Little - 2. Sinks to the Elbow

Little, Tennessee, US


2. Sinks to the Elbow (Lower Little)

Usual Difficulty III-IV+ (for normal flows)
Length 3 Miles
Avg. Gradient 107 fpm
Max Gradient 135 fpm

Main Drop at Sinks

Main Drop at Sinks
Photo of Todd Corey by Jim Wei taken 03/24/02 @ 700cfs

Gauge Information

Name Range Difficulty Updated Level
usgs-03497300 2.40 - 5.00 ft III-IV+ 00h28m 2.93 ft (running)

River Description


The Lower Little River, which is from the Sinks to the Elbow, is a great class III+ creek run. If you run the Sinks and the Elbow, you add two class IV rapids to your run.  This river pumps up quickly after rains early in the year and has great scenery and clear, cold water. One of our area's classic whitewater runs.


Rapids Description:

Major Rapids:
(note: some pictures are large)

Screaming Meanies (IV) First Drop
Screaming Meanies (IV) Second Drop
Sinks (IV)
Silver Diner (III+)
Eddy Out (III+)
Bottoms Up (III+)
Tunnel Rapid (III+)
The Elbow (IV-IV+)

To run the Sinks, carry your boat upstream along the road and put in wherever it looks good. The two drops above the Sinks can get really hairy at high flows (above 3.0 feet).  At higher levels the cheat routes on river right open up, allowing you to skirt the powerful hydraulic of the second hole. Be careful on the first drop, there is a pinning rock right in the center of the rapid. You can run center with right angle, catch the halfway eddy, or you can hit the excellent pop up boof into the river left eddy and then peel back out for the runout. Quickly eddy to the right and begin to scout the second drop. I like to ferry to river left eddy for this drop. It's best to run this right of center, boofing off the extreme right side of the drop with a downstream angle. Many catch the eddy on the right, but it does feed back into the hole. After this drop, again eddy to the right.


Now you can decide to portage, cheat, or run the Sinks (IV) main drop. To portage, ferry to river left before you go under the bridge and take out. To cheat it, hug the far river right bridge wall and enter the rocky chute and bump your way down. This is only possible at good water levels. To run the main Sinks line, which is a waterfall of about 10 feet in height, go with the main flow on river left. Run the center of the falls with a downflow angle.  Too far right and there is a piton to pocket surf, and too far left is a wall.  It is really pretty hard to get too far left.  The best approach is a slow one, with a precisely timed delayed boof stroke on the right, keeping it downstream.  The goal here is to land with your bow up, as the rocks underneath are not friendly.  If you can't boof, this isn't the place to learn.  Many swimmers have died here, and even more kayakers have gotten lucky.   Always check the Sinks before running, it tends to collect debris. A good indication of how much water you will have on the landing is to look for the rock that sticks up just left of center at the bottom of the main Sinks drop. If you can't see a rock, there is plenty of water. The main drop has been run with this rock exposed with no problems, but use your good judgement. Foot entrapments are always a possibility below the Sinks. Ropes can be set up at the bottom of the Sinks to assist swimmers.

If the Sinks looks too low to run or you're just having second thoughts, you can try the seal launch and still impress the onlookers...

After the Sinks there is a pool, and then the rapids start to pick up again. There are several class II and III rapids to follow, most notably Silver Diner(III+) which after a high quality and drawn out entrance series, offers one of the rivers sweetest boofs at high flows. Following just after is Eddy Out (III+).  This is the technical crux of the run, requiring a tight boof move coming out of a river left eddy.  The run out is bouncy and shallow, and head injuries are a concern for the upside down boater.

There is a rail slide drop below, run on the left side of the midstream boulder, and then the creek tones down for a mile of scenic class 2-3.  After passing Meigs Falls on the left, and then a few more bends, the river passes under a bridge and there is a nice slalom eddy on the wall on river right.  After a shallow shoal best run on the right, the river picks up for the final barrage of rapids down to the elbow. 


Next, after a nice shoulder boof on the left, is Airplance Turn, a great curling chut coming off of the river left retaining wall.  Watch the pocket at high flows, and at flows below 3 feet, look for epic enders.  A brief calm brings paddlers into 2 boogie rapids with multiple moves and beautiful green pools.  After a pin rock avoidance in the next little drop, regroup for Bottoms Up, one of the best drops on the run.  There are two options here.  One is the river right boof, but the classic run is down the middle, banking right off of the big midstream boulder and dropping 4 feet into the cauldron below.  For extra points, go for the dynamic rockspin into the cauldron.  It is fantastic.

After two boogie rapids on a sharp bend to the right, one reaches Tunnel Rapid (III+), recognized by the tightening of the river and the current pouring into a depression in the river right wall.  A right to left line on this rapid will see you through fine, just wait and drive in late, so as to get the meat. The reason Tunnel is significant is because just downstream is the Elbow(IV), a rapid you don't want to just flush into.

The Elbow constricts the whole river into a chute less than 6 feet wide and about 10 yards long. After Tunnel there is a little flatwater and some large rocks that split the stream (and block your view of what's coming up.) Get to the river left bank and climb out to scout the Elbow. The Elbow is best run by staying to far river right. A micro eddy on river right can be caught just before running the drop, but don't blow it here or you'll run Elbow backwards. The preferred route is to hug the river right wall and take a good left stroke to pull you into the main chute and through the rapid. This rapid is easier and less dangerous at higher flows, as the big undercut rock on the left that the water flows into is more covered up.  One can also drop in to the chute more center with aggresive downstream speed.  An intense left slot line is also doable, but scout before committing, as it is rather tight and a little crucial.  Run this rapid only with people ready with rescue support in case of an emergency. A takeout after the Elbow will cut out the miles of class II water down to the "Y", but at high flows this section can also be fun for those who aren't ready for the water above the Elbow.

(Note: You cannot see the Elbow from the road on the way up. You have to look for it. It just happens to be at a bend in the road and it limits your view of the river. Make sure you know where the Elbow is before running this river.)


Watch for strainers on this river after a storm, and always take a look at the Sinks and the Elbow before running them. Undercut rocks are not a big problem on this river, with the exception of the Elbow.


Creekboats, river-running boats, playboats, and open boats all make this run regularly.

Put-in and Take-out:

From the "Y" at Townsend (US321), follow the left split (TN73, Little River Road) as it winds its way up through the Smokies (the right split goes to Cades Cove.) You'll cross one bridge about midway to the Sinks. After passing a "Congested Area" sign you get to the second bridge and you'll see a place to turn in on the right hand side. This is the Sinks. Put in below or above the Sinks. (An alternate put-in is 1/4 mile farther up the road on the left. The Sinks parking lot gets crowded with tourists, so drive on up if it's full. This adds another solid III+ rapid to the run.) Leave the shuttle car either at the pull-off beside the Elbow or at the "Y" in Townsend. To access the Little from south of the Smoky Mt. National Park, take US 441 to just outside of Gatlinburg, then pick up TN 73. Look for the Elkmont Campground on your way in on TN 73. From this point it is about 8.5 miles to the Sinks put-in which will now be on your left.

Please note that the rapid ratings are subjective and depend on water level. For instance, the Screaming Meanies (above the Sinks) aren't very difficult at 2.5 feet, but at levels over 3 feet I would rate the top and bottom drop together a solid class IV.

StreamTeam Status: Not Verified
Last Updated: 2014-12-18 14:27:14

Rapid Descriptions

icon of message No rapids entered. If you know names, and locations of the rapids please contact and advise the StreamTeam member for this run.

User Comments

Users can submit comments.
January 9 2015 (1431 days ago)
BrianPayne (157083)
There is a log in Elbow. Be careful and scout first
May 24 2013 (2026 days ago)
SEboater90 (155463)
I drive by the sinks today and there is wood at the bottom of te drop on the left that I've not
seen before. I've been out of the area for a while so this may be old news.
June 25 2007 (4186 days ago)
Alex ZendelDetails
Be aware that there is a cave/sieve/undercut-like death trap underneath the water at the landing on
the left ("main") line at The Sinks. Swimming over the drop or swimming after being stuck in the
hole could easily be fatal. Here's an article about a non-boater that died in this hazard on June
4, 2007.,1406,KNS_347_5572290,00.html. If I
remember correctly, one of the local rescue squad members, who's also an accomplished boater, said
that the submerged log referred to in this newspaper article was not a major factor in the accident
- the lack of wood in the future does not mean that the danger is gone. Consider setting safety at
The Meanies (directly upstream) - boaters frequently swim out of the bottom hole, which can be
rather sticky at most levels. Have fun, be safe!
March 3 2006 (4665 days ago)
Kirk EddlemonDetails
The below comment about taking the online gauge with a grain of salt is true, but not due to any
technical error. The reason is that the online gauge is 25 square miles downstream and that the
watershed triples at that point due to all the valley tribs coming in. If the little is at 3.3 and
the online gauge is at 500, it must have just rained and the bubble hasn't reached the gauge.
Sometimes the Little at Maryville can be at 2000 and the little only at a low level if it was
mostly valley rain(rare but it happens).

The key to not getting skunked is to look at the whole picture. How much rain fell where and when
and how dry was it prior. Streamflow gauges are but one small component in predicting

Besides, there is an online gauge for the Townsend site now anyway:

Copy and paste if you have to.
December 7 2004 (5116 days ago)
Brad JenkinsDetails
ran this today real gauge reading was 3.3 below the Y. 12-07-2004, this online gauge is way off!
been there before with this online gauge reading in the 500's and real water level was 3.8, take
this online gauge with a grain of salt.

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