Difficulty IV-V(V+)
Length 4.8 Miles
Gauge Elk River at Big Falls
Flow Range 250 - 700 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 43 minutes ago 99.55 [CFS]
Reach Info Last Updated 05/08/2019 5:30 pm

River Description

Clay Wright contributed on 2002-03-06 02:57:09:
Big Falls (at top of this reach) has been run, with cut head and a broken back (OC-1) but several clean ones. Some flat, but good rapids, one chunky double ledge, Twisting Falls portage (narrow and high, but not scetch) then a 10-15' and a ramping 33'er which is sweet!

A long shuttle is the only drawback to this cool run!

Kevin Williams added on 2003-04-21 11:39:02

Amazingly beautiful remote gorge with some truly memorable rapids!

START EARLY to allow time for the monster shuttle (more than an hour each way) and to scout the many horizon lines, plus the twisting falls portage takes considerable time. Pay careful attention for this mandatory portage, you really don't want to miss the left eddy after the class-III drop that leads into a 15' fall and then without escape into the falls proper. Portage on the left and don't go too high - apparently there is a goat trail right along the rocks above the drop. we went straight up and ended up on a 2-hour hell hike that ended with tying 11 throw ropes together to lower the boats back to the river. Yuk!

Since we accidentally portaged all the way around the falls I can't verify this but I was told that there is a nice 16' fall above a 44' fall that ends the gradient of the run. It looked clean, but by that time it was dark.

Most drops are pretty straightforward but intimidating class IV and a few deserve a long look. One not too terribly heinous drop had strainers, undercuts, a sieve or two, piton rocks, a high pinning potential and ended in an undercut cave. Lots of steep slides (4') reminiscent of Swallow Falls on the Top Yough in MD. Some are stacked almost on top of one another but all have at least small pools in between. Look out for wood in the most inconvenient places and be careful of running out of eddies before drops.

I can't wait to run this river again but next time I'd set shuttle the night before and camp at the campground along Big Falls Road (leads to the put-in).

Rapid Descriptions


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Scott Saavedra
5 years ago

Another comment from an old-timer. Jim Reed, Roger Beaman, Bill Hughes and I ran it on May 18, 1985. I know the date because I wrote a trip report for the CCC (The Paddler, Vol. 14, No. 3, June 1985). But I don’t think we were the first. I heard a group from Greensboro ran it before we did. We didn’t run Big Falls or Compression Falls, but we ran everything else between Big and Compression except (of course) the first drop of Twisting Falls. Ran it twice more in the late 80s before moving west. On one of those trips, everyone backendered at the base of the 16 footer just above Compression. Good roll practice!

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Bob Vernon
8 years ago

Wanted to comment from the perspective of someone who was on the first descent (I think?) in either 1986 or 87. Saw that the big falls near the end was called Compression Falls - we named that Whammer Falls after Brian Wham who was first off that drop on that trip. At the bottom his helmet was blown off and floated up first prompting Dale Adams to comment something like "it tore his f-ing head off". I think Dale was 2nd off the drop. We had a large group that day and had a great trip ! I will never forget it ! Bob Vernon

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Robert Farmer
9 years ago

If you want to see some great photos of this amazingly scenic, spectacular and only Class 4-5-minus river gorge, check out my friend Woody DuBois's photos and videos at http://picasaweb.google.com/tm.dubois/20090618ElkRiverNC# These are from our June 2009 trip. This is one of those trips-of-a-lifetime that will not only thrill you, but that you will never forget. P.S. I'm in the orange Prijon Hercules.

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10 years ago

Robert Farmer---The waterfall near the end is not 33 feet---it is definitely closer to 45 feet, although only the last 25 feet or so are totally airborne, the first 20 feet or so being only about 65 degrees, but still plenty fast.

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10 years ago

Hey Kevin, The falls near the end of the run, which I am calling "compression falls" can be run anytime even when the gorge is not going. We found a trail that hikes down the side of the mtn and almost right to it. You will still have to portage twisting falls due to the fact that is is almost right above the drop. We go in there late november just to huck it for fun. Lowest ive went off is 58cfs. The pool is always good. Just remember to tuck!!

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10 years ago

Robert Farmer---I took a group down this @June 2009, for my third trip down. Some of the boaters were around the Class 4/4+ level. The logs in the first drop are gone now, and it's 4+/5-, a fairly easy move, with some consequences on the left for unimaginable screw-ups. This is possibly the best collection of Class 4 slides anywhere!!! Only 2 drops really approach Class 5, and they are portageable. There is one really big slide that many people portaged, but it's not really hard, just intimidating, as long as you're on the right line. Thrilling, but without much cost. There is one rapid where we did the in-boat portage; with more water, you can "wheelchair" across, but on this trip, to speed things up, I got out and dragged the other boaters across the rock, so they didn't have to get out, dropping off the ledge into a slide. There are a lot of blind horizon lines; it's great to just bomb down on your second run, but the first run requires a lot of scouting. The price that you pay is the horrendous portage. It was a lot more overgrown than I remembered (different time of year, maybe?). We cleared it out a bit, but you need to have a sense of adventure, and start your day early. You can take about 3 different variations, depending on whether you want to run the last 45-foot waterfall; I ran it on my second trip, accidentally boofed, and had a very painful paddle out and couple of weeks after. It is so beautiful, though. There is a rope hanging next to this falls, I noticed, too late. I don't know if it's for portaging, though---it's probably for cliff divers in warmer weather, but it hangs into the water, so it would be hard to use, probably. One of our boats got dropped about 60+ or so feet. If you're portaging the falls, stay high and left, or there was a lower way, too, but it was pretty airy, as well. Anyway, this is a 5-star run, a great classic, with esthetic quality comparable to Linville Gorge or the Blackwater, or Tallulah Gorge. Sure the portage is bad, but you can do it once, right? Bring a saw and do a little volunteer trailwork, and for crying out loud, don't be one of those boaters who doesn't carry a throwrope, ok? You need to do this one at least once in your life.

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Kevin Yount
12 years ago

Could anyone tell me whether the 33 footer near the end of the reach runs regularly or only when it's high enough for the rest of the run? Also, is it possible to hike up from the take out to this falls?

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Robert Farmer
14 years ago

It's mostly fun Class 4+, with some 5. The first major drop has two logs in it. My first time, they were underwater and not visible. My second time, I got briefly stuck between them--very scary; watch out!
-At the mandatory portage, don't run the last 10ft ledge, just go straight up the hill and cross a very large log. The rest is more obvious. To avoid the big drop here, keep going left, around the corner, and up a bit. Cross a muddy, slippery drainage above a cliff. Use a rope to drop about 20 feet into a gully.
-And it's not "Sone" mtn church--it's "Stone" Mtn Church.
-One of the street signs is missing, up the hill a bit, complicating the shuttle, as of 2003. The shuttle's not too bad if you know where to go, but that's a big if.
-This is a super-beautiful, most-excellent, one of the best-on-the-east- coast runs, even though it's achievable for mere advanced or beginning-expert boaters. Probably runs rarely, though.

Gage Descriptions

Kevin Williams provided on 2003-04-21 11:39:02

Look for gauge at 321 crossing of the river. Count pylon segments from the top down. If you see all of eleven segments, it is at minimum.

We ran it with the Watauga (which supposedly corresponds quite well) at approximately 600 cfs and ten pylon segments plus 1/2 of the eleventh showing. Water was flowing around some trees near the bridge. Members of our group who had run it previously said that this level upped the difficulty quite a bit. I found it tons of fun with enough water to make all of the slides runable and exciting enough to get the blood pumping. At this level I found it considerably more difficult than other local class IV runs like Doe, Little, North Fork of the French Broad or Wilson's Creek.

Directions Description

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No Accident Reports




article main photo

A Close Look at The Cheoah River Fatalities

Charlie Walbridge

The recent death of Chris Clark at Python Rapid on North Carolina's Cheoah River is the third at this site in the last six years. In each case, the person who died was an expert paddler and their paddling partners did not see exactly what happened. Let's take a close look at the Cheoah below Bear Creek Falls and develop strategies for future runs. The river here is very fast and continuous. After a fast lead-in (Chaos), the river drops over Bear Creek Falls, a 12' drop. Below, most of the flow pushes toward the river right channel (Python). Ferrying over to the easier river left channel (the West Prong) requires careful boat control. Python itself contains several nasty holes and sieves, with a bad hole blocked by a boulder at the bottom. There is a good route through it, but paddlers need to plan their route carefully. Scouting is a good idea for first timers, although catching eddies and getting out is not  going to be easy. Groups need to stay together.. The rapid is tough enough that you can't watch your buddy all the time, but you can be ready to help if needed. Click through for links to the accident reports, photos, and comments from expert Cheoah River paddlers. (Photo above by Boyd Ruppelt)


Kevin Colburn


Matt Muir


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1205160 08/04/15 Kevin Colburn Map accuracy
1212226 05/08/19 Kevin Colburn updated image position
1190860 06/14/08 n/a n/a