Canoeing and Kayaking in Alabama

Alabama’s numerous and varied waterways offer canoeists and kayakers of all skill levels opportunities for enjoyment. Outdoor enthusiasts interested in anything from flat-water floating trips to Class V whitewater will find an abundant selection of choices on Alabama’s rivers and their many tributaries. Though most of the challenging runs are found in the northeastern part of the state, whitewater can be found as far south as Wetumpka, Tallassee, and Phenix City. A consistent theme throughout the state’s water systems is abundant, rugged, and often untouched scenery.

River systems throughout the United States have been classified with a six-level rating system that allows paddlers to determine the difficulty of the run down the river or creek. This scale has changed over the years, and in the current rating system Class I is defined as easy with ripples and small waves; Class II is easy to medium, with waves being no higher than three feet and indicating the presence of some obstacles; Class III refers to a medium to moderately difficult river that contains high and irregular waves, recirculating holes, narrow slots and channels, and the need for maneuvering ability; Class IV is difficult to very difficult and has long tumultuous rapids and powerful waves and holes that require accurate maneuvering; and finally, Class V indicates a river that is extremely difficult and requires scouting from the shore. Class VI rivers are considered unnavigable, but often are downgraded if they are successfully run by a few daring kayakers.

Moccasin Gap on the Coosa River One of south Alabama’s best known trips is the 11.5-mile loop for canoeists and kayakers on Rice Creek in Baldwin County, just outside of Bay Minette. The Bartram Canoe Trail, which traverses the swampy, marshy landscape of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, offers great opportunities for nature viewing and exploration, and visitors may catch a glimpse of alligators, rare birds, and the occasional black bear. The main attraction, however, is Mound Island, which is home to the 18 Native American earthen mounds of the Bottle Creek archaeological site. Another favorite route for those looking for Class I or II water is the Little Cahaba River, located south of Birmingham near Montevallo. The river is home to the rare Cahaba Lily, which is at its blooming peak in May and June. Located in William Bankhead National Forest and designated a wilderness area, the Sipsey River is a favorite for those looking for Class I water. Located just west of Cullman, the Sipsey is known for its spectacular turquoise color, waterfalls, and sheer bluffs, some as high as 300 feet. It is the only official Wild and Scenic River in the state.

Mulberry Fork Kayaking For those seeking more of a challenge, the Coosa River, located below Jordan Dam in Wetumpka, is a favorite among recreational kayakers and those learning the skills for more difficult whitewater kayaking. The Class I to III river is renowned for its Spanish moss, herons, osprey, and the occasional bald eagle. The main attraction on the Coosa River is Moccasin Gap, which features large rocks where boaters can enjoy the sun and watch the freestyle tricks of the kayakers out on the waves. Probably one of Alabama’s most popular rivers, and a step above the Coosa in difficulty, is the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, just north of Birmingham. The river, Class II and III, is home to the North Alabama Whitewater Festival (NawFest), held in March, during which kayakers from around the country come to compete in various aspects of the sport, including freestyle, or rodeo, kayaking. Another popular river in the area is the Class II and III Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River, home to the annual Mulberry Races. The Black Warrior River unfortunately is constantly threatened by coal mining, clear cutting, sewage discharge, industrial pollution, and the possibility of damming for hydroelectric purposes and water supply to Birmingham and its suburbs.

Kayakers in Little River Canyon Some of the most beautiful and challenging runs in the state can be found in the watersheds of northeast Alabama. Perhaps the most popular is Little River Canyon, which runs atop Lookout Mountain in a southwesterly direction along the DeKalb and Cherokee county lines. The river is divided into sections, with the upper section, nicknamed “the Suicide,” being the most difficult (Class V) and the subsequent sections, called the “Upper Two” (Class IV) and “Chairlift” (Class III), being slightly easier. Water levels in these runs fluctuate with rainfall amounts, as do the creeks that run into Little River Canyon—Johnnies (Class IV), Wolf (Class IV), and Bear Creeks (Class IV)—which offer skilled boaters challenging runs. Slightly northwest of the Little River Canyon are several creeks that run off Sand Mountain into Guntersville Lake on the Tennessee River. Along the northeast section of the canyon, there are difficult Class V creeks such as Coon and Jones Creeks. To the southwest, just outside of Fort Payne, are Dry (Class V), South Sauty (Class IV), and Town (Class III) creeks. Dry Creek is the most difficult and Town Creek the easiest of the three, but all of them require an intermediate to expert skill level. Further to the south and closer to the town of Guntersville are Scarham (Class III) and Short Creeks (Class IV). Short Creek Falls is home to the waterfall competition portion of Nawfest.

Alabama’s rivers and creeks offer something for all skill levels. The state’s more challenging creeks and rivers are regularly featured in whitewater kayaking videos, including “Tales of the Paddlesnake,” and “Steep Creekin,” as well as many amateur films. The opportunity to successfully run some of the more challenging creeks and rivers draws professional kayakers to Alabama from across the country. In addition to recreation, these rivers and creeks lend credence to why Alabama calls itself “the beautiful.”

Further Reading

  • Cuhaj, Joe, and Curt Burdick. Paddling Alabama. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
  • Foshee, John H. Alabama Canoe Rides and Float Trips. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986.

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Autauga Creek Canoe Trail

Courtesy of the Alabama Scenic River Trail; photo by Chan Connelly
Autauga Creek Canoe Trail