Fight for the Chattooga Headwaters

Paddlers, Anglers, and Conservationists Fight for the Chattooga Headwaters

For three decades, paddlers have yearned to paddle the pristine waters of the Upper Chattooga River. Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service finally granted limited access of the Upper Chattooga to paddlers, but a flurry of legal threats—including a legal challenge from the paddling community—prompted the Forest Service to rescind their decision a few weeks ago, once again leaving boaters high and dry.

Paddlers have been banned from the entire 21-mile headwaters of the Chattooga and its tributaries since 1976, after the U.S. Forest Service divided the river in two parts due to a series of user conflicts. Citing fistfights, slashed boats, and gun play, the forest service separated the two user groups: Boating would be allowed on the lower Chattooga, but the upper 21 miles of the river and its headwaters would be reserved for fishing.

A paddler runs Rock in the Hole in the Wall, a rapid on the Upper Chattooga.
A paddler runs Rock in the Hole in the Wall, a rapid on the Upper Chattooga.

American Whitewater, a nonprofit organization representing paddlers’ interests, began pushing to reverse the ban in the mid-1990s when creek boating became more popular in the Southern Appalachians. The Chattooga, which was declared Wild and Scenic in 1974, is the only river on Forest Service land that bans boating. American Whitewater has been asking for “equal access” to the river, and earlier this year, the Forest Service opened the upper Chattooga to paddlers again.

The Forest Service had proposed allowing seven miles of boating on the upper Chattooga, from the confluence of Norton Mill Creek in North Carolina to Burrells Ford Bridge, but only between December 1 and March 1, and only when the river reaches flow levels of 450 cubic-feet-per-second or more at the Burrells Ford gauge, amounting to roughly six boat-able days a year. Boats are still banned from the other 14 miles of the upper Chattooga.

“The proposal was just another way of maintaining the ban on boats,” says Kevin Colburn, access director for American Whitewater. “It still treated paddlers differently than other users. It’s not fair and it’s not consistent nationally.”

Trout fishermen argue that they have nowhere else to go within the Chattooga’s corridor.

“People used to fish the lower quite a bit, but now that place is a zoo with boaters. Nobody wants to fish it,” says Wayne Jenkins, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch, which has been lobbying vocally in favor of keeping the boating ban. “Two-thirds of the river is already dominated by boating. A boating ban way up in the headwaters is the fairest when considering all users and the entire river.”

Many conservation groups, including Georgia Forest Watch and the Chattooga Conservancy, support the current zoning of the river into boating and non-boating sections. Other popular recreation areas like Tsali and Bent Creek are also zoned; some trails allow mountain bikes, ATVs or horses, while others are designated foot traffic only. Anglers also support the current zoning of the Chattooga, saying that it’s a more-than-equitable compromise: the 36-mile lower Chattooga is given to boaters, while the 21-mile upper Chattooga is protected for fishermen and hikers seeking a wilderness experience.

Ironically, no parties concerned in the Chattooga access issue seemed to be happy with the Forest Service’s recent decision. Soon after it was announced, the Forest Service was threatened with legal action from all sides: four separate appeals were filed by boaters, anglers, and conservation organizations. As a result, the Forest Service withdrew its decision to fully consider the concerns raised by the user groups.

The Upper Chattooga on a low-flow summer day.
The Upper Chattooga on a low-flow summer day.

Paddle vs. Pole
Most outdoor enthusiasts visit the lower Chattooga; few have set foot in the more remote Chattooga headwaters. The 21-mile long Upper Chattooga river corridor is divided into three sections: the Cliffs, Ellicott Rock, and the Rock Gorge. Each section has its own unique identity—the Cliffs is remote with only one legal trail; Ellicott Rock is a Wilderness backpacker’s dream; and the Rock Gorge is scenic, but suffering from user-created trails and overuse. At the heart of the Upper’s recreation, is the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, an 8,274-acre roadless area with steep slopes, skinny trout streams, and a well-defined trail system.

The seven-mile portion of the Chattooga that will be open to boaters includes the Cliffs and Ellicott Rock sections, which offer almost continuous class IV-V whitewater through wild, rugged terrain.

“Recreation runs the gamut in that area, and it’s relatively remote by eastern standards,” says Joe Robles, the recreation manager for Sumter National Forest. Robles says the Upper Chattooga is of particular interest to backpackers because the river corridor acts as a sort of “spaghetti junction” for long-distance trails. “You can connect the Chattooga River Trail with the Bartram. You can take the Bartram to the Appalachian Trail. Eventually, the Foothills Trail will connect with the Palmetto Trail. The possibilities are endless.”

Section IV of the lower Chattooga was used to film scenes from the 1972 classic Deliverance, a movie that revived America’s yearning for wild places. After the premiere, the Chattooga was designated Wild and Scenic, and it became one of the most popular recreation areas in the Southeast. Thousands of paddlers, anglers, hunters, and backpackers began searching the river’s steep slopes and narrow gorges for their own piece of solitude.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates 54,000 anglers, hikers, birders, backpackers, swimmers, and hunters recreate in the upper Chattooga headwaters annually. In the lower Chattooga corridor, over 43,000 paddlers each year enjoy legendary class-V rapids like Five Falls, Seven-Foot Falls, and Bull Sluice.

“There are days when you’ll see a lot of people, but the river corridor is all that ever gets used,” says David Heddon, Forest Service ranger for the Chattooga. “Step away from the river, and you’ll find solitude. Even on the lower Chattooga, you can find yourself alone in a very remote forest.”

The remote wilderness experience is exactly what many paddlers are seeking on the upper Chattooga. Unlike the lower Chattooga, which is dominated by commercial rafting trips, boaters hoping to paddle the upper Chattooga are skilled kayakers and canoeists seeking a wild, primitive experience—just like the hikers and fishermen who visit this stretch.  American Whitewater believes that even the new limited access for boaters still gives unfair priority to anglers in the upper Chattooga corridor.

“Anglers have established a relationship with the upper section of the river. We respect that,” Colburn says. “We’d also like to be allowed to establish a relationship with the river in our own way. This decision puts one user’s experience over another.”

In preparing its recent decision to allow limited boating, the Forest Service’s environmental assessment showed that opening the upper to boaters would have no adverse effect on the river’s ecology.

Colburn also argues that the fluctuating flows of the Chattooga would naturally zone boaters and anglers. Boaters enjoy high water; anglers prefer low water. If boaters were granted complete access to the river, the upper Chattooga would likely be boat-free for most of the year because of a lack of rainfall and necessary flow.

A canoeist runs the Upper Chattooga during a 2007 Forest Service user-capacity study.
A canoeist runs the Upper Chattooga during a 2007 Forest Service user-capacity study.

Put-In Problems
Just below its headwaters, the Chattooga flows through the Cliffs, one of the most pristine and ecologically sensitive areas along the river. Strangely, the Forest Service has proposed placing a boat launch precisely in this area.

“The Cliffs section is the most remote section of the river, and yet the Forest Service is proposing an access trail and boat launch there,” says Buzz Williams, executive director of the Chattooga Conservancy. Williams worries that the boat launch will damage both the sensitive ecology and the wilderness experience. “From an environmental standpoint, this is the last place you want to put a boater access point. The Forest Service’s decision is mind-boggling. The Cliffs are the gold standard of wild places.”

Boaters agree that the proposed boat launch site is not ideal. The boat launch site not only jeopardizes the fragile ecosystem, but it requires paddlers to carry their boats 1.5 miles along trails. Shortly after putting in at the Cliffs, paddlers would have to portage a river-wide deadfall dam just below the proposed put-in site. To avoid portaging and hucking their boats even farther, some paddlers will likely create their own put-in below the deadfall dam.

It is widely suspected that the Forest Service proposed the boat launch in the Cliffs section to placate private landowners who own river property farther upstream, above the Cliffs.

For the recreation user test run in 2007, boaters put in upstream of the Cliffs at Grimshawe’s Bridge. The bridge is the most practical put-in for the upper and a far more environmentally sound option, but it proposes a legal headache for the Forest Service. Boaters would be paddling through 1.7 miles of private land bordering the river. In the middle of that stretch of river is a class-V rapid that many boaters would have to portage, making them trespassers on the privately-owned riverbanks. It’s widely believed that the Forest Service simply chose the next plausible access point downstream of Grimshawe’s Bridge to avoid the portaging issue and any legal trouble that would follow from the private landowners.

However, with lawsuits coming at the Forest Service from all sides, the agency has decided to re-examine the put-in site and the limited boating access proposal. For now, paddlers will have to steer clear of the 21-mile upper Chattooga, just as they have for the past 33 years.  BRO

“The proposal was just another way of maintaining the ban on boats. It still treated paddlers differently than other users. It’s not fair and it’s not consistent nationally.”
—Kevin Colburn, executive director of American Whitewater

“Two-thirds of the river is already dominated by boating. A boating ban way up in the headwaters is the fairest when considering all users and the entire river.”
—Wayne Jenkins, Georgia Forest Watch



Chattooga River Trail

This 18.3-mile footpath was originally a Cherokee trading route that followed the banks of the wild Chattooga. Today, hikers, backpackers, and anglers use the trail to access campsites, swimming holes, and remote stretches of the river. In the upper Chattooga corridor above highway 28, the Chattooga Trail shares a path with the Foothills Trail. The 2.5-mile stretch between Whiteside Cove Road and Bull Pen Road. It’s often called the Chattooga Narrows Trail, because it follows the rim of the tightest gorge on the river. Inside the upper Narrows, the Chattooga slims to six feet wide as it rushes through 30-foot vertical rock walls. “The gorge is so narrow, you can stand in the middle of the stream, stretch your arms out, and touch both rock walls,” says Buzz Williams.

East Fork Trail
This streamside gem follows the East Fork of the Chattooga River through the southern half of the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The creek and trail drop from the Walhalla Fish Hatchery 2.5 miles to the stream’s junction with the Chattooga. From there, you can take the Chattooga River Trail two miles north to Ellicott Rock, the point that marks the junction of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Big Bend Trail
This  3.3-mile hike through the Rock Gorge section from Highway 107 to Big Bend Falls marks the beginning of the scenic and narrow Rock Gorge.


Big Bend Falls
This cascade stretches across the entire Chattooga, dropping roughly 30 feet in a torrent of whitewater during high volume days.

Spoonauger Falls
This 70-footer drops over a cove-shaped rock wall surrounded by laurel. Reach King Creek Falls via a half-mile hike along the Chattooga River Trail south from Burrell’s Ford Road.

King Creek Falls
Spoonauger cascades for 50 feet over a sheet of layered rock. Hike a half-mile north on the Chattooga River Trail from Burrell’s Ford Road.


The Cliffs section is defined by tight drops that lead into the “Upper Narrows,” a stretch where the river narrows between 30-foot high vertical rock walls. “For beauty, the Chattooga Cliffs above the Iron Bridge are awesome,” says Milt Aiken, an Atlanta-based boater who participated in the test run in 2007. “It has places where vertical bedrock cliffs come right down to both sides of the river, making a boat the only way to see these spots [during high water]. Thick moss covers huge boulders in other places. This is the hardest section as well as the most pristine.”

The Ellicott Wilderness section begins at Bull Pen Bridge with a class IV drop, followed by two miles of constant class IV water. In the middle of the Wilderness is Super Corkscrew, a class V+ multi-stage drop that many consider to be the toughest rapid on the entire Chattooga. After Super Corkscrew, boaters get two more miles of class III-IV ledges and boulder gardens before entering the Rock Gorge reach.

The Rock Gorge section will remain closed to boaters. The section runs from Burrell’s Ford to the Highway 28 bridge. It’s an 11-mile stretch with everything from class II ledges to class V waterfalls.

The Lower Chattooga begins at the Highway 28 bridge and contiunes for 36 miles to Lake Tugaloo. Paddling and commercial rafting are permitted on this section, but rafting is limited by the U.S. Forest Service to preserve the Wild and Scenic character of the river. Legendary rapids like Bull Sluice, Seven-Foot-Falls, and Five Falls are highlights of the Lower Chattooga.


1972: Deliverance premieres and boater interest in the Chattooga increases dramatically. According to the Forest Service, tensions rise between boaters and anglers.

The Chattooga River is declared a federal Wild and Scenic River, dramatically increasing tourism to the area.

Boating is banned on the upper Chattooga as part of the Sumter National Forest management plan. User conflicts between paddlers and anglers are cited.

Sumter National Forest begins rewriting their master plan, and American Whitewater meets with the Forest Service for the first time, asking them to reevaluate the boating ban on the Upper Chattooga.

Sumter releases its management plan, which continues the boating ban on the upper Chattooga. American Whitewater appeals to the national office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest service administrators direct the southern regional office and the Sumter National Forest to conduct an appropriate visitor use capacity study in order to reassess their decision to continue the ban on boating.

January 2007:
A small group of boaters are allowed to perform a test run of the upper Chattooga as part of the administration-mandated environmental assessment. It’s the first time this stretch of whitewater is paddled legally in 30 years.

August 2009:
Sumter releases its new decision that allows a limited amount of boating on a fraction of the upper Chattooga.

October 15, 2009:
American Whitewater sues the U.S. Forest Service over the limited boating decision.

October 19, 2009:
Georgia Forest Watch requests a “stay” to the Final Decision, asking for the limited boating to be put on hold until additional studies can be conducted to determine its impacts on the wilderness and riparian ecosystems.

November 2, 2009:
Forest Service rescinds its boating decision to consider other alternatives.

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