The Adventure Side of the Smokies is a veritable outdoor waterpark for paddlers, float trips, kayak fishing, and swimming, all surrounded by some of Mother Nature’s most beautiful mountains and forests in the southeast.
During this week of National Water Safety, we want to remind you to play it safe on our waters. Each of the rivers offers a different experience, but also different risks.
The Pigeon River is known for its exhilarating whitewater, but the inherent danger comes from the rapids and the rocks.
In the spring, the French Broad can vary in depth and current from rains and extreme weather. Popular for float fishing and backpack paddling, the level of the river and weather conditions are your best guides before entering the river.
The Nolichucky can also vary in water flow and depth. Flooding rains upriver, will create hazardous conditions downriver.
Never enter the water without wearing a personal floatation device (PFD). Even strong swimmers can get caught in a current on the rivers. When the water is high, eddies can form from submerged rocks and trees. Make sure the PFD is sized properly for both adults and for children. PFDs can be purchased locally at most large box retailers in the area if you have forgotten to bring on.
Come play, but play it safe in and around our rivers and lake.
The three rivers of Cocke County are destinations for exciting recreational adventures on the Adventure Side of the Smokies. The history of these rivers shaped the past and are now shaping the future of recreation in Cocke County.
The Pigeon River is synonymous with some of the best white water rafting in the southeast. The river extends 70 miles, beginning in the mountains of North Carolina, flowing northwest into Tennessee. The river is impounded at Walter’s Dam in Waterville. It is the scheduled dam releases that create the exciting white water rafting between Waterville and the take-out in Hartford TN. The lower end of the Pigeon continues to the confluence of the French Broad in Newport, TN.
The 216 mile French Broad River also begins in North Carolina and serves as a drainage basin for the both the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. When the river enters Cocke County, it flows along the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway before entering the Holston River. The river is known for spring time rafting and kayaking when the water is running high, and both fishermen who bank and float fish. All thirty three (33 miles) of the river flowing in Cocke County were designated as a state scenic river. Read more about the scenic portion of the river from local paddler and birder, Michael S, here. ling
The Nolichucky River runs 115 miles from the highest mountains in eastern North Carolina and Tennessee until it reaches Cocke County creating the upper basin of Douglas Lake. The river serves to create a county border with Hamblen County. This area and the adjacent Rankin Bottom WMA is known for birdwatching, and when the lake begins to fill in the spring, locals know that the fishing is excellent.
I really love camping. That’s a statement not all too uncommon by many outdoors enthusiasts. There’s a certain freedom that exists with temporarily laying claim to a spot of earth and spreading out your basic necessities for a period of a few days. For a small fee, and sometimes no fee at all, you can embrace nature from the comforts of a tent.
Recently, I took a long weekend to explore the remote beauty of Martha Sundquist State Forest. This little-visited wooded area in Cocke County is almost fully surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Like so many of the country’s best destinations, this area is remote and mostly without cell service. Getting into the state forest requires following some windy single-lane roads and even through a small creek. What off-the-path destination isn’t complete without a creek crossing!
Before venturing to the forest, I made a stop at The Bean Trees restaurant in Hartford. Located right on the Pigeon River, The Bean Trees probably has the best burger in all of the county. Knowing that I would be deep in the woods for a few days, I wanted to get one last big meal and some hot coffee at the adjacent cafe. I sat on the deck overlooking the river and began daydreaming about the relaxing long weekend ahead.
Plugging in the address of the park into my phone’s GPS, I began the 30-minute drive to the first entrance. I found myself daydreaming about a life out here tucked away nestled between the bubbling and fragrant flowers. Though creature comforts aren’t far away, it really does feel like you’re disconnecting from society as you drive along. Houses become fewer and fewer as the road becomes more narrow.
I crossed the small creek at the entrance, an easy feat for my SUV, and almost immediately found my campsite for the first night. The spot was like something out of a nature book. Rhododendrons surrounded the campsite in a semicircle with an opening in the middle revealing a rippling creek. Stones rounded by countless years in the creek created the perfect sitting spot to enjoy the cool water after a hot day and long drive. Setting up camp was quick and even though the campsite was next to the main road in the forest, I never saw another vehicle pass.
Nighttime presented itself with a quick drop in temperature. This gave me the opportunity to light my first campfire of the year. There’s something very special about sitting by a campfire and getting lost in the dancing flames. I was seeking out solitude in the woods and I had found it.
The next morning, I set out to hike within the forest. I left my vehicle at the campsite and started down the gravel road to the main trailhead and park map kiosk. In keeping with the theme of solitude, I still hadn’t seen another soul. There was a sense of calm mixed with the twinge of adventure with knowing that I had this quiet, beautiful place all to myself.
The park map displayed several trail options and I chose to combine two. The Horse Route is a 9-mile trail that loops the perimeter of the forest. I started out on that trail and was immediately met with my first creek crossing. In true fashion for the trails throughout Tennessee and North Carolina, the bridge was a log split in half to create a perfect path across the water. It even had a knotted handrail perfect for balancing while taking stunning photos perfect for making your Instagram followers jealous.
The path continued on, and within a mile I turned off onto the TN Gulf Trail. The 3.5-mile point-to-point trail immediately engulfed me in its rhododendron tunnel. I spent the hike continually stopping next to the creek that followed by my side and taking in the sounds of rushing water over rounded rocks. It was hypnotic, calming, and perfectly cold to the touch.
After looping back on the other side of the Horse Route, my hike for the day was complete. Seven miles stretched out over several hours felt both leisurely and not long enough. I kept with the slow pace of the day and took my time making a meal back at the site. Though I was definitely hungry, there was no need to rush the experience. My loose plan for the next day was to stay at the campsite and write all morning while sitting by my private creek. I knew that would round out the ultimate solitary excursion in the woods.
Nighttime approached and the symphonic sounds of creatures all around signaled that the day was coming to a close. I felt privileged to be the only person around experiencing all that the forest had to offer. It was providing me with something that is increasingly harder to find – escape from the pressures and duty of everyday life. Sleep hit quickly thanks to the long hike, warm sleeping bag and fading thoughts of a backcountry trip not too far from civilization and yet perfectly withdrawn from the world.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.