Essential Paddling Guide: Prime Paddling Spots, South

I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me. — Wallace Stegner

Rivers run fast and tumbling throughout the National Park System, there are streams with lazy meanders, and placid lakes perfect for dipping a paddle. This diversity poses a delightful dilemma when you have the urge to float and paddle. What follows is just a sampling of the experiences that await you, whether you have hundreds of watery miles under your paddle, or are looking for calm waters to take your youngsters. Where available, links take you to paddling information specific to the park unit.

Southern Parks

Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/paddling.htm

Experienced at self-contained sea kayaking? Enjoy wind-whipped salt spray and camping among sand dunes? Cape Lookout National Seashore on the North Carolina coast offers paddlers a raw and challenging backcountry experience.

“Nowhere else on the Southeast coast will you encounter an uninterrupted barrier island chain in such pristine condition on the magnitude of Cape Lookout National Seashore,” notes the seashore staff.

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Paddlers new to the sport can expore the Soundside Marsh at Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Novice paddlers can work on their skills in the calm waters of Core Sound and Back Sound, while those with many watery miles under their paddles can head out the inlets into the Atlantic. With luck, your dinners will include fresh fish pulled from the ocean, sunrises will glow red, glistening off the waves, and sea oats will festoon your campsite.

You’re more than welcome to plan a multi-day trip and camp on the seashore’s beaches. Just be sure to file a float plan with the park staff so they have an idea where you’re heading and when you plan to return.

Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama

The Little River Canyon might only cover 14,000 or so acres atop Lookout Mountain in northern Alabama, but the river that carved it packs a lot of wallop for experienced kayakers.

Said to have cut the deepest canyon (roughly 600 feet) in the Southeast, and offering the cleanest water in the region, the Little River boasts rapids ranging from Class III to Class VI that lure paddlers when spring runoff hits.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/canoe-and-kayak-trails.htm

Everglades’ sloughs and freshwater marshes are perfect for exploration via canoe or kayak, while the waters of Florida Bay are best plied by sea kayak.

Paddlers will encounter toothy alligators and crocodiles, tropical birds, dolphins, and manatees during canoe and kayak trips that can range from a few hours to a week. Both Turner River and Halfway Creek let canoeists and kayakers get up close to the wildlife in cypress and mangrove swamps.

There are seven water trails found in the Flamingo area, ranging from 3.5 miles to as much as you want to paddle in Florida Bay. Paddler seeking overnight trips can stay for more than a day while camping on chickees, raised camping platforms, erected in Florida Bay.

Nine Mile Pond offers a 5-mile loop and is a good bet for bird-watching and the occasional alligator sighting, all the while navigating through a marshy area studded with mangrove islands. Alligators and crocodiles are often seen along the 8.1-mile paddle along West Lake.

Obed National Wild and Scenic River, Tennessee

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/obed/planyourvisit/paddling.htm 

Though encompassing little more than 5,000 acres on the Cumberland Plateau, Obed National Wild and Scenic River preserves and protects 45 miles of free-flowing streams. The main attraction is the park’s namesake river, the Obed.

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Paddling the Obed River is not for beginners. NPS photo.

The National Park Service likes to say that the landscape within Obed Wild and Scenic River looks much as it did "when the first white settlers strolled its banks in the late 1700s." Scenery aside, the Obed River is for experienced paddlers, as “lethal hazards abound on all sections of the park's streams,” park staff note, adding that waves can reach 10 feet at times. Elsewhere in the park, though, you can find calmer waters to paddle, such as Clear Creek.

It will help your experience if you’re somewhat cold-blooded, as “January, February, March and April are the heart of the park's paddling season,” note park officials. “May and December are shoulder months when minimum flow levels may or may not be present.”

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Tennessee and Kentucky

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/biso/planyourvisit/whitewaterpaddling.htm

Though not as renowned as the New or Gauley rivers, the Big South Fork has drawn acclaim for its whitewater. Angel Falls draws a Class IV rating for the way a choke point in the river squeezes the current, while Double Falls Rapid, the Washing Machine, and the Ell also have earned reputations for challenging paddlers.

While some stretches of the Clear Fork, North White Oak, and New River (not that New River) might be manageable for beginners, most stretches require paddling experience before you put in. If you lack the experience, but don’t want to miss the adventure, look to an outfitter who can guide you on a river trip in the park.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/maca/planyourvisit/ontherivers.htm

The country’s other Green River flows through this park where the main attraction is underground. Paddling the Green or Nolin rivers is a great trip, as they meander for 30 miles through this rumpled, wooded landscape.

Canoeists can camp on islands, within the flood plain, or at the Houchins Ferry Campground near the western end of the park. There are no rapids within the park, making these trips perfect for families or novice paddlers. Wildlife spotted along your trip could include turkeys, deer, beaver, and perhaps even fox or bobcats.

Several canoe liveries can supply you with boat rentals and even shuttles.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Paddling information: http://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/guided-canoe-tours.htm

While you can experience the old-growth forest protected by Congaree National Park by strolling the boardwalks that wend their way through the swamp, paddling Cedar Creek brings the trees and undergrowth even closer.

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Cedar Creek is a great place to paddle in Congaree National Park. NPS photo.

Bald cypress and water tupelo trees reach into the sky overhead, while Spanish moss hangs down from the tree branches. This bottomland forest is rich in birdlife, and the songs of chickadees, wrens, white-eyed vireos and warblers will serenade you. Though Ivory-billed woodpeckers perhaps once made these bottomland forests home, these days you’ll hear the pecking of Red-bellied woodpeckers, Downy woodpeckers, and Northern flickers, not that of the Lord God bird.

The park offers ranger-led canoe tours down Cedar Creek on Saturdays during the winter months, but they fill far in advance. For information and reservations, call the park at 803-647-3980.

If you are on your own, check the stream levels before leaving home; ideal gauge levels for Cedar Creek on the USGS website are between 3-5 feet. Anything above 6 feet starts flooding, while below 3 and you may have to pull over logs. A great day trip is to put in at South Cedar Creek landing and paddle down stream for 2-3 miles then paddle back - the current is not that bad between 3-5 feet; this way you don't need a second car at a pull out spot.

Next Wednesday: Rocky Mountain Parks