Paddling the Gnarly Nolichucky

Rarin' to Go in North Carolina

Erwin is about fifteen miles south of Johnson City, Tennessee on Highway 19 or highway 19/23 north out of Asheville, North Carolina. The section described in this article starts in the Pisgah National Forest and then enters the Cherokee National Forest.

Although most of the 110-mile length of the Nolichucky can be paddled, the 30-mile section from Poplar, NC to Embreeville, TN is the prime section. This section can be broken into three smaller runs depending on your skills and time available. The run from Poplar to the railroad bridge near Erwin is nine miles of Class III-IV whitewater. From the railroad bridge to highway 81 you can enjoy ten miles of Class I-II Water. Another ten mile run from Riverview to Embreeville is a nice Class II paddle. The milder water of the lower sections is good canoeing water.


On this cool April morning the Nolichucky River is running high and fast. Not a roiling mass of whitewater but definitely enough to grab your attention. We shiver in the cool mountain air and the sight of the wild river adds to our trembling.

"Gnarly," says the guide at the outfitter's store."You guys are definitely going to have some good rafting this weekend."

We've traveled a long way to reach the banks of this isolated river and we definitely do not want to hear that we won't be rafting today, so his words are music to our ears. Unlike many eastern whitewater runs, the Nolichucky is a free-flowing river, which means that no upstream dam provides reliable flows of rollicking whitewater. When you head to other popular whitewater runs in the southeast, like the Ocoee or the Gauley, predictable and planned releases guarantee specific water levels. When you run the Nolichucky you take your chances. You may be met with a raging — and dangerous — torrent of runoff from violent spring rains or a trickle over a rocky riverbed that makes for a bumpy, dragging ordeal. The Nolichucky is kinda like that old saw about the weather: You don't like it? Stick around and it'll change.

We stand on the riverbank 48 hours after a tropical storm worked its way up the Eastern seaboard, dumping some serious rain on the Carolinas, so we knew we'd have enough water to raft the river. Our worry was that we'd have too much water — the commercial outfitters refuse to run rafts when water levels are too high. Standing on the front porch of the outfitter's store and looking out over the rushing brown and white runoff churning past, we wonder if the water is too wild and we are concerned that we won't be rafting. But our guide assures us that we'll hit the water today.

With dozens of outstanding rivers competing for the attention of eastern whitewater enthusiasts, the Nolichucky is often overlooked. Part of this is due to its isolation — the Nolichucky is hidden in the mountains of North Carolina on the Tennessee border near the tiny town of Erwin, Tennessee. Once you reach Erwin, which is nestled in the Appalachians of eastern Tennessee near Johnson City, it is still a good one-hour drive on snaking two-lane mountain roads to the put in point in North Carolina. By then you're WAY back in the mountains, so far back that you'll cross the Appalachian Trail to get to the river.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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