery. Holston Mountain dominates the skyline, while Lynn Mountain rises in the foreground. Pass under the New Steel Bridge at 2.3 miles. Islands occasionally divide the river. Streamside houses become more common.
At 4.4 miles, Lynn Valley Road Bridge spans the Watauga. The river begins to widen where the frequent rapids are not present. Islands continue to divide the river but the main channel is evident. Paddlers beware taking the narrower channels as the strong current is sometimes forced into trees or other obstacles. The rapids of the main channels are clear-cut with splashy water the only potential troubles.
Pass under the US 19E Bridge at 7 miles. Enjoy a fast-moving riffle just below the bridge. At 7.3 miles, you will pass by an abandoned bridge abutment followed by another fun shoal created by the confluence with the Doe River coming in on river left. The Doe drains the highlands of Roan Mountain to the south then passes through the heart of Elizabethton. More rapids make a fast trip even faster. Pass under the TN 400 Bridge at 8 miles. Below this bridge Riverside Park comes into view on your left. Be careful, as there is no official landing and the river is flowing swiftly when generating where you will be taking out.
Before paddling check the TVA Wilbur Dam release schedule. Visit www.tva.com/river/recreation/schedules.htm, or call (865) 632-2264 and follow the prompts. The river is runnable following dam generation. Generation follows the TVA recreational generation schedule — late May through early September, plus Saturdays in September and October. If you are looking for an outfitter, do an Internet search for Watauga River rafting. Some outfitters also rent one-person inflatable funyaks.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The TVA Wilbur Dam release schedule shows each Saturday through October as release dates. The river is runnable following dam generation.