Difficulty IV-V+
Length 4 Miles
Gauge Russell Fork Gorge
Flow Range 125 - 1400 CFS
Flow Rate as of: 38 minutes ago 204.1 [CFS]
Next Release
Reach Info Last Updated 05/09/2019 7:20 pm

River Description

The Russell Fork is one of the classic Class V creek runs in the United States. The river is run year round and relies on a combination of natural flow and dam release from the Flanagan Reservoir on the Pound River. Every October, the Corp of Engineers draws the reservoir down over 4 weekends, putting anywhere from 800-1100 cfs into the Russell. Paddlers from all over the world converge on the Breaks to sample the awesome whitewater, reputation and sheer beauty of the 1600ft gorge.

While best known for its extreme push and danger in October, many are running the Fork at much lower flows. Below around 400cfs, the gorge is a good Class IV+ creek run. Extremely technical, but the pool/drop nature of the stream bed allows time to regroup between rapids and time to take in the incredible canyon. There are a couple of Class V drops at lower water, but you can easily sneak or portage.

Levels: Here are the flow ranges:

150-250 ELF, but very enjoyable in the main gorge. Great level to see the caves at Fist and under El Horrendo.
250-350 Low Flow, but good padding! GREAT first time level for the solid Class III/IV creeker.
350-600 Medium Level. The teeth are coming out, more pronounced holes, but good lines all the way through.
600-800 Other than extreme high water, the TOUGHEST levels. Lines are kinda in between the medium and high water lines at all the big rapids. Not for the squeamish.
800-1100 Release range, solid Class V creeking. Pushy, very technical, but very pronounced lines. A bit easier than the 600-800 level.
1100 and higher   Getting on the extreme upper end...VERY PUSHY and VERY BIG HOLES.

Very high end boaters have been pushing the upper envelope of gorge runs. Several 4,000+cfs runs now. The upper and lower sections have been run up to 10,000cfs. Big, but manageable for Gauley comfortable boaters.

See also the Russell Fork,KY and Pound River,VA

Shuttle Directions

Russell Fork Gorge Takeout
Follow 80 over the Russell Fork bridge coming from Elkhorn City.KY and go about 2 miles. Look for the big sign for Ratliff Hole on the right that signals the steep road down to the takeout/park for the RF Gorge. There is some boater's camping and a nice park n' surf play hole.

For the putin follow 80 and climb east towards the Breaks Interstate Park. The Breaks has some spectacular views of the Tower rock/rapid and Fist rapid - it would be worth a brief stop to take it in. There is a lookout pull-off just inside the Park and another just off 80 past the Park entrance. There is good camping at the Park as well but be aware that "quiet time"is strictly enforced.

Garden Hole Putin:
Continuing past the Park on 80 you will come to the Garden Hole Rd on your right. This is a steep in spots gravel road (2-wheel drive is ok but if it's raining the mud might make it interesting for some) that is used as a putin by folks who don't want to paddle the upper class III section from the putin at Bartlick Bridge (or the third putin on the class I-II section from Flannagan Dam).

Bartlick Putin:
If it is your first time down I recommend that you might want to paddle from Bartlick Bridge (look for VA611 on your right off 80 5-6 miles past the Breaks Park). The class II-III(+) section to Garden Hole is relatively short (maybe 2-3miles) but can make a nice warm up for the Gorge section.

Haysi Putin:

If the natural flow is above 400cfs, add 2-3 miles to your upper run by skipping the turnoff for Bartlick and driving on into Haysi. Class II with two Class III ledges. Great play above 800cfs. Same distance shuttle, longer paddle. Stay on 80 into downtown Haysi and do not turn off that road (80 will turn left).  The putin is a parking area just before you get to Kiwanis Park (old site of the Rendezvous).

Flannagan Dam putin:
Following 611 from Bartlick take the first road to the left and go maybe 2-3 miles till you cross over the dam. Take the access road on the left down to the dam tailwaters putin which is developed as a picnic area with large bathrooms, tables, covered pavilions, and a playground. By putting in here paddlers can gain another mile of class II whitewater before Bartlick Bridge. LONGEST SHUTTLE of the upper putin options.

For more great Russell Fork photos and information, check out the Russell Fork Info.

Click here for Doug Arrington's Step-by-Step of the Major Rapids!
Click here for Jim Michaud's Harrowing Pin at Fist!

Rapid Descriptions


Class - 5.0 Mile - 0.5

When you scout the rapid, you are going to see a 10' drop that lands in front of a VW Beetle-sized rock. There are 2 channels: 1 to the left that goes under a large slanted rock and one to the right. As you come off of the big drop you want to be right of center so that you get pushed to the right side of the VW rock. The key here is being far enough right, but not so far right that you hit a micro eddy and get surfed back into the hole. I've done it and it'’s not fun.


Class - 5.0 Mile - 0.6

Fist. Class-IV/V rapid with a Class-VI undercut. *****Fist has changed radically since the 2005 release season. A hole has developed that funnels directly into the crack. SCOUT THIS RAPID. The traditional release line is VERY SKETCHY now. The bail out is to scrape down the river left side into the big left eddy in front of the crack. If you trust your ferrying skills, the hairy ferry is the preferred local line. ****** There are 2 lines, the main line and the fire escape. Both start from the river right eddy. The main line is to ferry across to left of center and then work back right so that you clip the edge of the fan rock (Huge Roostertail) The fire escape is a sneak on the right and is easier than the main line, but just as dicey if you mess it up. What you have to do is to wait until a surge of water humps up over the semi-wet rock on the extreme river right bank. When it does this, bust ass and paddle as hard as you can so that you slide up onto the rock and down the side. If you screw it up, you will slide diagonally toward the fan rock and very possibly under the fist rock. My preferred line is the high and dry portage on the river left side of the river. It's a much easier portage than it looks and the only difficult part is going behind the fist rock. IF you start walking when the first member of your groups starts down the rapid, you can probably be back into the river just below the fist rock by the time the last guys gets through


Class - IV Mile - 0.74
The first drop is a right-to-left move punching a powerful hole. IF you flip, there is a small recovery pool before the rest of the rapid. The main line is basically nailing several 5-6' boofs down the center of the river. If you follow this line, you will be toward the river-left side of the huge undercut boulder. Once you get down to this rock, either paddle hard left or spin and ferry to the river left. There are 2 holes in the rock; the left hole is clear but the right hole tends to be full of trees and truck axles. This rapid reminds me a lot of Shipwreck Rock on the U. Gauley, only the moves upstream are significantly harder.

Triple Drop

Class - IV+ Mile - 1

You will see a hump left of center on first drop. Paddle full speed ahead down the hump with your boat pointed straight. The left side is tempting, but the hole is much worse over there. As soon as you blast through the hole (dangerously sticky) spin to the left and catch the eddy.

After running 1st drop, you are set up perfectly for second drop if you want to pass up the first eddy. Second drop is a pussy cat, it's a big slide that angles river-left into a couple of big holes. Line up left of center with left boat angle and boogey through. Catch the eddy on the river left and line up for 3rd drop

Third drop is actually made up of 2 smaller drops, a 3' drop with a weird, POWERFUL hole and then a 6-8' bottom drop with a deep, powerful hole. There are 3 options at 3rd drop.

(1) You can do the sneak out of the eddy...just follow the 3 or 4" of water flowing down about 15' from the left bank.

(2) The standard line is to peel out of the eddy high, and then slowly work back left so that when you go over 3rd drop you actually just go off of it at it's highest point (it basically turns into a 10'’ single drop) and into the pool.

(3) My least favorite option. You can peel out high and ferry toward the right, spin and run down both drops angled left. Keep lots of speed going through these holes because if the top hole grabs you, it's going to wreck you and the bottom drop is shallow. A friend of mine had to get a dozen or so stitches above his eye after going down the drop upside down.

STREAMKEEPER COMMENT: Folks who live on & run this river at all levels generally agree triple drop is the unfriendliest rapid on the Russell Fork. That doesn't mean the most dangerous, just the one that is going to give you the worst whipping if it decides its your turn. Depending on the level, all three drops take on extremely nasty traits. This is now the 4th killer rapid on the Russell Fork. Note that at ALL levels, the right side of 1st drop is a keeper hole. Above 700 or so, the left is also, but at least on the left someone can get a rope to you. Make sure you hit the hump with good angle and stroke through the hydraulic keeping your nose high.

Whoever would describe second drop as a pussycat is sick, although 800-1000 (release) tends to be easiest. Below 700 or so, a huge roostertail in the middle will send you into the bottom hole at crazy angles. If stuck, the ONLY way out of the hole sends you straight into 3rd drop. Once you've done it, you'll remember for a long time. 3rd drop, although ugly, is the easiest drop to get past above around 3-400. The line below 300 is REALLY interesting, basically a hard right to left ferry across the shelf, boof/sliding into the seam, ferrying in the toilet bowl in front of the fang rock, then dropping into the bottom hole. 30-40% of the runs are a guaranteed wreck, but at least you can roll up in the bottom eddy (if you get that far). sjr

El Horendo

Class - 5.0 Mile - 1.2

It's all good now -- …the scary stuff is over. When you look at El Horendo it's a lot like Oceana, both look twice as scary as they actually are. Basically what I do is sneak down into the micro eddies on the river left bank. From here I just ferry across above the lip of the first drop, aiming to hit the diagonal hole in the middle of the river. You can either (1) spin around once you are past the diagonal hole and drop over the drop or as I prefer, (2) Ferry on across and into the river right eddy. From there chill out, scope the scenery and look for a launch pad about 5' from the bank. Go off of the left side of the launch pad with your boat angled left. Once you hit the hole at the bottom you should punch through nicely if you have some angle. Take a couple of strokes to pull you out of the maw and toward the left so that you can avoid the nasty little shelf on the right.


Class - IV+ Mile - 1.5

******UPDATE****** More rock movement in the big boulders that surround the main line has caused more water to leak out of the main line...basically making it more seived out and much shallower than previous releases. Center line is pretty sketchy these days, keep it upright!*****    I would rate the Box Move class IV and the Race Line class V. I've never run the race line so I won't attempt to describe it. Basically the box move is to start out of the river-right eddy and boof with some boat angle to the left. When you land brace, roll, or whatever before you get pushed against the big, slightly undercut rock on the right. Avoid getting pushed up against it. It's a weird rock because it is easy to get flipped up against it and once you flip over you just stay stuck there and it never seems to wash you downstream so that you can roll. The box is really shallow and swimming in there kinda hurts a little. Trust me, I've swum the box more than anywhere on the river.


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Nick Prete
1 year ago

Great Run! here's a video of my run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgJskP-CjPg

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Matthew Haughee
7 years ago

Had a great run down the Gorge on Oct. 21st. 2 R-2 teams. Video link showing all major rapids: https://vimeo.com/52204488

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william meeks
9 years ago

I need to find a guide to go rafting down the russell for the class IV+ to V. i got money

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Robert Farmer
13 years ago

In Maze, if there's enough water, you can turn left at the bottom of the chute, avoiding Undertaker Rock completely (best). If you have to go in front of Undertaker, be aware that it is a large rock sitting on three smaller rocks, so the water washes under freely, with almost no pillow. It's nice to paddle under at less than 200 cfs, but very scary at higher levels.

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Robert Farmer
13 years ago

The center line at Climax should not be run at less than 800 cfs. This channel passes over a table rock---too little water and you go under, end of story. At 800+, this line is, in my opinion, easier than the Box. Simply start right, angle left 45 degrees, hit the diagonal wave head-on, go over the rock. Turn right to punch the second hole, behind the table rock.

Release Schedule

More Information

We have had releases on this reach but don't show any currently. This information is gathered by the public. If you know about releases then contact us about them. If you would volunteer to enter the releases, then reach out to us.

Gage Descriptions

This section may be run year round when there is sufficient rainfall to fill the free-flowing Russell Fork or when the Flannagan Dam on the Pound River is releasing.
Scheduled releases are every weekend during the month of October. Check with the Army Corps of Engineers whitewater release web web pages for times and volumes.

Most accurate readings for the Russell tend to be adding the Haysi gauge & Pound gauge together (1461 & 1463). Those are usually within 10-20 cfs accuracy.

The Elkhorn City gauge is great, but only reads in stage and is a little hard to decipher. 6.3 ft is minimum, 7.4-7.5 ft is around 850 cfs. 8 ft is close to maxing out.

Check the rainfall gauges for Dickenson County, VA.
For more Russell Fork information, click here.

Directions Description

We have no additional detail on this route. Use the map below to calculate how to arrive to the main town from your zipcode.

Date Flow Result Factor  
2019-10-05 Medium Near Miss/Rescue Other Read More
2013-10-13 n/a Near Miss/Rescue Other Read More
2010-05-10 n/a Near Miss/Rescue One Boat Trip Read More
2009-08-09 Low Near Miss/Rescue Other Read More
2004-10-24 n/a Fatality Other Read More
2004-01-25 Medium Fatality Other Read More
1996-10-06 High Near Miss/Rescue Other Read More
1995-04-23 Low Fatality Other Read More
1993-10-09 Medium Fatality Other Read More
1992-10-02 n/a Near Miss/Rescue Other Read More




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Russell Fork Release Study Open For Comment (VA/KY)

Kevin Colburn

The Army Corps of Engineers has shared their Environmental Assessment that considered four potential changes to the fall whitewater release program aimed at enhancing whitewater paddling opportunities. The Corps is planning on providing two additional Friday releases this fall as a result of the analysis. The EA is refreshingly succinct, and we encourage paddlers to give it a read and submit a comment if you are inspired to do so. 

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Russell Fork Releases Expanded (KY/VA)

Kevin Colburn

The fall release schedule for the Russell Fork River was recently announced, and it includes two new Friday releases that will offer 3-day weekends of releases. While announced without explanation, the added released are presumably a result of a public process convened by the Army Corp of Engineers last spring to explore the possibility of an expanded release schedule. American Whitewater and many regional paddlers advocated for additional recreational releases throughout the public process. We conducted and shared a survey that indicated significant support for Friday releases. The new releases are listed as "tentative and subject to change," and hopefully if they go well additional releases will be scheduled in future years. Enjoy these new paddling opportunities!

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Russell Fork Meeting Scheduled to Consider Releases

Kevin Colburn

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced a second public meeting to inform the public and seek input regarding proposed changes to the fall release schedule. The meeting will be held at the Breaks Interstate Park Conference Center at 627 Commission Circle, Breaks, Va., on April 2, 2019 at 6:30 p.m. Paddlers are encouraged to attend.

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AW Russell Fork Survey Results Shared (KY/VA)

Kevin Colburn

Last fall a diverse range of agencies and organizations expressed interest in enhancing the dam releases on the Russell Fork River, located on the border of Kentucky and Virginia. American Whitewater worked with local partners to craft a survey to inform the decision-making process and support releases that maximize benefits for paddlers and local businesses. We are pleased to share the full results of the survey, which were appreciated by the river managers. 

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Take Russell Fork Survey on Additional Releases (VA/KY)

Kevin Colburn

This year, the Army Corps of Engineers has added Russell Fork releases on the first two weekends of November as a pilot program, in addition to the standard four October weekends. Additional changes to the release program are under consideration. American Whitewater has worked with local partners to craft a survey to inform the decision-making process and support releases that maximize benefits for paddlers and local businesses. Click through to take the survey. 

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Russell Fork Study Needs Congressional Support

Kevin Colburn

A group of regional stakeholders are advocating for a new study of the releases on the Russell Fork River, located on the Virginia-Kentucky border.  To support the studyand an improved flow regime, the group is advocating for a Congressional appropriation to fund the Army Corp of Engineers to conduct the study.  Paddlers' involvement could help bring a fresh look and better flows to the Russell Fork.



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Attention Virginia Boaters!

Jason Robertson

During the high waters of Spring 2003, there has been a noticeable increase in reported confrontations between boaters and property owners in Virginia. Please remember to be respectful and courteous to property owners; do not trespass; and avoid confrontation in order to preserve access in the future.

Matt Muir


Steve Ruth




Thomas O'Keefe


Revision #Revision DateAuthorComment
1195015 05/21/09 Matt Muir Added second state (KY)
1195820 08/17/09 Steve Ruth
1200020 05/08/11 Rob Clean up some funky old HTML
1205771 12/30/15 Thomas O'Keefe gage link update
1211549 03/26/19 Thomas O'Keefe updated image position
1212293 05/09/19 Thomas O'Keefe updated image position
1191804 10/02/06 Steve Ruth n/a