Rivers in Georgia, once the lifeblood of native settlements, colonial communities, and burgeoning cities, are now mainly seen from overpasses at speeds of 70 mph. No matter how forgotten or overlooked, they still exist and are no less important to our communities in this day and age. One of the best ways to understand and appreciate all that rivers do for Georgia is to take a trip down one or all of the 52 – that’s right, 52! – rivers in Georgia. Nevertheless, it is not always easy figuring out which river is fast, slow, deep, shallow, rocky, sandy, sunny, shady, accessible, inaccessible, and ultimately which one is best for you!
Before we dive in, a note about these recommendations and your skills – these trips are only suggestions and are dependent on your skill as a paddler. Never go off anyone’s suggestions without also researching relevant maps/satellites, river levels, weather, the difficulty of the river, and private/public lands and assessing yourself as a paddler. Take a buddy and always let someone not on the trip know where you’re going and how long you’ll be there. The author has paddled all the following trips and has known accessible put-ins and take-outs; however, things change over time, so do your research! Pick up a copy of the book Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia – it will be your best friend and reference for paddling Georgia rivers.
To start, are you a day-tripper or more of an overnight kind of paddler? Knowing his will determine your distances between put-in and take-out locations. Consider the drive time to get there and add an hour on either end for loading, unloading, and shuttling your second car (yep, that’s why you need a buddy or an outfitter to shuttle you if one is available on your river). To make a day trip on the same day of the drive, consider a 4-5-hour paddle at most so you can get home safely. If doing an overnight or longer, start planning out your distances for full days vs. the half days on either end of the trip.
What to take? Depending on who you are (everybody’s unique!), a boat and a means to move it are the essentials! Of course, you’ll want water and snacks for a day trip but also maybe fishing gear, binoculars, sunglasses, water shoes, and a cell phone for emergencies. For overnights, the load gets heavier and can include: cooler, food for meals, tent/hammock, sleeping bag, chair, stove, night vision goggles, etc. Without going too far with these growing lists, let’s look at a few rivers you can enjoy (yet another list!).
Probably the most iconic in Georgia, the “Hooch” starts just above Helen and is off and on whitewater (Class I-IV) until it dumps into Lake Lanier. From Buford Dam to I-75, it’s the busiest river in Georgia due to its convenient location and designation by Governor Carter as a National Recreation Area. In the summer, be ready for floaters of all kinds in Class I waters with a surprisingly beautiful setting. Past this section, the water gets pretty dirty due to urban runoff, so give it a while before accessing it again. From Sweetwater Creek down, the scenery is pleasant and intermittent shoals occur until the backing up of Lake West Point Lake. After this, much of the Hooch is impounded. Check out its serpentine, sandy beaches on the section after Walter F. George Reservoir before it enters Lake Seminole.
Starting in the Appalachian foothills just west of Dahlonega, the Etowah is a lively river with up to Class IV whitewater, a tunnel (diverted for mining), a Native American archaeological site, and many imperiled mussel and fish species! One of the easiest to paddle and most beautiful sections is a 10 mile stretch through Dawson Forest WMA, which has accessible parking and boat ramps on either side. Be sure to look for the trail to the waterfall on the river left at about 8 miles down! After it fills and leaves Lake Allatoona, you soon pass the Etowah Indian Mounds, a State Historic Site. Paddle it all the way to Rome, where it confluences with the Coosa River, flowing into Alabama.
Georgia’s only designated National Wild and Scenic River, the Chattooga originates in North Carolina and creates the northern border between Georgia and South Carolina before flowing into Lake Tugaloo. This river is a gorgeous beast, with multiple Class IV sections (even and few Class V) and is not for the faint of heart or the unskilled. However, Chattooga Section 2 is a gentler (multiple Class II, one Class III) paddle and makes for a wonderful overnight trip down one of Georgia’s most remote, backcountry rivers. For the novice looking for bigger thrills, try rafting through an outfitter in the area.
The Flint River flows unobstructed from its headwaters around Hartsfield-Jackson Airport until it forms Lake Seminole with the Chattahoochee at the Florida-Georgia border. Its northern stretches are urban, and the corridor is small but, not too far south, near the city of Griffin, the river picks up its pace as it begins to cut through the Pine Mountain Range, which at its highest elevation is 1,395ft (Mountains in Middle Georgia?!). Paddling through the Sprewell Bluff area and around Yellow Jacket Shoals is a beautiful trip with high bluffs, spritely shoals (no higher than Class II), and some of the best river fishing in Georgia. If fishing, cast for Shoal Bass, a unique species only native to the Apalachicola–Chattahoochee–Flint (ACF) River Basin (they put up a terrific fight!). Once past Po Biddy Road (a road name alone worth a mention), the characteristics of the river shift, matching that of the coastal plain, and exhibit wide, slow-moving water and great sandbar camping.
The Ocmulgee River is a gem of a river with many accessible options for day trips and overnights. Starting at the Lake Jackson Dam, its channel is wide with many shoal bar complexes (mostly Class I in size with a few Class II and one Class III). It flows off and on again for 20+ miles through the Oconee National Forest, which is excellent for public camping access. Just above Juliette, GA, the Southern Conservation Trust is proud to hold a conservation easement that borders the Ocmulgee! Below the Juliette Dam, there is an exceptional 10-mile section for a long day trip or an easy overnighter. South of Macon and the Fall Line, the river becomes very serpentine with many islands and oxbow lakes. This section is very remote and flows through a handful of wilderness management areas, making for a very primitive paddle. There is even talk of establishing a National Park along this corridor! Further south, the Ocmulgee confluences with the Oconee to create the Altamaha River, which is also worth checking out!
The “Geech” is one of only four free-flowing rivers in Georgia and runs unimpeded for 245 miles before entering the Atlantic Ocean just south of Savannah, GA. The Geech starts small, near Hamburg State Park, but, as it travels south, it widens somewhat, creating many tupelo-cypress swamps, islands, and oxbow lakes. Not until it nears the ocean does the Geech become a giant, wide, sunny river. This makes most of the river pleasant for a primordial, shaded paddle through tea-colored waters, known as “blackwater,” created by the acidic tannins from decomposing leaves. Just don’t get lost exploring off the main river into the labyrinth of swamps and side channels!
With 6 million potential river rats out there, we would be remiss not to mention what’s available near the metro area! The Yellow River, South River, and Alcovy River are all small rivers, accessible to Atlantans within 15-45 minutes at most put-in points. Their confluence forms Lake Jackson and the original headwaters of the Ocmulgee. They can, however, have very shallow sections and/or fallen trees blocking passage. The Metro-Hooch, of course, has many accessible (albeit crowded) access points but – be aware – the water stays very cold, even in the summer, as it flows out from the bottom of Lake Lanier. Parts of the Etowah are also within the metro area, including the Etowah Indian Mounds paddle. Without a doubt, there are some great options out there, so long as you beat the traffic!
Enjoy your travels, research the river, stay safe, and go with the flow!
Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia book – this will be your best friend, I promise.