Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area | PADDLING THE RIVER OVERVIEW

Paddling down the Chattahoochee River

Paddling down the Chattahoochee River


How Many Miles Can I Cover? | River Trips by Section


Paddling the Chattahoochee: Overview

Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area runs from below the Buford Dam at Lake Lanier to northwest Atlanta just inside the I-285 perimeter. The last take out point for watercraft in the park is at the Palisades unit near Vinings, Georgia. All told, 48 miles of the river are under National Park Service control. Blue mile makers, just like you see along the highway, tick off the river miles, starting at 348 at the Buford Dam and ending at 300 at the southern end of the park.

Mile markers along the riverbank

Mile markers along the riverbank

The river is, with very few exceptions, calm and uneventful, making it a perfect river experience for families with young children and for those looking for exercise (canoe/kayak), but who don’t want to get soaked or overturned by rushing rapids. To illustrate the point, large sections of the river are enjoyed by those who “float” down in inner tubes while downing cans of cold beer, with their beer cooler often floating on its own inner tube. Needless to say, there is no fear of losing such valuable cargo to turbulent water.

This is not to say that the entire river is encapsulated in a dead calm, but most “rapids” on the river are of a Class 1 variety, which is rough enough to thrill young children and wake up any adults on the boat. There is one Class 2 rapid at the northern part of the river which might put some water in your boat, but that’s it.

With a few exceptions, this is a "whitewater" as the Chattahoochee gets

With a few exceptions, this is a “whitewater” as the Chattahoochee gets

The trip down the entire 48 miles of the river cannot be done without interruption due to the dam at Morgan Falls (at the 312.5 mile marker). You must carry your boat around the dam. Also, keep in mind that the Chattahoochee River is unlike many other National Park Service-controlled rivers in that there is no camping along the river. Therefore, it is not possible to make a multi-day river trip in which you paddle for the day, find a spot to camp for the night, and then continue down the river the next day. While I do believe it is possible to travel the entire 48 miles in one day, this could only be done on a long summer day by the most athletic of paddlers. For most everyone else, this is a 3-day event, and at the end of each day you will have to arrange for pick up at an exit point and head back home, then begin again the next day at the spot you exited from the day before.

You will need to arrange for a ride at the exit point. I wouldn’t count of finding some country boys to drive your car down to Aintry. If you have a companion, park a car at each end of your trip. If you are alone and are out for exercise, many sections of the river move very slowly, so it is possible to paddle downstream to a point and then return back upstream to your car. However, only somebody out for extreme exercise would want to undertake the effort, as even a slow current requires extra paddling effort to travel upstream. Besides, to me at least, it is psychologically damaging to fight your way upstream just to see the same ol’ stuff. You feel as if you are getting nowhere, and it’s boring to boot. My advice is to get a partner or get somebody to pick you up at your destination.

General Information

The river is open for boating from sunrise to sunset.

A U.S. Coast Guard approved, wearable Personal Floatation Device (life jacket) must be on the watercraft for each person. Those 14 and older do not actually have to wear a life jacket, but all children under the age of 14 must wear one at all times. While you won’t find many people following these rules, be warned that if a park Ranger or other official spots you on the river without a lifejacket that you will be ordered off the river.

No glass containers on the river.

Do not dive off the river banks. There are all sorts of rocks and downed trees below the surface that cannot be seen. (See “Shootin’ the Hooch”)

Drinking alcohol is allowed (on summer weekends you might say “encouraged”), but you can’t operate a power boat while drinking alcohol.

The water is cold, averaging 50°F year-round. In the summer, this is great for a quick dip if you get hot, but you won’t be staying in for long.

Since you will be wading into the river to launch your watercraft or to go fishing, wear shoes that can get wet but won’t slip off your feet, such as sandals with straps. It is not suggested to go into the water barefoot since there could be broken glass on the river floor, not to mention sharp and slippery rocks.

The quality of the water varies. In general, the water is clearer, cleaner, and safer the closer you are to Lake Lanier, though all of the water within the National Recreation boundaries is safe to swim in. It is beyond the park boundaries that the water becomes unsafe due to elevated fecal-coliform bacteria counts. These bacteria colonies are the result of animal waste in the river, which, of course, includes human waste. These bacteria are always in rivers, as animals always live near water, but in urban areas, elevated counts are due to human waste, for humans are the only animal near the water in large enough quantities to effect the count. The recreational water standard in Georgia is 200 colonies per 100 ml of stream water. At this level, if you were actively swimming in the water, 8 out of 1,000 people would become ill. Since nobody is actively swimming in the Chattahoochee due to the cold temperature of the water, there is even less danger.

The water is most polluted after a rain storm, as water washes from highways (where oil and gas spillages coat the road), farms, and sewage treatment plants and into the river. For the most recent bacteria count, visit the United States Geological Survey’s Chattahoochee River BacteriAlert web page.

As you will find, the numbers for the National Park Service section of the river are often above 200. Don’t let this scare you. I live in Atlanta and there are no daily news reports of people getting sick after wading in the Chattahoochee. Remember, you won’t be swimming in the river and, hopefully, you won’t be drinking the water. I do suggest avoiding the river if you have open soars or cuts on your body, and be sure to shower after your day’s adventure.

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Last updated on September 27, 2020
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