Upper Cumberland River in Kentucky - Weekend Trip Report

by  batas

A self-supported trip created by batas

Trip Overview

This was my first trip with my new 17' Wenonah Sundowner Royalex Canoe, I took my son Ben (7) and nephew Drew (13). I used Sheltowee Trace Outfitters Shuttle service for the 17-mile trip, they pick you up at your takeout. (a 28 miler is also available) I opted for a Sunday start to avoid the noise of the 4-wheelers that use both banks for their sport. The river was a little low, I recommend doing this trip in May.

I drove down from Cincinnati on Saturday and camped out at the Outfitters primitive campsite for the Sunday start. The outfitters are easy to find right on the way to Cumberland Falls. We got started about 1100, there was only one other customer, a day-tripper with a sit-on-top kayak, we never saw him again after stopping for lunch.

The first 5 miles are mostly farmland, it changes dramatically when you enter the Daniel Boone National Forest, nothing but trees, rugged hills, and some large boulders. This is a remote section of river that does not get much traffic, except for the 4-wheelers, that is why I would recommend a weekday or Sunday/Monday trip to avoid them. We started at a bridge and ended at the next bridge, 17 miles later, just a few homes, no signs, only the rugged hills of southern Kentucky.

The rapids, some Class I & II, are challenging for a loaded canoe and a novice bow-man. There were times I felt that I was in a slalom course, the boulders are randomly placed in the rapids, causing you to go from side-to-side more often than I liked. I left little pieces of red royalex on several rocks, my kevlar skid plates are now smooth from going over several of the sandstone shelves.

When the river is low, as on this trip, we had to do lots of paddling, but since the scenery is beautiful so it was no big deal. Once you get into the Daniel Boone National Forest, you can camp anywhere; good camp-sites are plentiful on the first half of the river but more scarce on the second half. The outfitters provided a map with known good campsites on it, but I found it difficult to figure out just where I was. There are no decent landmarks, like bridges etc, so I passed up some great campsites, because I was unsure how far we had come.

After paddling for about 5 hours we stopped at a likely spot, set up camp and played in the river. Be advised; copperhead snakes are in this river, especially in the spots where the river slows down. I saw two snakes on this trip but only in the slow moving sections.

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and geotta we cleaned up our site and started a three-hour paddle to the take-out at the bridge, the bridge is about a � mile from the falls. Once again we had the river to ourselves and only saw one other person, who was fishing in the middle of the river while his dog was snoozing on a rock nearby.

If you want a nice remote trip without having to travel to BWCA or Canada this is a great choice. The outfitters also offer trips on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, this is an even more remote trip and is in the newly designated national park, the "Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area". The Big South Fork trips vary from 1 day to 4/5 days depending upon river level. I intend to take the four-day trip in the future.

Note on the Outfitters: They were friendly, courteous and professional, they make most of their money doing guided raft trips on the Class III/IV lower Cumberland, yet they were very accommodating to us.

I apologize for the lack of pictures, I tend to look around and forget to take any. But if you go the websites listed below, they have plenty of pictures.


The campsites along the river are primitive dispersed camping. The outfitters offer some huts or primitive camping.


Sheltowee Trace Outfitters is located on Highway 90, 10 miles west of I-75 at exits 15 and 25. Approximately 5 miles east of Cumberland Falls State Park.


The outfitters supplied a decent map, but the lack of any true landmarks means you must pay attention to the curves and rapids if you want to know exactly where you are.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Sheltowee Trace Outfitters
Cumberland Falls

Trip Details

  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)

Trip Location