Lake Guntersville was created in the late 1930s by the damming of the Tennessee River near the town of Guntersville, Alabama. The dam is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and is used to generate hydroelectric power. With over 900 miles of shoreline, numerous park and recreation facilities and the Appalachian foothills surrounding it I believe that Lake Guntersville may offer the best combination of flat water paddling, nature watching and fishing opportunities in the Southeastern United States. Farther upstream, many of the lakes tributaries offer outstanding whitewater paddling as well.
While I have been visiting this area for years, it has only been in the last few months that I have taken advantage of the lakes numerous paddling opportunities. I made a trip to the area in April of 2007 when I paddled on Short Creek, a small tributary leading into the lake.
In July of 2007 I paddled on both Town Creek and South Sauty Creek, two larger tributaries. All three of these creeks are located just inside or adjacent to Lake Guntersville State Park and Bucks Pocket State Park in Marshall County, Alabama. Parts of Bucks Pocket Park extend into Jackson and DeKalb Counties as well. In addition to the paddling, all three of these areas have stops along the North Alabama Birding Trail.
Short Creek is, as the name implies, one of the smaller tributaries in the area. It is located near the south end of Lake Guntersville State Park and is best accessed via the boat ramp on Alabama Highway 227. While the creek is very wide and prone to powerboat traffic here, it quickly narrows and becomes more paddler friendly as you move upstream. Paddling downstream also offers some great scenery and can lead you all the way down to the main body of the lake and more of the state park facilities. Approximately one mile upstream from the boat ramp a large wet weather creek (identified on local maps as Dry Creek) comes off one of the nearby hills and dumps a good deal of silt into Short Creek. Just above this point, Short Creek makes a hard jog to the right. Over the years, the silt has accumulated and formed a grassy island in the middle of the creek (a favorite nesting location of local waterfowl). Sandbars extend almost all the way across the creek and in many places it is less than 12 deep. It is here that most powerboats stop while many canoes and kayaks glide on past the bars and move farther upstream. The flat water meanders for another mile or two before the creek starts up Sand Mountain. All along the shoreline big moss covered rocks jut out from the hillsides and small wet weather falls trickle down out of the passes. The mostly hardwood forest shelters many smaller flowering trees and shrubs such as dogwood, wild azalea, buckeyes and oak leaf hydrangea.
Town Creek is right in the heart of Lake Guntersville State Park. It is best accessed at the parks fishing center and boat ramp located on Alabama Highway 227 a few miles north of the turn off leading to the parks golf course and lodge. At the fishing center you can launch a boat of your own or rent either a canoe or small motorboat from the park staff. Camping is possible at a large waterfront campground a short distance up Highway 227. Just like Short Creek, Town Creek is wide open at the access points but narrows and becomes more isolated as you move upstream. Going downstream will lead you back to the lake and the beaches and campgrounds of the state park. The surrounding hillsides are covered with the same hardwoods and flowering shrubs that one finds on Short Creek. Approximately 3 to 4 miles upstream from the ramp you will encounter a series of small grassy islands, each home to an abundance of waterfowl and other birds. Just beyond this, the creek makes a hard turn to the right and becomes noticeably narrower. Larger wooded islands split the creek and you can navigate to either side of them. A mile or so beyond this point the creek starts up the mountain and is not navigable. Town Creek is known for its nature watching, especially American Bald Eagle in the fall and winter months. During my outing here, I encountered Canadian geese, blue and gray herons, several varieties of ducks and even a few river otters.
South Sauty Creek is just beyond the northern edge of Lake Guntersville State Park and is right on the southern edge of Bucks Pocket State Park. Bucks Pocket is named for the pocket canyon that was carved out by the upper stretches of South Sauty Creek. While it can be accessed from a number of places, I found that the boat ramp at Morgans Cove was the best for me. The Morgans Cove boat ramp is 1 mile off of Alabama Highway 227 just south of the Marshall-DeKalb County line. A large red and yellow sign on Highway 227will point you down the road that leads to the ramp. The ramp is located on a recessed stretch of South Sauty Creek known as Morgans Cove. There are two long piers and a small slough that leads off into the nearby woods. From the ramp you can head upstream for just over a mile, passing a primitive campground along the way. Not far beyond the campground the creek narrows considerably and appears to come to a rocky dead end. On my outing two short portages of less than 30 feet each got me another few hundred yards up the creek. Eventually, I hit a stretch of nothing but rock with just the smallest trace of water trickling through and had to turn back.
This area had been experiencing a dramatic drought in the spring and summer of 2007 so water levels were well below average. It could be that at other times of the year that it would be possible to move even farther upstream depending on the current and water volume you would encounter. Turning back downstream, passing the campground and the ramp again the creek starts to widen and move toward the lake. Large patches of milfoil dominate sunnier stretches of the creek sometimes making paddling difficult. Milfoil is an invasive aquatic weed that was somehow introduced to the lake and its tributaries years ago. These patches can be navigated around and plenty of open water is available.
A mile or so below the ramp Dry Creek (not the same one that empties into Short Creek) comes in from the right and leads to 3 or 4 shady sloughs before splitting into 2 shallow and rocky branches. The trees make a solid canopy over the creek here so it is a good place to seek shelter from the sun, the wind or a sudden rain shower. In addition to the usual flora seen on other creeks in the area, I also happened across the white flowering buttonbush and a number of American fruiting persimmon trees. Just like with Short and Town Creeks, blue and gray herons were in abundance. From confluence of South Sauty and Dry Creeks, South Sauty continues on over 3 miles until it meets Lake Guntersville and the Tennessee River.
Town of Guntersville, AL: A number of brand name hotels such as the Holiday Inn or the Hampton Inn are available. Some locals also offer individual waterfront homes or condos for extended rentals.
Lake Guntersville State Park: The park operates a lodge, rents a number of 2 bedroom chalets with lake/river views and has numerous campsites for both RVs and tents.
Buck's Pocket State Park: This park is in a more remote location than Lake Guntersville Park and generally only offers primitive campsites. One is near the Morgan Cove boat ramp and there are others in the upper end of Buck's Pocket canyon.
There are no fees required to use or access boat launching sites. Fees are charged for campsites and boat rentals. Check individual facilities for specifics.
From North/Northwest Alabama (Access off of I-65 or I-565): Take US Highway 431 out of Huntsville south to Guntersville. Once in Guntersville, take Alabama Highway 227 and follow the signs to the state park facilities.
From Central/East Alabama (Access off of I-59): Take US Highway 431 out of Gadsden north to Guntersville. Once in Guntersville, take Alabama Highway 227 and follow the signs to the state park facilities.
There are a number of shorter alternate routes but they are generally on smaller, less traveled roads. Consult Mapquest, etc. for more details.
Lake Guntersville State Park website: http://www.alapark.com/parks/park.cfm?parkid=5
DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer: Alabama Edition