Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Paddling South Chickamauga Creek

From a trip on Saturday, March 22, 2014.

South Chickamauga Creek is a tributary of the Tennessee River that flows out of North Georgia through the terrain of the Valley and Ridge region. The creek has several forks that slowly accumulate to provide several sections suitable for paddling in small craft and features only mild rapids. I joined a group from the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club led by Eric Fleming to explore a section that is rarely run from Ringgold, Georgia to nearby Graysville. There was one person on the trip that had run it before but the rest of us were new to the stretch. Somehow I have not paddled it before even though I live right on the edge of Ringgold and the creek is literally less than a mile from my house as the crow flies, and I've been living there since 2005.

The usual put-in at the Ringgold park. Convenient access to the water on rock slabs just behind those bushes. You can see the vegetation is just starting to green up.

The launch at the public access in Ringgold is extremely convenient but is a little short of parking, especially since the spot is popular with locals to come and stroll beside the creek, fish, or play in the shallows. We had some difficulty fitting the vehicles until we finally headed off to set most of the vehicles at the takeout next to a bridge just upstream from a low head dam and refurbished mill.

The run starts off through Ringgold and passes through an area of woods devastated by the EF4 tornado of April 27, 2011 that carved through the town and killed several people. The forest remains stripped and scraggly even after a couple of years of recovery. You pass behind some buildings before the creek heads into a ravine slightly isolated from the business district along Alabama highway and you pass under the Highway 41 (Nashville Street) bridge and into a rocky section with a class I rapid.

You can see the extensive damage from the tornado of 2011 here. The creek was jammed with logs and a local crew cut out the wood over subsequent weeks. Dim, overcast day.

Public Service Announcement: mandatory portage of a pipe after a mile or two into the run.

The creek meanders around quite a bit and there are plenty of houses and the back of the high school but also plenty of areas of forest and cliffs and rock outcroppings. One of the peculiar features of the run is the presence of numerous caves along the banks. There are so many caves in the rocks and cliffs above the creek that I lost count after a while. I've never seen so many caves along a single stretch of stream.

Caves . . . there are so many I lost count!

The run is extremely long due to a lack of an intermediate public access point to the creek, and since I was chugging along in a whitewater creek kayak, I wasn't particularly fast. Fortunately two friends, Pat Carver and Jamie Wendt were paddling in a tandem canoe and agreed to hang back and paddle with me. This required them to lollygag a little bit and I appreciated their efforts (or deliberate lack thereof) to stay back with me. Much of the rest of the group was in either sea kayaks or recreational kayaks of some type, including at least one sit-on-top kayak - longer, faster boats.

Plenty of sandbars at moderate flows. Our group stopped at the mouth of this small creek. There were a lot of mussel shells underfoot.

The further into the run you get, the better the scenery gets. Soon there are steep slopes and larger rock formations, even a couple of small chimneys rising over caves. The trees were mostly bare of leaves, but there were some towering pines and unusually tall cedars in places and signs of spring were everywhere on the forest floor and creek banks.

I know I say this all the time, but the scenery was much better than I expected. There are a lot of houses but there is also a whole lot of what you see above.
Today's Tom Sawyer. I'm sure a lot of Catoosa County boys and girls grow up on this creek.

The creek starts to drop into an area of steep-sided ravines as you approach the Elsie A. Holmes Nature Park and there are a couple of rapids that I felt were class II, particularly a ledge drop of some 2 and a half feet or more that flipped a couple of boats with no rolls to be had. Even though the level was sufficient for most of the run, this section of ledges got pretty shallow and we had to scrape a little bit. Some people got out of their boats to drag but I was able to avoid that.

Pat and Jamie in the middle of the first set of small ledges. It was a little too low for the rockier parts of the run.
The main feature of the run is in front of the Elsie Holmes Nature Park that I blogged about before. The runnable slot is a little difficult with a curler on the right that got a couple of boats.
Still too early in the year for cooling off in my opinion.

The run eventually crosses under a railroad bridge in a pastoral area and drops into the pool behind the low head dam at the takeout. Nonetheless you still have to paddle for quite a while to get to the takeout, passing under the railroad a second time. This is the area of slowest current and would be bad on a day with headwinds, but we had no issues and enjoyed the clearing skies of the afternoon.

Finally we arrived at the takeout. What you see here is the new road bridge (foreground), the old road bridge, and the old mill, which has been renovated to generate electricity from internal works behind those rust-red gates at water level. The horizon line of the dam is almost invisible here but see the next photo.
Here is a low quality photo of the mill from 2007 when I ran the section below the low head dam (trip report here on my very obsolete website).

It was a great run and it was also good to be back out on a TVCC trip after having mostly stayed away for a year or more. I highly recommend the creek for paddlers that don't mind class I-II and a nice long day on the water but it is probably suited neither for composite sea kayaks, nor for the more adrenaline seeking whitewater crowd. That said it is still a pleasant and surprisingly scenic section.



  1. Water is still too cold for me but I'll be dusting off my kayak soon.

  2. TVA gauge for this section is on this page: http://www.tva.com/lakes/streams.htm
    I forgot to the check the level but I think it was between 600 and 700 cfs.

  3. How many hours did it take you?

    1. Unfortunately it's been so long that I can't remember exactly. We stopped for a leisurely lunch but generally speaking the group was paddling fast. I'm sure it took at least 4 hours, probably more, including lunch.

  4. How many hours did it take you?

  5. This is a trip I've dreamed about for several years now. I grew up playing all around the launch point and tubed the area a few times. I also spent a lot of time swimming at the mill. I know on some farm land up stream from the mill. I'm basically inexperienced. Anything I should know, or plan for?

    1. This is a really long run. If the water level is too low then it will probably take forever and you might get stuck in many places. I personally would not try to float all the way from Ringgold to the dam on an inner tube. It calls for some type of boat with paddles. Also, watch out for pipes across the river. These are a major hazard although usually you can see them coming in advance. The only one I remember is just downstream from the Nashville Street bridge but there might have been two. Other than that, take plenty of drinking water. I wouldn't drink from that creek. Good luck! I no longer live in Georgia. I moved to Arizona in 2015. Not much paddling here.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.