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The 5 Best Spots in the Southeast for Fall Flatwater Paddling

Kayaking on the French Broad River in the Southeast.

Yes, the temperature is dropping and the days are growing short, but don’t even think of hanging up your paddling gear for the year. Autumn is a sensational time for flatwater paddling in the southeast. The shifting seasons transform the wilderness into a kaleidoscope of green and gold that’s reflected in the mirror-calm of the river.

Cliff jumping and cold beer melt into memory as your days on the river become focused on filling your lungs with brisk air, measuring out every last ounce of daylight in quiet paddle strokes, and warming up with a spiced autumn ale inside a riverside brewery.

Here then are five of the best spots in the Southeast for cool weather paddling.

1. FRENCH BROAD RIVER, NORTH CAROLINA

A kayaker on the French Broad River takes a peek at the Biltmore Estate.
A kayaker on the French Broad River takes a peek at the Biltmore Estate. anoldent

If you’re a fan of the river life, The French Broad River Paddle Trail should be high on your bucket list. This 140-mile waterway between Rosman, North Carolina, and Douglas Lake in Tennessee provides a huge opportunity to explore wilderness-entrenched flatwater, with enough campsites and public launches along the way for you to create an adventure of any length or duration.

Although it’s difficult to choose a favorite run from the many beautiful miles of this ancient river, the Biltmore Section ranks as one of the most popular of Asheville locals. It is a seven-mile run that begins at the Bent Creek Riverpark, just 12 minutes from downtown.

Your float will start by cruising through a thick forest that feels remarkably remote for being so close to the city. By far the highlight of this run is gliding past the Biltmore Estate. Experience the Biltmore’s lovely sprawling grounds without having to paying $65 for a day pass. The bare branches of late autumn allow you to a much better view of the mansion then you’d get in the summer.

You can take out at the Hominy Creek Riverpark, or continue paddling into the heart of the River Arts District. It’s five more miles until the final take out at the Bywater Bar. But be warned: The current moves very slow at times. However, there are plenty of opportunities to take out at public launches and restaurants along the way.

The section of river that travels through the RAD is also known as the French Broad Pub Crawl. On a crisp autumn day, you can climb ashore and warm up inside any number of riverside establishments, including the Smoky Park Supper Club and the newly minted New Belguim Brewery. The best place to take-out is the Bywater Bar and Grill, where you’ll find a lively scene of fellow paddlers sipping hot toddies around a campfire. To prepare for your trip, pay a visit to French Broad Outfitters in Asheville.

2. CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH CAROLINA

The trees of Congaree National Park commune with paddlers of the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in south Carolina.
The trees of Congaree National Park commune with paddlers of the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail in south Carolina. Scott Oves

The landscape of South Carolina’s Congaree National Park is a vision of deep southern elegance–stately oaks, bald cyprus trees, and tupelos dripping with gauzy Spanish moss. The optimal way to experience this unique wilderness is by traveling down the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail, which flows for 15 miles through bluffs, sandbars, and primeval old-growth forests.

The initial 6.2 miles of the trail, between Bannister’s Bridge and Cedar Creek Landing, is just right for a relaxing day float. The canoe trail begins as a narrow stream, then gradually widens as it curves smoothly through the park, under the shadow of some of the tallest trees in eastern North America. You may encounter snakes and turtles sunning themselves contentedly on logs in the middle of the creek.

If you do not intend to hire a shuttle, park at the Cedar Creek Landing. From here you can paddle upstream against a gentle current, exploring a particularly lush and tranquil section of the waterway. Downstream, Dawson’s Lake is an ideal location for fishing and wildlife viewing. Keep an eye out for river otters, wading birds, bald eagles, and the occasional alligator.

The final portion of the journey is 20 miles long. You want to begin at the Cedar Creek Landing and float through the wild eastern corner of the park. The canoe trail officially ends where Cedar Creek leaves the park’s boundaries and flows into the Congaree River at Mazyck’s Cut, but you still have a few miles to go until you reach the landing on Route 601. This would make for an ambitious day trip–and in autumn you would likely be paddling in the dark for part of it–but a worthwhile overnighter. Obtain a backcountry camping permit at the Longleaf Campground.

Congaree National Park offers ranger-guided tours but not rental equipment. Fortunately you can find the latter and everything else you need at Adventure Carolina in nearby Columbia.

3. LOOKOUT CREEK, TENNESSEE

There’s family fun to be had on Lookout Creek a few miles from Chattanooga. Perry Smyre
There’s family fun to be had on Lookout Creek a few miles from Chattanooga. Perry Smyre

Just seven miles away from the adventure-savvy city of Chattanooga, Lookout Creek is a local treasure of historical significance and great natural beauty. Officially part of the Tennessee River Blueway, the creek flows beneath the western face of Lookout Mountain and joins the Tennessee River near the elbow of Moccassin Bend. The creek played a somewhat poignant role in the Civil War, when Confederate and Yankee soldiers, stationed on opposite banks, traded coffee beans and cigarettes across the water.

The $10 launch fee at the Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center goes toward local conservation efforts. Bu you can also put-in a mile downstream from the center beneath the Cummings Highway Bridge (U.S. Highway 64.) From either location you’ll be able to paddle upstream or downstream with ease and save yourself the trouble of requiring a shuttle.

To venture up the creek, you will travel against a mild current and enjoy a gentle, sustained resistance workout as you go. Keep an eye out for wild turkey strutting along the banks and river otters nesting in protected groves. You’ll glide past the Paddler’s Perch treehouse, and have the opportunity to explore a side creek that passes though a long, dark tunnel beneath a railroad overpass.

If you’re headed downstream, you’ll see the creek broaden and feel the current become negligible. Blue herons and kingfishers are often spotted wading in the shallow ponds of Cummings Bottom. Two and a half miles below the nature center, Lookout Creek joins the Tennessee River Blueway, where a whole other world of flatwater paddling awaits.

With four locations in the Chattanooga area, Rock/Creek is the most convenient and well stocked outfitter with all the paddling gear, apparel and other equipment you need for a float nearby. And don’t hesitate to ask the staff for other location recommendations.

4. CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER, GEORGIA

A SUP rider and his dog go for a ride on the Chattahoochee River.
A SUP rider and his dog go for a ride on the Chattahoochee River. Steve Harwood

The Chattahoochee is an ancient river that weaves through Atlanta like a main artery. A quick afternoon on the water will provide a peaceful, pulse-slowing and mind-calming getaway from the whirlwind activity of the city. Whether you’re paddling a canoe, kayak, or SUP, floating the ‘Hooch is a great way to the savor the cooler weather and maybe feel the invigorating snap of a late autumn wind.

When it comes to easy access to the water, nothing beats the Chattahoochee River Park on Azalea Drive, just three miles outside Atlanta. From here you can paddle four miles to Morgan Falls Overlook Park. The current is so faint you probably won’t notice it, so dig in with your paddle and follow the hairpin curve in the river towards Bull Sluice Lake. This will be a good spot to admire the fall foliage as you explore the many hidden coves along the shoreline.

Just beyond another bend in the river, situated in a calm inlet above a dam, Morgan Falls Overlook Park is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. The still waters make it perfect for SUP’ing. The inlet is dotted with small islands, and these, along with alcoves and various tributaries, make for some prime exploration.

For maps, gear, and boating beta, check out Go With the Flow in downtown Roswell.

5. LAKE JOCASSEE, SOUTH CAROLINA

Two men paddle their canoe close to the shore of Lake Jocassee.
Two men paddle their canoe close to the shore of Lake Jocassee. TimothyJ

Situated along the Blue Ridge Escarpment in South Carolina, Lake Jocassee’s 7,500 acres beg to be explored by paddlers. Layers of surrounding mountains and a jagged shoreline of mostly undeveloped forestland create a heavenly backdrop for a day or several days of exploration on super deep, jewel-toned water.

While there are plenty of reasons to visit here in the summertime–cliff jumping comes to mind–the cooler season has a particular draw. Waterfalls of all sizes and temperaments can be found along the shoreline, where the many mountain-chilled feeder streams tumble down steep banks and swirl into still water. These cascades are a sight to behold in the fall, when the surrounding trees turn bronze and gold, and leaves glitter down from the branches into the torrent. On a more pragmatic note, once the temperatures drop you’ll find significantly less lake traffic.

There is ample opportunity to paddle upstream into the mouths of the many glassine rivers that flow into the lake. Whether you’re paddling for an afternoon or out on a multi-day backcountry excursion, be sure to check out 80-foot Fork Falls, the most dramatic spectacle in the vicinity, located at the head of a narrow cove in the northeast corner of the lake.

Whether you’re heading out for a multi-day backcountry excursion or just an afternoon on a SUP, you’ll find everything you need, including equipment rental and a public boat launch, at the Devil’s Fork State Park.

Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.