Cheoah River Area


The Cheoah River, located near Robbinsville, NC, is a nine-mile section of waterway between the Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood. Typical water flows average 250 cubic feet per second (cfs), but approximately 20 times per year Brookfield Renewable Resources, Inc. releases water from the dam to mimic natural flood events to benefit a variety of endangered and threatened species that live in the river ecosystem. A secondary benefit of these releases is the recreational opportunity created by the release of approximately 1000 cfs of water, resulting in a Class IV-V whitewater run while water is being released. The US Forest Service currently permits three authorized outfitters to provide rafting opportunities during river releases, and many private boaters also use the river during these releases. 

There is one primary put-in access site, two secondary access sites, and a river takeout site located at Magazine Branch on Calderwood Lake. The Cheoah River is unusual for rivers of its volume in the Southeast in that its gradient is relatively constant. This means that it is unusually continuous, more so than anything else with a similar volume of water in the Southeast. It is a whitewater run that should only be attempted by advanced to expert paddlers with the proper safety equipment and watercraft with a minimum of four internal air chambers or hard bottom canoes or kayaks, and only after careful consideration of all river hazards. The Cheoah River is one of the most difficult, technical rivers in the Southeast during high flow events. The rapids are large and continuous, with numerous hydraulics, rock ledges, vegetation, and other river features that can make self-rescue and extraction difficult. Do not attempt to float the Cheoah River during high flow release events unless you possess expert boating skills, are experienced in self-rescue in Class IV-V whitewater and using the proper gear and safety equipment, and only after a careful analysis of the river features and your own personal skill level.

Fishing on the Cheoah River is considered excellent for smallmouth bass by either fly-fishing or spinning reel with light tackle. The Cheoah River also offers brook trout, rainbow trout, and largemouth bass. Hiking trails in the vicinity include the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye Trail, and numerous hiking trails in the nearby Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness. The Tapoco Lodge, built in 1930 by the Aluminum Company of America as part of hydroelectric efforts in Graham and Swain counties of North Carolina, is located on the banks of Cheoah River. 

Additional information regarding Cheoah River high flow events can be found on the Brookfield Renewable Resources, Inc. website

At a Glance

Operational Hours: Dawn to dusk.
Rentals & Guides: Various Outfitter and guides are available for whitewater rafting and fishing.
Fees $2 per person for a daily pass during high flow events. Available from two authorized vendors on release days located on the Cheoah River. Fee is for boating the Cheoah River. If planning a trip with a permitted outfitter, the daily fee is included.
Permit Info: A daily pass is required during high flow events. Daily passes are $2 per person, available at two vendors located along the Cheoah River.
Usage: Light-Medium
Restrictions: Alcohol is prohibited at recreation sites along the river. Camping within 500 feet of the river is prohibited. 
Closest Towns: Robbinsville, NC
Water: None
Restroom: Portable toilets are located at the Santeetlah Dam put-in and River Mile 2.3 access point.
Operated By: Cheoah Ranger District, Nantahala National Forest
Information Center: Cheoah Ranger Office (828)-479-6431 1070 Massey Branch Road, Robbinsville, NC 28771

General Information


From Robbinsville, follow US Highway 129 west, approximately 6 miles to the junction of Joyce Kilmer Road (SR 1134). Turn left onto Joyce Kilmer Road and proceed approximately 2 miles to the put-in. There are various access points located along Joyce Kilmer Road and US129. The takeout is located at Magazine Branch, on Calderwood Lake below the Cheoah Dam.

General Notes:

Common River Hazards

Foot entrapment - Catching a foot in rocks on the bottom of the river. May be caused by trying to stand up while getting swept downstream in water mid-thigh to mid-torso deep.

Strainers - Trees or single branches in the current, with river water flowing through, can cause a severe pinning hazard. Strainers may be caused by erosion. Trees can also fall because of old age, floods, and storms. Look for them on wooded riverbanks, along small creeks after high water, often found on the outside of bend, and on less utilized rivers. Always look downstream to spot bobbing twigs or irregular flow patterns.

Man-Made Entrapments - Manmade objects in the river are inherently more dangerous than most things natural.  Keep an eye out for bridge pilings or any man made object found commonly in urban riverways, especially at highway crossings.  Make it a habit to visually scan downstream.

Broaches - Getting pinned on a rock, either amidship or at the ends. Avoid sharp rocks that can potentially crease a boat or serve as point to be wrapped by your watercraft! Develop the instinct to lean into the rock with your boat and body leaning together.

Undercut Rocks - Undercuts are water features where a slab of rock, or rock shape, forces the current flow to go under the surface. Learn to spot them by the dark shadow on the upstream side of the rock, the lack of pillowing action by oncoming water, and by the lack of a predictable eddy on the downstream side. Most dangerous undercuts are well known by locals, and listed in guidebooks.

Entanglement - Getting tangled exiting your boat is most likely to be caused by ropes, and loose lines, in your boat.  Practice wet exits and critically evaluate your outfitting for entanglement potential. Treat throw ropes as potential hazards. Keep them neatly bagged, and carry a knife for rescue.

Vertical Pins - When the bow buries and gets pinned on the bottom after a steep drop. Advanced paddlers prevent them by checking the water depth first, and leaning back and performing a 'boof' move to keep the bow up.  Paddling boats with a large volume bow reduces this risk substantially.

Hydraulics -Have evenly formed backwash, water moving back upstream for four or more feet. Holes with more of a wave shape are intimidating, but typically less hazardous than water flowing smoothly upstream. Dams, and hydraulics that are very regular, and perpendicular to the current are far more dangerous than hydraulics angled with one end downstream.

Long Swims - Wearing a tight PFD, matching your ability to an appropriate river, and being dressed for a swim can be excellent defense against a long swim. Another great precaution is a competent group of friends with either a shore or boat based rescue plan.



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