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A Guide to Paddling and Camping Along the Tennessee River Blueway

Picture this: You have left behind the constant demands on your busy life, and embarked on a soul journey down the Tennessee River. For a few head-clearing days and star-studded nights, the alarm clock is replaced by the rising sun, the howl of red wolves soothes you to sleep, and the moments in between are spent gliding through a wild and ever-changing landscape that includes both deep wilderness and bustling activity along Chattanooga’s thriving waterfront.

The moment you push off onto the Tennessee River Blueway–a 48-mile section of calm water and serpentine bends of the Tennessee River–you will experience a rare fusion of tranquility and fascination. Propelled only by a steady current and your own quiet paddle strokes, you will glide past historical monuments and archeological districts, islands and wildlife preservations, riverside restaurants and sheer limestone cliffs.

Amidst such an eclectic assortment of environments, your evenings could range from Dutch-oven dinners around the campfires, to pints of Lookout Mountain Lager at a downtown brewery, or even a stay in a floating cabin. Compared to the ultralight considerations of backpacking, overnight paddle trips can feel downright lavish. Pack your canoe with those little extras–a French press, a luxurious sleeping bag, craft beer to spare–and prepare for an adventure that’s rejuvenating, restorative, and quite cozy.


Chattanooga city planners have embraced the Tennessee River which flows through it.
Chattanooga city planners have embraced the Tennessee River which flows through it. Matthew MacPherson

The Tennessee River Blueway was created in the 1930s by the Tennessee Valley Association. Due to its wealth of natural, historical and recreational relevance, it was designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002. Today it appeals to paddlers, eco-tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and history buffs alike.

Of course, human occupancy along this corridor of the river dates back long before the 20th century. Archeological clues suggest that native people inhabited the region as far back as 12,000 years. As you float through the city of Chattanooga you’ll pass Ross’s Landing Riverfront Park, which serves as a memorial to the embarkation site of the Trail of Tears, the devastating forced journey of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma.

Other sites of historical interest along the way include Pot Point House, the remains of Hales Bar Dam, and the confluence of Suck Creek, where, before the creation of the Nickajack dam, the “suck” held the distinction of being the most treacherous rapid on the river.


Chattanooga outfitter Rock/Creek equips many a local paddler. Mark McKnight
Chattanooga outfitter Rock/Creek equips many a local paddler. Mark McKnight

The early miles of the Blueway take you into the heart of Chattanooga’s entertainment district. A glowing example of urban revitalization, the shores of the Tennessee as it flows through the city are alive with parks, museums, restaurants, cafes and even an aquarium.

Allow yourself plenty of time to take in the sights and enjoy a good meal. There are ample places to dock on either side beneath the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. If you’re in need of any gear or provisions before heading into the remote sections of the journey, visit Rock/Creek Outfitters to stock up.

The Blueway then bends like an elbow past Signal Mountain, a dazzling photogenic area known as Moccasin Bend Natural Archeological District. With the urban portion of the Blueway in your wake, you will glide peacefully into the mouth of the Tennessee River Gorge.

The 26 miles of river that cut through the “grand canyon of Tennessee” are the most breathtaking of the entire journey. A dense hardwood forest slopes steeply away from the riverbank and continues on for thousands of pristine acres. Dusky limestone bluffs tower above the placid waters, offering enticing opportunities for cliff jumping and rope swinging. The gorge is teeming with wildlife, including bear, bald eagles and great blue herons.

Once you’ve made your way through the canyon, the river broadens as it takes yet another hairpin turn, opening up into Nickajack Lake. A wealth of side creeks, hidden coves and specks of islands make for a delightful afternoon of bird watching and exploration.

You are nearing the end of your adventure as you paddle by Hales Bar Marina (rumored to be haunted) and the partially flooded Nickajack Cave, where Johnny Cash once had a religious awakening that ended his drug addiction. Today, the cave is home to thousands of endangered grey bats that swarm out to feed every evening at dusk. The Blueway draws to an end at the headwaters of the Nickajack Dam.


*The North Chickamauga Creek is a SUP friendly subsidiary of the Tennessee River. Jake Wheeler
The North Chickamauga Creek is a SUP friendly subsidiary of the Tennessee River. Jake Wheeler

For those looking to paddle the entirety of the Blueway, begin at the Greenway Farm canoe portage dock. From here, you will paddle the North Chickamauga Creek for 2.5 miles until you reach the Tennessee River, just below the Chickamauga Dam. You can also put in below the dam at the Tennessee Riverpark Public Ramp. Your journey will conclude four to five days later at the Shallmound Campground, nearly 50 miles downriver.

There are 11 additional launch sites along the route, which allow you to tailor your adventure to a single day or a weekend. Popular launches include Ross’s Landing in downtown Chattanooga and Sullivan’s Landing inside the Tennessee River Gorge. Although you do not need a permit to paddle the Blueway, the majority of the campsites require prior permission or reservations.


Pot Point is one of five primitive campground locations along the Blueway. Jake Wheeler
Pot Point is one of five primitive campground locations along the Blueway. Jake Wheeler

There are five designated primitive campgrounds along the Blueway: Audubon Island, Williams Island, Pot Point Cabin, Prentice Cooper State Forest, and Oats Island Campsite. The camping is free, but you must obtain permission in advance from the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.

In addition, there are some phenomenal opportunities for glamping (short for glamorous camping) that are totally worth the splurge.

For example, the Maclellan Sanctuary on Audubon Island, epitomizes the Blueway’s unique mixture of cityscape and wilderness. How often can you sleep on a pocket-sized island in the heart of an urban downtown? As the sun sets, relax with a campfire dinner, then take the Chattanooga Water Taxi into town to enjoy a cocktail and stroll the waterfront.

The Paddler’s Perch is a childhood dream realized: A full-scale treehouse nestled high up in the forest. The Perch is owned and operated by Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, and is exclusively available as a private rental to its members and Blueway paddlers. To reach it, you must paddle inland on Lookout Creek. Cradled inside the canopy with an open view of the stars, you may hear the lonely howl of the nature center’s resident red wolves.

On the shores of Nickajack Lake, Hales Bar Marina and Resort rents out floating cabins. These cozy little abodes come fully furnished, complete with kitchenettes and hot showers. One even has a fireplace. As you’re nearing the end of your time on the river, there’s no reason not to indulge in one last unforgettable overnight.

Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.