For years, the Watauga River and the world-renown Watauga Gorge have been a destination for thrill seekers on a mission to paddle incredible rapids, beautiful water falls and mile after mile of continuous whitewater. But the Watauga River also offers other, more tranquil sections of river with unmatched beauty. The Watauga County Tourism Development Authority (WCTDA) is hard at work in an effort to establish access points all along the river as part of their goal of establishing a recognized Paddle Trail throughout the county.

In 1998, the nonprofit group American Whitewater secured access to the takeout area for the Watauga Gorge, insuring that paddlers of the world-class gorge would have a safe, secure access point after their paddle. The land acquisition was heralded as a huge step for paddlers everywhere and marked the beginning of what many hope will be a series of put-ins, take-outs and general access points along the river in the future.

Dave Simpson dropping Stateline Falls in the Watauga Gorge. Photo by Mike Mayfield.

Currently, the WCTDA is furthering the development of access along the Watauga River by continuing their efforts to secure additional access on the Watauga River in order to create a nationally recognized Paddle Trail through the county. The WCTDA plans to begin construction of the first such river access point at the Highway 321 bridge over the Watauga River. Rob and Beverly Holton recently donated the land to the county for use as a recreation area and river access.

According to WCTDA Senior Outdoor Recreation Planner Eric Woolridge, a $75,000 state grant that the WCTDA recently received was made possible by the donation from the Holtons.

“We were able to get the grant from the state by leveraging the land donation by the Holtons to use that as a matching fund in order to secure the grant,” Woolridge said recently. “It’s a big step forward for us and we hope to have this river access completed by the fall.

“In terms of our long-range plan for the Watauga River Paddle Trail, this is essentially the second legitimate access point along the river,” added Woolridge. “Our long-term strategy is to create a series of secure, legal, safe access points that are controlled by local government or nonprofit organizations.”

The new river access will be constructed at the same time as the Rocky Knob Park, and, together, the new facilities will set the precedent for what future recreation area support facilities will look like, Woolridge explained. “There will be a shelter, a kiosk, a nice parking area, a grill, a short nature trail and a really nice paddle access and launch ramp,” Woolridge said. “Everything will be timber frame. It should turn out really nice.”

For many in the community who enjoy spending their leisure time paddling, fishing or relaxing on the Watauga River, this marks the beginning of a bright future for the popular waterway.

“We’re so lucky to be in an area that has so many rivers,” Mike Mayfield, an avid paddler of the Watauga Gorge said in a recent interview. “Among those rivers, the Watauga River and the New River really stand out as great rivers. There are huge recreational opportunities on the Watauga. The Watauga has it all, from the part through Valle Crucis with hardly any rapids that is perfect for beginners, to the Watauga Gorge, which features some of the best whitewater in the eastern United States. You don’t find many places with such a high-quality river that offers such a variety of different opportunities for recreation in a linear distance of 10 miles. The Watauga really has something for everyone.”

Dave Simpson hitting his boof on "Bump & Grind" on the Watauga, while Cooper Lambla looks on. Photo by Mike Mayfield.

In addition to spending the majority of his free time paddling the river’s gorge section, Mayfield, a professor of geography who teaches a class on hydrology at ASU, also utilizes the river as an integral part of his hydrology course. “Throughout the semester we use the Watauga for almost all of our case studies. We take a field trip out there and the majority of our data for our lab reports in our class comes from the Watauga.”

In the future, the WCTDA hopes to develop other sites along the river that will allow for greater ease of access to one of the area’s most cherished waterways. Part of this goal is to allow people the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the unique ecosystems that thrive alongside the rivers.

“In addition to being an access for the river, our goal is to create a little pocket park for people who want to use the land around the river as well,” Woolridge said. “Our goal here is to provide legitimate legal access in order to decrease any type of trespassing onto private land that might go on. There will be a shelter there with a grill, there will be an information kiosk that has good rules for the area with a map of the area along the river, and a nice parking area for people as well.”

For more information about the Watauga River Paddle Trail, click to the WCTDA’s planning website at www.booneareaoutdoors.com where you can read more about the proposed paddle trail, Rocky Knob Bike Park and other projects in the developmental phase.

Video of Mike Mayfield making a summertime descent of the Watauga Gorge and discussing why the it is one of his favorite rivers. Provided by High Country Adventures.