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Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River in Kentucky

Trip Overview

Russell Fork - Lower section- from the Ratliff Hole to Elkhorn City takeout.

There are 3 sections to this famous extreme whitewater river of the east: The upper is from Flannagan dam near Haysi, Virginia to Garden Hole. The middle is the bad boy, mostly class 4s and 5s, from Garden Hole to Ratliff hole.

This trip involves the lower section of the Russell Fork which is all in Kentucky . The Ratliff hole is a play / hole, put in on the KY side of Breaks Interstate Park. This river runs through the Grand Canyon of the East- with beautiful high walls and overlooks and big whitewater.

It can be run year round at 300 cfs or better on the Flannagan Dam gauge and the Russell fork at Haysi, Virginia gauges, (add the two together to get the flow for the gorge) but first 3 weekends in October the corps of engineers release 850 cfs on three Saturdays and Sundays and then the final fourth weekend they release 1100 cfs.

This trip was at 850 cfs - dam release - and I was in a Mohawk Probe 12. The release water usually hits the Ratliff hole around 11:30 am.

The first encounter after the Ratliff hole put in is an island which you take the left side which will lead you into a neat class 2 rapid that is the railroad trestle rapid. Run it down the center. Next is the worst rapid , a class 3 that at certain water levels can become class 4 called the Meat Grinder. It can be run just left of center or sneaked by on the very right side or ported on the right side. Scout this rapid! Not many open canoes run this rapid.

Next rapid is class 2 Pinball that needs to be run right side. Then you have 3 more small class ones and twos before your takeout at Elkhorn City. One is another river split which you want to go right side which is the main channel. Takeout is a nice sandy beach at Elkhorn City.

Elkhorn City is very friendly to boaters and the Breaks Interstate Park is a very good place to enjoy a weekend or a week!


Campground and cabins at the Breaks Interstate park, the Gateway motel is very nice between Elkhorn City and the Park




From Elkhorn City, Kentucky: take hwy 80 toward Haysi Virginia and just after entering the Breaks Interstate Park the Ratliff hole turnoff will be a steep right turn.


Kentucky Road Atlas, and A Canoeing & Kayaking guide to Kentucky
  • Skill Level: Advanced
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip