The headwaters for the Oconaluftee River are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is formed by the confluence of three streams, Beech Flats Prong, Kephart Prong, and Kanati Fork. The confluence of these streams is litte more than a tenth of a mile above the footbridge on the Kephart Trail, just off US 441. From here the stream winds to the south, with US 441 paralleling the river to the west. The run is roadside, but for the most part the river veers from the highway.
The watershed for the river is like other streams within the park relatively small, less than 200 square miles. It is a beautiful cold water stream. The water is clear and the quality is good. Given the size of the watershed, the river can only be paddled after significant rain.
The river is described into two sections for the 7.3 miles from headwaters to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The first section, from the Kephart Bridge to the Smokemont Campground the run is predominately through rock gardens, punctuated by ledge drops. In the second section, after the campground, the river gains volume and widens, and continues to be highlighted by a series of ledge drops, Smokemont Ledge and the Elbow.
Below the Visitor’s Center, the river is soon joined by the Raven Fork, increasing its volume by at least one-third. In approximately another half mile the river leaves the national park and enters the Cherokee Indian Reservation. This section through the town of Cherokee was once very popular, but it can no longer be paddled. The Reservation has continued to ban all boating on waters passing through its land. Paddling is completely legal in the National Park; no permit is required. Make certain that you park only in designated parking areas.
Notice: The AW recommended flows of 1000-1500 cfs for this reach are a bit on the low side. Higher flows would likely be more enjoyable, but would severely increase the danger due to lack of eddies and the large amount of wood present. - Seth O'Shields 12/24/2012
Immediately after a waterfall on river right, there is a challenging set of offset ledges requiring three quick turns to negotiate the rocks. The 15 foot high cascade is formed by Cliff Branch
As the river approaches the road, there is a rock wall on the right. The river entires into a long rock garden with one to two foot ledges. The garden ends with a a fun 2-3 foot ledge drop. This is also an alternative put-in for the upper section.
A tenth of a mile above the Smokemont Bridge, the river is divided by a small island. Take the river channel to the right. Paddle near the island as you approach the horizon line for a 3-4 foot ledge. Approach near the left and boof from left to right.
Parking on the east side of the river.
As of last Sunday, 01/22/12, there was a riverwide strainer just below Collins Creek Shoals. At 1,100 there were ample eddies on river river to stop for a portage
5 years ago
by Matt Wells
USGS Oconaluftee Gage at Birdtown
Permits are not required for this reach.
We have no additional detail on this route.
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Oconaluftee - upstream from Collins Creek Shoals
Collins Creek Shoals
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