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Smoky Mountain Blueways

The little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee and Tuckasegee rivers flow through the North Carolina Smoky Mountains and dump into Fontana Lake at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

These rivers, the lakes along the way and their watersheds encompass the Nantahala National Forest and two National Park units which create the “infrastructure” for the largest and most visited outdoor recreation area in the Southeastern United States.

This system called the Great Rivers and Great Lakes of the Great Smokies creates the Smoky Mountain Blueway Trails that offer visitors a unique experience in outdoor water sports of many varieties.

Pristine waters offer Class A Trout Streams, white-cap rapids challenge the kayaker and rafter and still waters provide a serene experience for viewing flora and fauna throughout the region.

Visit Smokies Lakes & Rivers

kayaker in the great smoky mountains of nc

Cheoah River

The Cheoah River is located in the extreme southwestern corner of North Carolina, near Robbinsville. Twenty miles long, the Cheoah is one of the most physically demanding rivers in the world. On release days, sections of the Cheoah offer challenging Class IV and V rapids, the perfect challenge for the most adventurous paddlers. With its unique features and exciting rapids, paddlers agree that the Cheoah will become one of the crown jewels of the whitewater world.

Nantahala River

Nantahala offers river rafting and kayaking through family-friendly rapids and is a popular spot for the amateur as well as the Olympic paddler. It features eight miles of Class II rapids before splashing through the exciting Class III whitewater of Nantahala Falls. This is one of America’s most popular whitewater runs that hosted the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s Freestyle World Championships!

Tuckasegee River

The Tuckasegee, known as the “Tuck,” originates around Cashiers and runs through Sylva, Dillsboro and Bryson City on its way to Fontana Lake. The name Tuckasegee may be an anglicisation of the Cherokee language word [daksiyi—takhšiyi] in the local Cherokee variety—‘Turtle Place.’ The river is dotted with stone fishing weirs built by Native Americans; this practice may have preceded the Cherokee in the area. The weirs are most easily viewed when water levels are low.

Lake Glenville

Lake Glenville is a reservoir located 8 miles from Cashiers, North Carolina. It was formed by the damming of the west fork of the Tuckasegee River in 1941. Between 1951 and 2002, it was officially known as “Thorpe Reservoir”. It is still listed as such on many maps.

Lake Santeetlah

The lake boasts 76 miles (122km) of shoreline, and hosts a variety of fish including smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, crappie, bream, and lake trout.  There are over 200 miles (320 km) of hiking trails in the Cheoah District. Only an eight-mile (13 km) hike from Lake Santeetlah leads to access of the Appalachian Trail. 

Little Tennessee River

The Little Tennessee, a 135 -mile river, and its immediate watershed comprise one of the richest archaeological areas in the Southeastern U.S. containing substantial habitation sites dating back to as early as 7500 B.C. Cyrus Thomas, who conducted a survey of earthwork mounds in the area for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s, wrote that the Little Tennessee River was “undoubtedly the most interesting archaeological section in the entire Appalachian district.”

Oconaluftee River

The Oconaluftee, considered “sacred waters” by the Cherokee, and known as the “Luftee, ” is a beautiful, freestone river that drops 2,000 feet over 10 miles. It flows through downtown Cherokee and Qualla Boundary, the homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, before joining the Little Tennessee on the way to Lake Fontana.

Fontana Lake

Fontana Lake is a reservoir impounded by Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee. The lake forms part of the southern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the northern border of part of the Nantahala National Forest. Depending on water levels, the lake is about 17 miles (27 km) long. The eastern end is the Tuckasegee River near Bryson City. The lake has many inlets into coves and islands created from former mountain peaks.

Nantahala Lake

Nantahala Lake, regulated and maintained by Duke Energy, is a major source of hydroelectric power to the region. Located at and elevation of 3,000 feet in the Nantahala National Forest, the lake sits above the Nantahala Gorge and is known for its scenic beauty and crystal clear waters. 

The Blueway Pledge

I pledge to respect the rights of property owners and will never trespass on private property. I will never litter and will always leave the rivers and lakes in better condition than I found them.

For Your Safety

  • Use caution any time you get on the water.
  • Wear your Life Jacket regardless of boat type or difficulty of water.
  • Water release schedules often change without notice due to unanticipated changes in weather conditions and power system requirements. Check release schedules online before heading out.
  • Rivers can rise rapidly due to steep topography.
  • Please be aware of river conditions and be prepared for quickly changing weather conditions. Spring and Summer thunderstorms can happen out of nowhere.

Leave No Trace

Your personal commitment to ethical river and lake use is the most important factor in maintaining the outdoor’s character. Take pride in leaving no trace of your presence here.

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors
  • Respect private land

© Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Proper Disposal of Waste

Improper human waste disposal creates one of the most disgusting conditions on the water. Human feces must be deposited in a six-inch-deep hole and covered with soil. No toilet use may occur within 100 feet of a camp or water source or within sight of a trail. Defecating behind a shelter or near a spring creates very unhealthy conditions. All toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and tampons must be packed out. Do not bury them.