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+ 01h33m 1260 cfs (running)

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.

No Comments

Do more than just check gauges; join over 5,000 AW members today.

Or, consider donating

Associated News