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Canoeing Kentucky Rivers

Then there are the gifts of solitude, peace, and closeness to nature. Feeling the current pull your boat through the water seems to pull your cares right out of your body.

Canoeing can span your lifetime. Children through seniors can paddle or steer according to their strength and skill, or just sit back and let others drive.

If you haven’t tried it, this may be the spring to fall in love with canoeing. In a short amount of time you can learn enough to paddle a Class I river (see “River class ratings” below). It takes a lot of skill to negotiate Class II rivers, however, and it’s not safe when children are young and lack swimming skills. But Class I rivers are pure pleasure and Kentucky has many such jewels.

Since Kentucky is blessed with more miles of navigable water than any state except Alaska, you might want to start by checking out the Highlands and Waterways Region in southeastern Kentucky. Here are some of the state’s most scenic and undeveloped river sections, many designated as Kentucky Wild Rivers–free-flowing with undisturbed shorelines and vistas.

This story samples four stellar river trips, all easy paddles when the current is down in late spring and early summer. They are good places to get your paddle wet if you are a beginner, and all include outfitters associated with them if you need assistance with shuttles and boat rentals.

Three of the river segments in this story are Class I runs. The fourth, the Big South Fork of the Cumberland in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, is a Class III run to consider after your skill increases and you’re ready for a little more excitement.

Before you begin, get a good book on paddling. Read it, then try to get out on a lake with a rented or borrowed canoe to practice basic strokes and working as a team. Always wear your personal flotation device and have it adjusted snugly so it will hold you up should your craft capsize. Start by paddling rivers when the water is down and the current relaxed (usually late season) without the danger of stringers (downed trees resulting from flooding waters). Don’t be too ambitious either: the easiest river can quickly turn tedious if you try too many miles.

Rockcastle River

The Rockcastle River feels like a classic, unadulterated Kentucky river. It is undeveloped, with few access points, and flows through the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest. It is considered one of the best paddling streams in the country.

The forest along the way is noted for its rugged terrain and natural beauty, but remains known to relatively few people because of its remoteness. There are also many unusual rock formations, cliffs, and caves to explore. The solitude and adventure of exploring this river and forest by canoe is just as it was 200 years ago.
We paddled the Upper Rockcastle–the most popular trip run by Rockcastle Adventures, located on KY 1956 on the river. The current is gentle but good and there are many deep pools for swimming. A few light rapids make the run interesting and are easily managed by the novice.

Trips depart hourly on weekends and noon on weekdays. Rockcastle Adventures charges $20 per person for an 11-mile course on the Upper Rockcastle.

Red River

The Red River runs through a national natural landmark with more than 100 sandstone arches, rock shelters, and towering cliffs sculpted by wind and water 70 million years ago. Even if your boat doesn’t glide past the best stuff, it’s worth stopping for a side hike.

The Red River Gorge lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest, and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It is divided into three sections for paddling purposes: the Upper, Middle, and Lower. We traveled the Middle Gorge.

On the first part of the run we paddled past huge boulders that the local kids couldn’t help but jump off. They let out a hoot when they surfaced, saying it was cold but refreshing. The river was shallow for the most part during this late-season run, but the sandy bottom was very forgiving when we hit shallow sections. There were deep holes and enormous fish. But we didn’t see many anglers or other canoes–we had the river mostly to ourselves.

Wild roses grew on the banks. Enormous hardwoods shaded the stream and the forest was dense with undergrowth. Specks of tree pollen and flowers floated on the surface. Many wonderful sand banks for sunbathing competed for our time. It was lazy. It was gorgeous.

Even though there are numerous sharp turns, sandbars, and small ledges to make the paddling interesting, it is Class I throughout. We used the Red River Outdoors outfitter, located on KY 11, 1/4 mile south of the Bert Combs Mountain Parkway.

Red River Outdoors charges $40 a canoe for an 8-1/2-mile trip on the north fork of the Red River, the middle section. This section of the Middle Gorge is runable from late fall to early summer most years.

Big South Fork of the Cumberland River

The Cumberland Plateau’s Big South Fork is a free-flowing river with sections calm enough for beginners, while other parts are more challenging with exciting whitewater. It cuts through the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. It is a spectacular 110,000-acre wild area, carved into the foothills of the Appalachians.

Sheltowee Trace Outfitters services this river, a company with a very professional approach. We were first given paddling instructions and a safety talk before heading off on our self-guided trip.

The huge smooth rocks that line both sides of the river are sandstone and they’re as big as houses. Sometimes they crowd the river, making a kind of portal to steer through. Giant tropical-looking flowers called umbrella magnolia, with leaves more than a foot wide, grow along the banks and even high in the trees. Mountain laurel bloom on the banks.

Sheltowee Trace Outfitters charges $20 a person for the first day, $5 each additional day for trips starting at or below Blue Heron.

Rafting the Cumberland

We also signed up for a guided whitewater raft trip down the Cumberland River. This all-day adventure is ideal for family outings and beginners.

The trip starts at Sheltowee Trace Outfitters, 5 miles east of Cumberland Falls State Resort Park and 10 miles west of I-75 at exits 15 & 25. Here you get outfitted and orientated. Put-in is right below Cumberland Falls, the most impressive eastern waterfall next to the Niagara. On clear nights under a full moon, when the wind and water levels are just right, a “moonbow” will appear. The mist rising from the falls creates the rainbow-like phenomenon, the only one in the Western Hemisphere.

The falls form a 125-foot-wide curtain that plunges almost 70 feet. We paddled incredibly close to the bottom of the falls, getting soaked by the thundering spray. It was just the adrenaline kind of rush to start the trip.

After viewing the falls, the rafts head downstream, encountering Class III rapids with names like Center Rock and Surfing Rapid. After the 5 miles of rapids, and a fair share of hoots of delight, the Cumberland Star picked us up for a lake cruise to the take-out point. It is a 65-foot, double-decker riverboat custom-made for cruising the narrow upper stretches of Lake Cumberland. A picnic lunch is provided and a bus ride back to the outfitters concludes the adventure. A later raft ride and a dinner cruise must be chartered, and a lunch-only cruise, without the rafting trip, is also available.

Sheltowee Trace Outfitters charges $50 per adult, $40 for children 12 and under, for the below-the-falls Class III raft trip. Runable all summer. Children must be at least 6 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds.

River class ratings

Class I: Moving water with a few ripples and small waves; few or no obstructions.

Class II: Easy rapids with waves up to 3 feet and wide, clear channels that are obvious without scouting; some maneuvering is required.

Class III: Rapids with high, irregular waves often capable of swamping an open canoe; narrow passages that often require complex maneuvering; may require scouting from shore.

Outfitters used for this story

Red River Outdoors

415 Natural Bridge Road

Slade, KY 40376

(606) 663-9701


Rockcastle Adventures Canoe Livery

Box 662

London, KY 40741

(606) 864-9407

Sheltowee Trace Outfitters

PO Box 1060

Whitley City, KY 42653

(800) 541-RAFT (7238)

(606) 526-7238

FAX: 1-606-528-8779


For help finding accommodations, restaurants, etc., in the area:

Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association

2292 South Highway 27

Somerset, KY 42501

(877) 868-7735

Hints & tips for canoeing

Start by contacting an outfitter. They will rent canoes and other equipment, and help with shuttles to get you back to your car. They can also give advice on river currents and depths and how long the trip will take.

Make every effort to keep clothing, sleeping bags, etc., dry. If you don’t want to purchase dry bags, use plastic 5-gallon buckets with snap-tight lids for food, change of clothing, etc.

In a canoe on the water is not the place to be in severe weather. Get off the water in a lightning storm and wait it out. Do not paddle at night or in a fog.

Canoeing safety rules are some of the most important, because water is a very dangerous element if not treated with respect. Children should know and practice these rules.

If you don’t know how to swim, it may be a good idea to learn if you find that canoeing is a sport you plan to take up. Regardless, always wear your personal flotation device.

Consider taking a canoe course. Inquire through the American Canoe Association for the closest canoe club. If they do not run courses or if they are too far away, find out where the closest member is and try to work out some sort of instruction.

Don’t go alone. You should have at least three people or two craft on the trip. Leave a float plan with a family or friend and make sure they know where you put in and when you plan to return home.

Remember, alcohol and water do not mix, and don’t take over-the-counter drugs or other narcotics that can affect your reaction in the water.

Stay away from dams, ledges, or reversals where the flow of water could trap you and your canoe and take you down. Hydraulics around manmade dams are killers and should be treated with respect. And unless you’re an experienced canoeist, it’s a good idea to stay away from holes of any sort because they can be very deceiving.

It’s also a good idea to know CPR and first-aid techniques, and become familiar with the Safety Code of American Whitewater, River Rating Scale, and Universal River Signals. Go online to, which offers a wealth of information on these and other subjects.

Kentucky canoe outfitters in other parts of the state

Canoe Kentucky



Green River Canoeing


(800) 651-9909

(270) 597-2031


Mammoth Cave Canoe & Kayak

Mammoth Cave

(877) 59CANOE

(270) 773-3366

Thaxton’s Licking River Canoe Rental

33 Hornbeek Rd.

Suite 3

Butler, KY 41006

(877) 643-8762

(also the number for Paddler’s Inn)

(859) 472-2000

They also operate Thaxton’s Tubing Trips,

(859) 472-2202.

Canoeing checklist

Have high-energy snacks and plenty of filled water bottles to prevent dehydration.

Wear water shoes or water sandals or old sneakers on your feet–don’t go barefoot.

Use sunscreen to protect your skin even if it is overcast; also use lip balm.

Wear sunglasses to protect eyes from glare. Polarized lenses are preferred.

Bring along a first-aid kit in a waterproof bag.

Bring along toilet paper in a waterproof bag.

Keep a change of dry clothing in the car and a spare shirt in a waterproof bag in the boat.

A visor, baseball cap, or wide-brimmed hat will protect your face and neck from harmful rays.

Where to learn more about canoeing

American Canoe Association

7432 Alban Station Blvd.

Suite B-232

Springfield, VA 22150
(703) 451-0141


A Canoeing & Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Kentucky

by Bob Sehlinger.
Menashas Ridge Press,
Birmingham, Alabama. $14.95.

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