As the snow melts high in the mountains and water levels around the country start to come up, it’s time to dust off your paddles and PFDs! River trip season is upon us, and there are few activities more quintessentially summer than whitewater rafting. An invigorating splash is one of the best ways to cool down on a scorching summer day in the South, and many of Kentucky’s best rivers for whitewater rafting are easily accessible while still having that true adventure feel.
Before you head out on a whitewater adventure, always check the water levels on your intended run so you know what to expect. If you’re not an experienced paddler, you’re in luck: several reputable local outfitters have been running Kentucky’s best whitewater stretches for decades and can get you safely down the river. It’ll take a little research to find the guide service that best suits your needs, and some outfitters will want proof that you have some paddling experience before taking you out on a more advanced run. Guide services are happy to answer questions to make sure you and your party end up on the right run.
Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie on the hunt for gnarly class IV rapids or a family looking for a kid-friendly day on the water, these four spots are some of the best that Kentucky has to offer.
This Kentucky River tributary is a short 45-minute drive from Lexington, but still manages to feel like a genuine wilderness experience. At 99 miles long—just short of earning the title of river—Elkhorn Creek offers plenty of bang for your buck. Whitewater paddlers have established a few runs on the Elkhorn, but the most popular one cuts through the Gorge, where the creek is surrounded by 200-foot-tall limestone bluffs. The season for Elkhorn Creek usually begins in mid-March and runs through Labor Day.
You’ll put-in downstream from the Jim Beam Distillery Dam, then settle in for a remote-feeling stretch of rapids ranging from class I to class III. Families and newer paddlers will get a chance to experience whitewater (lots of class II, but a few more serious class III hydraulics, too) and keep your eyes peels for local wildlife, like white-tailed deer and Rio Grande wild turkeys.
2. Cumberland River
The Cumberland River, just below its namesake waterfall, is the best introduction to whitewater rafting in Kentucky. (The run is also aptly called "Cumberland Below the Falls.") Thanks to dam controls above the run, which make for reliable flows and an especially long season, it’s one of the few whitewater runs in the state that’s runnable all summer. Commercial trips generally run between May and September, with some guide services even running trips into October.
You’ll mostly find class II and III rapids on this family-friendly run, which puts in just below the majestic 125-foot-wide, 65-foot-high Cumberland Falls. The run begins at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, where you’ll be welcomed with lodging and food after a day on the water (plus plenty of other outdoor activities). Take in the views of gorgeous Cumberland Falls at the put-in, then slip downstream to "Initiation," the first big drop below the falls. It’s a memorable run all the way to the take-out.
3. Little Sandy River
The upper section of the Little Sandy starts off as a quiet flatwater paddle and eventually picks up with some class I and II rapids. It’s a great multi-day rafting experience, since there’s plenty of camping and incredible views of the surrounding Cumberland Plateau. The 27-mile run begins at Sandy Hook and ends at Grayson Lake State Park, where you’ll find more camping and a few hiking trails.
The region around the upper section is chock-full of caves, steep hills, and gorgeous mountain vistas, so it’s worth taking some time to run the whole stretch. At the right water levels, you can even find some little holes to practice surfing.
4. Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River
This doozy is among the most challenging stretches of commercially runnable whitewater in the contiguous United States. Since the river drops more than 500 feet in just 2.5 miles, the 1,600-foot deep canyon right on the Kentucky-Virginia border is revered for its serious drops (best described as waterfalls). Russell Fork is so challenging that its class V and even class VI rapids were considered unrunnable until the mid-1990s.
You need the water levels to be just right to safely run Russell Fork, which is usually just a few weekends in October when the John Flannagan Dam upstream releases water. (The rest of the year, it’s free-flowing, so water levels are much less predictable.) This gives you time to rack up some class IV paddling experience before heading out here, which is definitely a requirement to sign on with a guide service to run Russell Fork. As a bonus, the fall foliage during this time is gorgeous, though you’ll likely be too focused on the paddling to notice.
The run begins with some class II and III warm-up rapids near the Flannagan Dam, then gets into the goods with class IV to V+ rapids—all one right after another. With a gradient of up to 180 feet per mile, it’s no surprise that five- to ten-foot drops here have names like "Tower Falls," “Twist and Turn,” and “Triple Drop,” not to mention “El Horrendo”—considered one of the trickiest rapids east of the Mississippi and the biggest commercially run waterfall in the country. You won’t want to miss this one.
Originally written for Kentucky Tourism.