Best Kayaking in Tennessee

Two kayakers paddling down a river in Tennessee.
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If you’re on the hunt for the best kayaking in Tennessee, you’re in for an incredible journey through some of the most picturesque and thrilling waterways the Volunteer State has to offer. Tennessee boasts a diverse range of kayaking opportunities, from the serene and meandering rivers that wind through lush forests to the heart-pounding whitewater rapids that challenge even the most experienced paddlers. Whether you’re seeking a leisurely paddle amidst breathtaking scenery or an adrenaline-pumping adventure on the rapids, Tennessee’s kayaking destinations have something for everyone. In this guide, we’ll take you on a virtual tour of the top kayaking spots across the state, so you can plan your next unforgettable waterborne adventure with confidence.

Tennessee River

The Tennessee River, a majestic waterway flowing through the southeastern United States, offers a captivating blend of natural beauty, historical significance, and recreational opportunities for kayaking enthusiasts. Stretching over 650 miles from its headwaters in eastern Tennessee to its confluence with the Ohio River in western Kentucky, the Tennessee River has long been cherished for its scenic vistas, diverse wildlife, and tranquil waters.

Reasons to Kayak in the Tennessee River:

  • Scenic beauty: The Tennessee River offers stunning views of rolling hills and forests as you paddle along its meandering path, creating a serene and picturesque environment for kayaking.
  • Wildlife watching: You can spot a variety of wildlife, including eagles, herons, and otters, while kayaking on the Tennessee River, making it an ideal destination for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike.
  • Accessible launches: There are many launch points along the river, making it easy to start your kayaking adventure, and ensuring convenience for kayakers of all levels.
  • Calm waters: The river’s gentle currents are perfect for kayakers of all skill levels, from beginners to experienced paddlers, providing a relaxing and enjoyable experience on the water.
  • Historical significance: You can explore historical sites and learn about the river’s role in the region’s history, adding an educational aspect to your kayaking journey.

Recommended Gear: Spray Skirt, Waterproof Headlamp, Towel, Emergency Flares, Dry Change of Clothes, Kayak Repair Kit, Snacks

Reelfoot Lake

Reelfoot Lake, nestled in the northwest corner of Tennessee, is a natural wonder and a true testament to the forces of nature. Unlike most lakes, Reelfoot Lake wasn’t formed by gradual erosion or the carving of rivers over millennia. Instead, it was created in a matter of days during the powerful earthquakes of 1811-1812, known as the New Madrid earthquakes. This seismic activity caused the land to sink, allowing the Mississippi River to flood the area and form what we now know as Reelfoot Lake.

Reasons to Kayak in Reelfoot Lake:

  • Unique ecosystem: Reelfoot Lake is known for its cypress trees and submerged forests, providing a one-of-a-kind kayaking experience immersed in a distinct natural environment.
  • Birdwatching paradise: The lake is a haven for bird enthusiasts, with opportunities to see bald eagles, herons, and other waterfowl, making it a prime destination for ornithologists and wildlife lovers.
  • Peaceful surroundings: Paddle through the tranquil waters of Reelfoot Lake, surrounded by the serenity of nature, offering a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
  • Fishing opportunities: Bring your fishing gear and kayak to enjoy angling for crappie, catfish, and other freshwater fish, combining kayaking with a popular outdoor pastime.
  • Night kayaking: Experience the lake’s eerie beauty by kayaking at night and witnessing the ghostly cypress trees.

Recommended Gear: PFD, Binoculars, Waterproof Phone Case, First Aid Kit, Insect Repellent, Navigation Map, Bilge Pump

Duck River

Duck River, meandering through the heart of Tennessee, is a remarkable waterway that weaves its way through a diverse landscape of rolling hills, rich farmland, and pristine forests. Spanning approximately 284 miles, it stands as one of the most biodiverse rivers in North America, boasting an impressive array of aquatic species and wildlife that call its waters home.

Reasons to Kayak in the Duck River:

  • Biodiversity hotspot: The Duck River is one of the most biodiverse rivers in North America, teeming with a wide variety of aquatic species, making it a paradise for ecologically minded kayakers and naturalists.
  • Scenic beauty: Paddle through picturesque landscapes with rolling hills and lush vegetation along the Duck River, providing a visually captivating experience for all who explore its waters.
  • Historical significance: The river has played a vital role in the region’s history, including its use by Native American tribes, adding a historical dimension to your kayaking adventure.
  • Recreational opportunities: With multiple access points and plenty of outfitters offering kayaking rentals and guided tours, the Duck River offers diverse recreational options for kayakers of different backgrounds and preferences.
  • Calm waters: While parts of the Duck River feature gentle rapids, it also has stretches of calm waters that are perfect for leisurely kayaking, ensuring an enjoyable experience for both novice and experienced paddlers.

Recommended Gear: Sunglasses, Sunscreen, Paddle Holder, Dry Bag, Water Shoes, Bilge Pump, Sun Hat

Hiwassee River

Flowing through the picturesque landscapes of southeastern Tennessee, the Hiwassee River is a waterway that beckons to kayaking enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. Its meandering course takes paddlers on a journey through a region characterized by rolling hills, lush forests, and an abundance of wildlife. With its Class I-III rapids, serene stretches of calm water, and an array of outdoor opportunities, the Hiwassee River stands as a prime destination for those seeking both adventure and tranquility.

Reasons to Kayak in the Hiwassee River:

  • Scenic rapids: The Hiwassee River offers exciting Class I-III rapids for kayakers seeking a bit of adventure, providing an adrenaline rush and an opportunity for skill development.
  • Riverfront camping: You can enjoy overnight trips by kayaking to riverside campgrounds and experiencing the great outdoors, allowing you to extend your kayaking adventure into a multi-day trip.
  • Wildlife encounters: Spot deer, turkeys, and various waterfowl while paddling along the Hiwassee River, creating memorable wildlife encounters during your journey.
  • Fall foliage: During the autumn months, the riverbanks are adorned with vibrant foliage, creating a picturesque kayaking experience, perfect for capturing the beauty of the season.
  • Tubing options: Some sections of the Hiwassee River are ideal for tubing if you’re looking for a more relaxed water adventure, giving you additional recreational choices along this scenic river.

Recommended Gear: Kayak Wheels, Waterproof Headlamp, Towel, Emergency Flares, Dry Change of Clothes, Kayak Repair Kit, Snacks

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Along the borders of Tennessee and Kentucky, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area is a sprawling expanse of natural wonder that beckons to outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. This extraordinary conservation area encompasses over 125,000 acres of pristine wilderness, marked by dramatic sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, and meandering waterways, including the iconic Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.

Reasons to Kayak in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area:

  • Spectacular canyons: Kayak through deep canyons and explore the breathtaking geological features of this national recreation area, providing a unique perspective of its rugged landscapes.
  • Abundant trails: Combine kayaking with hiking on the numerous trails in the area, providing diverse recreational opportunities, allowing you to explore both land and water.
  • Camping spots: Camp along the riverbanks for a true outdoor adventure, complete with starry nights and campfires, offering a rustic and immersive experience.
  • Rock formations: Discover fascinating rock formations and sandstone bluffs as you paddle along the river, creating opportunities for geological exploration.
  • Photography opportunities: Capture stunning landscapes, wildlife, and river scenes while kayaking in this picturesque location, making it a paradise for photographers and nature enthusiasts.

Recommended Gear: PFD, Paddle Holder, Dry Bag, Waterproof Phone Case, Sunscreen, Water Bottle, Snacks

Chickamauga Lake

With its close proximity to Chattanooga, Chickamauga Lake combines the convenience of urban access with the tranquility of natural beauty. Its vast expanse provides ample room for water sports, fishing, and exploration, making it an appealing destination for both day-trippers and those seeking a longer escape.

Reasons to Kayak in Chickamauga Lake:

  • Boating amenities: Chickamauga Lake offers boating facilities and services, making it convenient for kayakers to access the water, ensuring a hassle-free start to your kayaking trip.
  • Great for fishing: Cast your line from your kayak to catch bass, catfish, and other fish species that inhabit the lake, combining kayaking with a popular angling destination.
  • Island exploration: Explore the lake’s islands and enjoy picnics or relaxation in the peaceful surroundings, providing opportunities for secluded getaways.
  • Scenic views: Paddle along the lake’s shores and enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding hills and forests, immersing yourself in the natural beauty of the region.
  • Water sports: Chickamauga Lake is also popular for other water sports like water skiing and paddleboarding, adding to the fun and adventure you can experience on the water.

Recommended Gear: Sun Hat, Insect Spray, Cup Holder, Water Bottle, Paddle Holder, Water Shoe, Snorkel

Caney Fork River

Flowing through the heart of Middle Tennessee, the Caney Fork River is a captivating waterway that meanders its way through a landscape of rolling hills, lush forests, and fertile farmland. Renowned for its remarkable clarity and diverse aquatic ecosystem, this river has become a cherished destination for outdoor enthusiasts, kayakers, and anglers seeking both natural beauty and recreational adventure.

Reasons to Kayak in the Caney Fork River:

  • Trout fishing: The Caney Fork River is renowned for its trout fishing, making it a prime destination for anglers in kayaks, offering a rewarding angling experience.
  • Crystal clear water: Enjoy the clarity of the river’s water as you navigate through its twists and turns, providing a unique aquatic perspective.
  • Picnic areas: Stop at designated picnic spots along the riverbanks for a relaxing meal in the midst of nature, creating opportunities for serene breaks during your kayaking trip.
  • Wildlife sightings: Keep an eye out for river otters, waterfowl, and other wildlife that call the Caney Fork River home, enhancing the wildlife-watching aspect of your kayaking adventure.
  • Camping options: Spend a night by the stars by camping at the riverside campgrounds available in the area, allowing for extended and immersive outdoor experiences.

Recommended Gear: Sunglasses, Sunscreen, Paddle Holder, Dry Bag, Water Shoes, Bilge Pump, Sun Hat

Dale Hollow Lake

With its numerous islands, hidden coves, and expanses of open water, Dale Hollow Lake provides a diverse and enchanting backdrop for kayakers of all levels. Whether you’re seeking the thrill of exploration, the tranquility of nature, or the excitement of fishing, this lake has it all

Reasons to Kayak in Dale Hollow Lake:

  • Clean, clear water: Dale Hollow Lake is known for its exceptionally clear water, providing a unique kayaking experience with crystal-clear views of the underwater world.
  • Island hopping: Explore the numerous islands on the lake, each with its own charm and potential for adventure, encouraging exploration and discovery.
  • Fishing paradise: Fishermen will appreciate the lake’s abundance of smallmouth bass and other fish species, making it an angler’s dream destination.
  • Stargazing: The remote location of Dale Hollow Lake offers excellent stargazing opportunities, especially on clear nights, adding a celestial dimension to your kayaking experience.
  • Houseboat rentals: For a different experience, consider renting a houseboat and using it as your base for kayaking exploration, allowing for a comfortable and mobile home on the water.

Recommended Gear: Extra Water, Waterproof Headlamp, Towel, Emergency Flares, Dry Change of Clothes, Kayak Repair Kit, Snacks

Ocoee River

The Ocoee River’s fame is further enhanced by its historical significance, as it served as the venue for the whitewater events during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Today, it stands as a world-renowned destination for both seasoned paddlers looking to test their skills and beginners seeking to embark on a thrilling journey through the rugged landscapes of eastern Tennessee.

Reasons to Kayak in the Ocoee River:

  • Whitewater thrills: The Ocoee River is famous for its challenging Class III and IV rapids, perfect for adrenaline junkies looking for a thrilling kayaking adventure that tests their skills and courage.
  • Rafting and kayaking: Whether you prefer kayaking or whitewater rafting, the Ocoee River has options for both, catering to various preferences and group sizes.
  • Olympic history: Paddle through the same course that was used for the 1996 Summer Olympics whitewater events, adding a historical and competitive element to your kayaking experience.
  • Scenic beauty: While tackling the rapids, don’t forget to appreciate the beautiful forested surroundings, allowing you to balance excitement with natural beauty.
  • Guided tours: If you’re new to whitewater kayaking, consider taking a guided tour to navigate the river safely, ensuring a fun and informative outing.

Recommended Gear: PFD, Binoculars, Waterproof Phone Case, First Aid Kit, Insect Repellent, Navigation Map, Bilge Pump

Percy Priest Lake

Percy Priest Lake is not only a convenient urban retreat but also a destination with much to offer kayakers. With its clear waters, marinas, and designated launch points, it provides the perfect setting for a relaxing paddle or an adventurous exploration. Whether you’re seeking a peaceful day on the water, a chance to cast your fishing line, or an opportunity to spot local birdlife, Percy Priest Lake welcomes all who seek a refreshing outdoor experience in a picturesque setting.

Reasons to Kayak in Percy Priest Lake:

  • Convenient location: Located near Nashville, Percy Priest Lake offers easy access to kayaking for residents and visitors, making it an ideal destination for those seeking a quick outdoor escape.
  • Marinas and rentals: Marinas on the Lake provides kayak rentals and amenities for a hassle-free experience, ensuring you have all the necessary equipment and services.
  • Relaxing escape: Enjoy a peaceful day on the water with plenty of spots for picnics and swimming, providing an opportunity for relaxation and rejuvenation.
  • Fishing opportunities: Fish for bass, catfish, and crappie while exploring the lake by kayak, allowing anglers to combine their love for fishing with kayaking adventures.
  • Birdwatching: Percy Priest Lake is home to various bird species, making it a great destination for birdwatchers as you paddle along the shores, offering opportunities for bird sightings and photography.

Recommended Gear: PFD, Paddle Holder, Dry Bag, Waterproof Phone Case, Sunscreen, Water Bottle, Snacks

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