The Watauga River is known throughout the Southeast for the rowdy nature of the river's gorge section. However, the section immediately preceding the gorge is a fine, quality piece of paddling that does not often get the attention it deserves.
The river features quality class II paddling at most levels but is best run at c.f.s. levels above 300. Below 300 c.f.s. the river is hard to navigate due to the high number of boulders and ledges. From 300 to 600 the river is at its prime for an intermediate whitewater run. The size of the holes increase and the waves stack up and reach four feet in height for prolonged distances. I have run the river at 2000 c.f.s. in a tandem whitewater canoe and found that the integrity of the river maintained its high quality and only a few of the rapids washed out. The river is absolutely pristine and clear after a flood when the water levels have reached 2000 c.f.s. or higher and are slowly coming back down.
The most popular put-in is below the Highway 321 bridge heading toward Tennessee. The take-out is four miles further down the road at Guy Ford Bridge. The shuttle can be biked with little difficulty. An additional put-in is available further upstream at a low-water bridge with a sandy beach. The upstream put-in features a nice wave that can be surfed at high levels and offers an additional half-mile of mostly flat water to get acclimated to the water.
The first major rapid comes 1/4 mile beyond the Highway 321 bridge. The rapid is known as "Table Saw" by many paddlers, though variances in the name most likely exist. The rapid forms at the confluence of a small tributary that forms Trash Can Falls (a thirty foot waterfall popular with locals as a swimming hole). In the middle to right side of the river a large boulder/flake stands on end forming the appearance of a blade. Run this rapid to river left and brace for the inflow of water from the Trash Can Falls tributary. The rapid ranges from Class II at the 300 level to solid Class III at 1000. In the event of a swim through this rapid head immediately to shore as a mandatory scout/portage exists a few hundred yards downstream. Takeout at river right near a sandy beach. The next rapid, known alternately as "The Clog" or "Snakepit" is a Class III+ with a dangerous sieve at the bottom. This rapid is more often run at levels above 1000 than below.
Scout the rapid from the boulders on river right or portage down the road to the flatwater below the rapid. The rapid is a quarter of a mile long and features several nice drops into pools before meeting the obstruction of boulders at the bottom of the rapid that form the sieve.
Beyond the "Clog"/"Snakepit" the river mellows down for a half mile. There is a long shoal called "The Spine" that forces the water to river left. The rapid features scattered soccer ball size rocks that force one to possess either good maneuvering skills or capable boat dragging strength. At high water the river piles up on a boulder beneath a tree overhanging the water and creates a very nice wave with a downstream eddy that allows for easy surfing.
The next notable rapid forms around a corner after a long, flat pool. The river forms a long wave train that features excellent waves with height varying according to water level. At good water levels the wave train lasts for over a quarter mile.
The Bethel Bridge Rapid can be run three ways. Each line features a decent drop, though the center line seems to hold the most water. The rapid is a two to three foot drop and a good precursor to the monster hole waiting below. Below Bethel Bridge the river runs over a ledge system that forms a nice standing wave. At high waters a monster hole on river right swallows canoes. There is a boulder in the center of the river that creates an excellent eddy for a surf lineup. Downstream 1/10 of a mile is the final culmination of the Bethel Bridge Rapid. There are several nice drops with hidden boulders that form good waves and provide a great ride to finish out one of the best rapids on the run. At normal, low water levels the rapid is a Class II at most. However, at levels around 500 and up the rapid and hole merge to become a longer, more sustained rapid that should be approached with caution.
Beyond the Bethel Bridge the river maintains its casual pace before throwing one last surprise at the unwary paddler. The river makes a sharp bend in an unexpected position and forms a Z style rapid that takes considerable turning ability to properly maneuver. However, if one misses the turn completely it is possible to barrel straight over the rock that the water piles up on and boof big, knee cap shattering air.
There is an additional wave train that features a good introductory spot for canoe surfing near a large boulder on river right. The river runs over a ledge that pours over in a hydraulic manner allowing one to simply point the bow upstream, give a light paddle, keep the keel straight and maintain a quality bank-to-bank surf.
The takeout is on the river left before the large concrete bridge. The Watauga River Gorge starts below the bridge.
PROS: The river is a classic, scenic river featuring a high-concentration of quality rapids that are a great introduction to whitewater paddling.
CONS: The 1/4 mile portage around the "Clog" is difficult and requires climbing a steep, muddy bank where traction is tough to come by.
From Boone,NC --> 321 South toward Watauga Lake
Put-In @ 321 bridge near Watauga River Road
Take-Out @ Guy Ford Road Bridge just past general store/gas station
AmericanWhitewater.org for water levels
TVA.gov for water levels