Pigeon - Gorge: Big Creek to Hartford

Pigeon, North Carolina, US


Gorge: Big Creek to Hartford (Walters Power Plant to Hartford)

Usual Difficulty II-III+ (for normal flows)
Length 4.66 Miles
Avg. Gradient 33 fpm
Max Gradient 36 fpm

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-03460795 300 - 3000 cfs II-III+ 00h41m 4060 cfs (too high)

River Description

"Mac" McRae the former constable has retired but  you still need to sign y our group in at the put-in. This keeps track of how many people use the river and keeps the number of release days up. 

See AW's Tennessee page for this reach and Carolina Whitewater, B.Benner.

River Description

The Pigeon was for many years so polluted that is was biologically dead.   The river ran a coffee brown for most of the 20th century,  containing toxic chemicals such as  dioxins, furan, and chloroform -- all from the Champion paper mill in nearby Canton.   As noted by Joyce Coombs "the Pigeon River was once so polluted that North Carolina classified the best use of its waters to be for waste disposal."     In the early 1990's the trend was reversed.   The modernization of methods used at the paper mill led to significant reduction in the use and discharge of toxic chemicals.  According to "a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services ... dioxin concentrations in fish samples taken from the river have decreased 99 percent since 1990."  - Smoky Mountain News  Jan. 31 2007.   In the late 1990's snails and common mussels were reintroduced to the river - the river was again alive!    Since 2000 more than 20 species of fish have been re-introduced to the river.

Rafters, kayakers and canoeists also returned to the river.   This five mile run offers a number of big water Class 3 - 3+ rapids,   Powerhouse,  Roller Coaster,  Lost Guide,  Double Reactionary and Accelerator.   The river has a number of popular playspots,  in the first mile of the river,  Snap  Dragon, Lost Guide, below Double Reactionary.    Although the I-40 flanks the run on river right,  you are paddling through a scenic gorge that on the eastern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Pigeon tends to be quite busy on scheduled released days, especially Saturdays. The water is on from "noon" to 6 pm, but the measuring point is the USGS gauge 3/4 mile downstream, so the water is on by 11:30 am. All the rafting companies have known this for years and at 11:20 am there is a line of busses waiting to unload passengers and rafts. 

Cocke county constable "Mac' McRee a long time friend of boaters retired in May of 2015.  Some new guys are there but no major changes. You still sign in so that there is an annual head count.  The more river users, the more days of releases - so sign in. There is no charge.

The "normal' release on scheduled release days is two turbines (@ ~ 625 cfs each) plus some inflow from Big Creek and the creeks feeding the dries. So on a typical summer release Saturday, you will get 1250 cfs + maybe 60 - 100 from the creeks or around 1350 cfs. Occasionally you will get a 3 turbine release and sometimes the inflow from the creeks is a little higher. The descriptions that I have written are for a 2 turbine release with ~ 100 cfs inflow, but work well from 1000 cfs to 1600 cfs. Check the 3 day release forecast at https://lakes.duke-energy.com/index.html#/flow, and select "Pigeon" from the dropdown menu.

The parking situation at the put-in changed in spring of 2015. About 40% of the private boater parking spots were redesignated for commercial vehicles (e.g. rafting busses). So far it hasn't caused major problems. Part of the solution can be increased carpooling and / or parking at the takeouts and catching a ride to the put-in with the rafting busses. 

Parking at the takeout(s) and Shuttles

Near the first bridge that you come to in Hartford, just upstream from USA Raft, there is a large grassy field with a gravel bus path through it. This land is leased by Cocke county and you can park there. There is plenty of room for the usual number of private boaters and a few of the spots are shaded. Ultimatley the county plans to add picnic tables, changing room and a couple porta-potties.  You can also park at nearby USA raft (even in the shady spots) for $5 and you can then use their changing rooms & showers. You can ride USA Raft busses for free, waiver form is preferred. If you go further downriver, you can park at NOC ; park near the slalom poles. NOC has changing rooms and you can ride the raft buses for free (must sign a waiver). NOC gets very busy during July and August and parking gets tight. spaces will go to their customers first.  If you take out at NOC, you must use the upper ramp; the lower ramp is reserved for their rafting guests. That means if you go surf the "NOC wave", you must get out on the island, walk upstream, then put back in and ferry to the upper ramp. You can also park at  Wildwater - in the grassy area behind the "moonshine still" building, it's free. You can also use the Wildwater busses for free, waiver preferred; and you can use their changing rooms. The Wildwater buses run at 11:00 am, 12 noon, 1:15 pm, 2:15 pm, 3:15 pm, and 4:15 pm. All of the free bus rides are space available - but fortunately it usually is. This area is a work in progress and I will try to make a couple more updates as the situation develops over the summer of 2016. 

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2017-06-19 15:59:36


Rapid Summary

Mile Rapid Name Class Features (Legend)

Rapid Descriptions

Powerhouse (Class III, Mile 0.1)


Photo by Lee taken 07/14/14

The rapid starts just  below the put in. At the start it is a wide rapid that offers lines to the left, middle and a shallow bumpy run on the right. The first half of the rapid consists of a series of shallow ledge drops. As you pass a point where there are boulders on the left and right banks, the river narrows a little and the gradient picks up. From there the center line becomes much more challenging, with big irregular wave and holes. The more conservative line is to the far right about 15 feet off the right bank. On the left you can work down the left side by eddy hopping; good eddy turn and water reading skills are needed for the left lines. 

BFR (Class II, Mile 0.4)

Hal @ BFR

Hal @ BFR
Photo of Hal Herzog by Lee Thonus taken 07/14/14 @ 1400 cfs

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
July 13 2017 (556 days ago)
Jack GillDetails
As of 2017, there is now a shuttle service operating on the Pigeon River from May thru the middle
of Sept.. It is run by a retired gentleman named Charlie, and the service is called Charlie's
Shuttle. He generally hangs around the parking area for the general public take-out at the bottom,
just upstream of the bridge and upstream of the majority of the take-outs for the raft services in
a white pickup truck with a yellow rotating beacon. He charges $10 per person for the shuttle. If
you want to be guaranteed of meeting him, he suggests you give him a call on his cell phone
(423-608-0582) and arrange times.
August 26 2009 (3434 days ago)
x (1)
I ran it at about 200 cfs last year. Much less fun but still worth the trip. Much more technical,
creek style moves and less pushy though.
April 29 2009 (3553 days ago)
x (1)
Bottom Hole of Lost guide has changed. Munchier now, you can surf rafts and boats much easier now.
Probably not a good idea to hit this sideways with a boat load of custies as i usually do cause it
will flip rafts now.
September 18 2006 (4506 days ago)
x (1)
keep in mind that the rocks in the pigeon were blasted from the side of the mountain to make I-40
it is very sharp with many slabs of concreat and rebar everywhere. ..................Rip Roaring
Adventures, Tim Richmond
August 2 2006 (4554 days ago)
Jeffrey SailusDetails
Stolen from BT from Crunchy:

First rapid:
Can be run left, middle or right.
Middle is the hardest. Bigger waves, holes, etc.
Easier is to run the left line.
Go just to the right of the big rock (on river left) at the top of the rapid.
Behind the rock the flow is slower (not really an eddy) and you can work through this flow to one
of three eddies on river left.
There is a dead tree laying on the bank.
The tree is a good indicator of the three eddies.
Catching one of these eddies breaks up the lenght of the rapid.
Peel out and work to the middle to avoid rocks on river left.
Look for three dry rocks about 10 yards off the left bank.
Eddy behind these rocks or just below.
Congrats! That's Powerhouse.
Next is BFR:
You can run either right or left of Big Freeking Rock. I recommend stopping below it in the
The next rapid:
The water channels to the right side of the river below BFR.
The easiest line through this on the left side of the channel.
There is a hole on the right. (not a keeper) I love to punch this one.
After the hole there are offset waves and holes.
Easiest is on the left side. (to miss the hole)
Next is Razor Rock.
It is on river left. Great play spot.
Easiest is to stay in the middle of the current about 20 yards off the left bank. Trying to get
into the eddy below Razor is harder the higher you hit the eddy.
Below Razor Rock there is a 10-yard wide hole just off the left bank.
This starts the next rapid.
Easiest is to pick your way down the right side.
The left side (after the hole) is the hardest.
There is another slide (playspot) on river left.
After that the river is fairly flat until the bridge.
After the bridge the river channels to the right again.
Easiest is to stay toward the left/center of the rapid.
The right has another nice hole.
After this is another little rapid with boogie water.
Next is Snap Dragon.
The river will make a big bend to the right.
The water will channel to the left.
The left side is where the big waves and holes are.
The center/right is easiest.
It will flow into another rapid that is easier the farther right you go.
Below this is a great area to play.
Super easy to miss stuff you don't want to hit.
This will continue until you see:
Lost Guide.
There is a triangular-shaped rock in the middle of the river.
That is your marker for the top of Lost Guide.
The sneak:
Have your boat about half-way between the rock and the right bank. (about 20-yards from the right
Note: the rafts and normal line is about 10-yards off the right bank.
As soon as you see the river turning left, look for the big hole just to the left of the big rock
on river left. (there may be people sitting on it)
Find the hole and look left for the green line that flows past the left side of the hole.
Follow that line up stream and see that the water comes from the left side of another (boat-sized)
dry rock.
Turn left about 5 yards from this rock. The rock will pass down your right side.
This will put you on the green flow and you'll clear the big hole with eaze.
Next is Roostertail.
Easy line is down the right.
River flattens for a while until Double Reactionary.
Sneak is to eddy on the right above the rapid.
Look for just enough water flowing over the rocks on the right to bump your boat down.
Turn right to avoid Tombstone Rock and the wild water.
Stay far right (real bumpy, swallow) until you pass Super Glue hole.
The next rapid is Accelerator.
Go far left. (this is not the raft or regular hard boat line)
The line is one boat-width off the left bank.
This will give you a straight line down Accelerator and keeps you far away from Presidential
Stay left all the way down.
Those are the sneaks through the Pigeon.
May 25 2005 (4987 days ago)
Kevin ColburnDetails
A Report From the Pigeon

a local rafting company manager was in a shredder yesterday with us three hardboaters and he
pointed out new rebar lying lengthwise in the playhole after LOST GUIDE RAPID. It's normally called
"ROOSTER TAIL RAPID" -- the next rapid after LOST GUIDE. I didn't know its name but he
said that's what everybody calls it. The rafting mgr said they normally allow their customers to
jump and swim this normally safe rapid but now with the rebar they can no longer do that. He
pointed out that if someone were to roll at this popular playhole it could do some serious damage
to one's head. I skirted the meat to the right yesterday and was fine. My two friends from
Knoxville ran the meat and were fine. It was about 3000 CFS so we didn't really see it but the mgr.
assures us that at regular flow it's visible and quite a problem. So, he requested that we spread
the word to all hardboaters: "Catch an eddy way before ROOSTER TAIL if you swim LOST GUIDE and
it's probably best to not play in that wonderful hole anymore." You can still run the meat of
the rapid and not get hurt --- well as long as you don't flip in the meat.

By the way, the bottom hole at the Rooster Tail rapid is still good to surf, the top hole is the
one with the rebar in it.

He also said that the river widened a bit after the floods and therefore the Pigeon holes aren't as
good as they used be.
August 12 2002 (6004 days ago)
Kevin ColburnDetails
Due to the fact that it no longer rains in Western North Carolina, beginning immediately (August
10th, 2002) there will be fewer weekly releases in the Pigeon River. Call the 1-800 number listed
above each week to find out what days the Pigeon will run. The 4 days per week schedule will be
returned to as soon as possible.

Associated News