The Caney Fork River is a very quick and easy paddle for pretty much anyone. The classic paddle begins below the Center Hill Dam which you can drive down to to offload gear. There is an outfitter here for those that want it. Parking can get tight at the lot above the put in on weekends so arrive early. This will also help you beat the masses. The first mile on the river is absolutely annoying if you arrive too late with people creating loud, obnoxious flotillas of rented canoes. This is a heavily-traveled river between the put in at the dam and the Happy Hollow take out 5.5 miles downstream.
This river also has the additional fisherman obstacle which is unique to this area. This is a major trout fishing river so you will see tons of fishermen early in the morning tapering off later in the day. They wade out and they pay no attention to you so it pays to see where they are flicking that lure and make sure they know you are behind them.
The water is cold and clear. Year round, the water temp is around 58 because the dam draws water off from the bottom of the lake. Twice a day on average, they release water from the dam. When that happens, the river goes from 250 cfs to 3750 cfs and the water level goes up rapidly. It is a good idea to know when they plan to release water and you can check here (http://www.tva.gov/lakes/cnh_r.htm). An ideal time to run if you want a fast trip is an hour after the release. Release schedules are subject to change without warning, so watch the water. On a hot summer day, the cold water makes for very pleasant ambient air temps to about five feet above the water. It is not pleasant for swimming as you will quickly go numb. In the winter it would be positively balmy.
The water is flat but it moves, deceptively so sometimes. You can easily run the 5.5 miles in less than an hour if the water is up and an hour and half in slower water. The water is always deep enough to run here save in the most dire of droughts. There is also parking at the Happy Hollow exit for you to park at although it, too, gets tight with fishermen competing for spots.
Once you get past this stretch, the crowds thin out. Sadly, the interstate is never far from you and the noise is noticeable. The run from Happy Hollow to Kirby Road bridge is a fast trip of about 6 miles (5 if you exit at Betty's Island) and it will take you no more than an hour and half of mild paddling. If the water is running, you can easily do this in an hour with no effort so you might want to consider a longer paddle. There is parking at the Kirby Road bridge and the Betty's Island area.
You will see a lot of birds, fish and cows. Guaranteed. This river is cleaner than many in middle Tennessee which is refreshing. There are no rapids to speak of and it's just a quiet Class I river with nice bluffs and bucolic countryside to stare at.
This is a very popular camping area (Edgar Evins State Park is right there) and reservations fill up. Carthage is about 10 miles west and Cookeville is about 13 miles east. Both have lots of gas stations and restaurants, hotels, etc. Cell service reception is pretty good here as you are never far from I-40.
None unless you fish or use a portage service. This park does check to be sure you have PFDs which you should have anyway.
From Nashville, exit 273 to Center Hill Dam.
Locations for put in and take out along the Caney Fork can be found here: