On the Water
From smooth sailing to white-knuckle adventure, Dawson County’s three major rivers – the Etowah, the Amicalola, and the Chestatee – offer a range of canoe, kayak, raft, and tubing possibilities.
The river recreation alternatives come in many forms. You can take a jaunt along a wilderness stream, go fishing or enjoy a lazy day on slow water. If you are ready for the excitement of whitewater rapids, Dawson County has a float trip route for every river runner, from easy Class I to challenging Class IV. Whether you choose sublime or extreme, your custom float experience is as easy as reading the map.
Experience The Etowah River–North Georgia’s Best Family Paddling!Cutting a path across North Georgia, the 163-mile long Etowah River Water Trail provides a course through one of the state’s most historically significant and one of the nation’s most biologically diverse rivers.
The Etowah River Trail website contains an interactive map of the entire trail as well as printable maps and guides that you can take on the river. Use these resources and other information on this website to explore the Etowah.
The area is rich in the history of early settlers, gold mining, Native American culture, Civil War turmoil, and colorful moonshiners and moonshine “trippers.” The Etowah, known historically as the Hightower River, is one of the county’s most diverse ecological areas with unique flora, fauna, and topography found only on the southern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. The Amicalola region also enjoys a wealth of history. Early settlers first explored and then homesteaded the river’s winding course through Dawson County from the mountain “coves” of the eastern part of the county to its junction with the Etowah. Many of the old structures and rock walls, along with the forgotten remains of long-cold moonshine stills, can be found along the stream bed or tucked away near a hidden spring. Many of these old homesteads and settlements are now grown up with rhododendron, mountain laurel and azalea thickets, but remnants of the past remain for visitors to discover. Like most streams, the Etowah River has multiple personalities. In its upper reaches, the river is a foothills and mountain stream, with small Class I and II rapids and secluded, pastoral surroundings comprised of farms, fields, and low ridges. The lower Etowah runs through the sprawling Dawson Forest Wildlife Management area, offering a more remote experience for boaters.
With only Class I-I+ rapids, this reach perhaps stretches the definition of "whitewater" despite a fairly rapid flow. But with agricultural or wooded scenery, minimal residential or road intrusion, a quiet, rural atmosphere and year-round availability, it is an excellent respite from the challenges of steeper rivers or the cold swims of winter. The reach is really two sections, an upper section from Highway 136 to Highway 9 and a lower section from Highway 9 to Kelly Bridge Road.
The 9.1-mile upper section from Highway 136 to Highway 9 snakes through a broad, flat plain consisting mostly of farms: with traffic noise mostly absent except for the highway crossings, boaters often hear the mooing of cattle. Residential development is still minimal right along the river, so the scenery remains agricultural. Though the traffic can only rarely be seen or heard, two roads parallel the Etowah on river right, Etowah River Road for the 4 miles from Highway 136 to Highway 53, and Thompson Road for the 2.6 miles from Highway 53 to Highway 9.
While the section is generally described as "Highway 136 to Highway 9," it may actually be preferable to take out at the Hugh Stowers Road bridge (about 1.8 miles upriver of Highway 9) or at one of the accesses in the Dawson Forest WMA. The hill down to the water at Highway 136 is steep, as is the hill up from the water at Highway 9: traffic is fast and somewhat dangerous at both bridges and parking is limited at the Highway 9 bridge. Directions to the alternate accesses are below.
The 9.1-mile lower section from Highway 9 to Kelly Bridge Road is even more beautiful. Most of the lower section is within the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area (WMA), eliminating the usual residential development. The WMA includes several vehicle roads, but they are generally well removed from the river and the traffic usually seen while paddling consists of occasional hikers, bikers, and horses. Deadfalls are common on the narrow river, but most can be easily avoided: There are a couple of bank-to-bank logs that may require getting out of the boat at low water levels.
In addition to the put-in at Highway 9 (or about 1.8 miles further upstream at Hugh Stowers Road), there are four access points within the WMA: three are reached by entering the WMA from Highway 9 and the other by entering from Highway 53. Once past these three locations, there is no other access for put-in or take-out until Kelly Bridge Road.
NOTE: the WMA is closed for maintenance from mid-May to June 1 each year. During this period, use of the river is permitted, but the gates are closed, preventing road access within the WMA.
To reach the put-in at Highway 136, take Highway 136 west from Highway 400 or east from Highway 9 to the bridge. There is space along Highway 136 to park at any of the four corners, but the designated parking area is about 100 yards west of the bridge on the north side of Highway 136. Beware of fast moving traffic, especially coming around the curve just west of the bridge.
The Highway 53 bridge over the Etowah is not recommended as a put-in/take-out. The traffic is heavy and fast moving and the roadside parking is minimal, not particularly safe, and discouraged by local authorities. If you must access the river at the Highway 53 bridge, the least dangerous alternative is the south (downstream, river left) corner of the bridge, where the double traffic lane starts.
The alternative to access from Highway 53 or Highway 9 is the bridge on Hugh Stowers Road, about 2.7 miles downstream of Highway 53 and 1.8 miles upstream of Highway 9. To reach Hugh Stowers Road from the Highway 53 bridge, go northwest (toward Dawsonville) on Highway 53 for 0.75 mile, turn left on Thompson Road, follow Thompson Road for 1.1 miles to the 4-way stop and turn left onto Hugh Stowers Road. To reach Hugh Stowers Road from the Highway 9 bridge, go north 0.8 mile, turn right on Thompson Road, follow Thompson Road for 1.5 miles to the 4-way stop and turn right onto Hugh Stowers Road. Once on Hugh Stowers Road, go 0.8 mile to the bridge. To reach Hugh Stowers Road from Dawson Forest Road, turn north onto Grizzle Road at Black's Mill Elementary School and keep going straight when Grizzle Road turns to the right; the bridge is 1.7 miles from Dawson Forest Road. Access is available under either end of the bridge, but the north (river right) end is easier. Parking is roadside, but do not block the pasture access road at the northeast corner of the bridge.
To reach the Highway 9 bridge, take Dawson Forest Road west from Highway 400 (the intersection is at the light just south of the outlet mall and just north of Outside World) for 4.1 miles. Turn right onto Highway 9 and go 0.5 mile to the bridge (just past Riverview Middle School on the left). Minimal off-road parking is available at the southeast corner of the bridge, but stay on the right-of-way and off the private property just upstream. Being careful of the rocks, go down the hill at the parking area, cross under the bridge just above the concrete support and put in at the southeast corner of the bridge. (When you pause to rest, look across to the river right bank just downstream of the bridge and think how great it'll be when the canoe launch is there.)
About a mile below Highway 9, the Etowah enters the Dawson Forest WMA. There are four accesses to the river within the WMA, three reached from Highway 9 and one from Highway 53 west of Dawsonville. There is no fee for parking or river access in the WMA.
From Highway 9, take Dawson Forest Road (found 0.5 mile south of the Highway 9 bridge) west. To reach the Shoal Creek Road access, turn right shortly before the entrance gate and go 0.4 mile to the bridge; the best access is at the southwest corner of the bridge, but be careful not to block the road or any gates when parking.
The main entry gate, 1.5 miles from Highway 9, is open except from mid-May to June 1, when the WMA is closed for maintenance. To reach the other two river accesses, continue on Dawson Forest Road for 2.6 miles, where the pavement will end; angle right onto unpaved Railroad Road. The Blue Trail Ford access is on the Blue Trail, a horse trail running left from Railroad Road about 0.2 mile after the end of the pavement; look for a pine-straw covered path and blue dots on the trees on the left. The put-in is easy and the carry is fairly flat and just a couple of hundred yards long, but does tend to be muddy and . . . . well, what you'd expect for a horse trail, so step carefully. Parking is limited, and you may need to go back and park at the clearing where the pavement ends. (The access from Highway 53, described below, reaches the river at the same point, but from the other side.)
To reach the Railroad Road access, continue on Railroad Road another 1.6 miles until it is blocked by the concrete support for a long-gone bridge. (Railroad Road is also part of the WMA's Blue Trail, so drive slowly and watch carefully for hikers, bikers, and especially horses.) There are paths down to the river on both sides of the road; neither path is all that easy, but the path to the left as you face the bridge support is easier.
To reach the WMA access on the north (river right) side of Blue Trail Ford, take Sweetwater Church Road south from Highway 53: the intersection is 1.2 miles east of the Highway 53 bridge over Amicalola Creek, 2.25 miles west of the Highway 53/Highway 183 intersection. (Look for signs advertising "River Tubing - Kayaking" and "Sweetwater Baptist Church.") There is a second entrance to Sweetwater Church Road .3 miles further west; they soon merge. Once inside the WMA, where the pavement ends for the first time, Sweetwater Church Road becomes North Gate Road. To reach the river access, follow North Gate Road for 4.5 miles until it ends. (When you see the end of the second paved section coming, you'll need to angle left on the dirt road). Carry about 50 yards past the "road closed" gate to the right, then turn left on the Blue Trail and follow it about 30 yards to the river. The access and carry are fairly easy, but be prepared for mud and whatever else you'd expect to finD along a horse trail.
To reach the take-out at Kelly Bridge, turn west from Highway 400 on Jot-em-Down Road in extreme northern Forsyth County. Go 1 mile to the 4-way stop, then continue west on A.C. Smith Road for 2.2 miles to Highway 9. Turn right onto Highway 9, go 0.7 mile and turn left onto A.T. Moore Road (right across Highway 9 from the new CITGO station). In 0.7 mile, A.T. Moore Road will merge into Kelly Bridge Road. Stay on Kelly Bridge Road for 5.7 miles to the bridge. The take-out is at the northeast (upstream, river-right) corner of the bridge: the driveway is blocked by a gate that is closed but not locked; to keep this private take-out available, please pay the $2 per person parking fee, fill out the card and keep the gate closed except when you're actually driving through it. Stay away from the gate across the road, the one with the "trespassers will be shot, then prosecuted" sign.
To reach the take-out from Highway 53, turn south onto Cowart Road from Highway 53 1.5 miles west of the Amicalola Creek Bridge (5.25 miles west of the Highway 53/Highway 183 intersection). Take Cowart Road 2.5 miles to the 4-way stop at Kelly Bridge Road and turn left. Stay on Kelly Bridge Road 3.4 miles to the bridge: the driveway to the take-out will be on the left shortly before the bridge (look for the gate on the left with signs on it - stay away from the gate on the right).
This attractive run can be broken into two parts by putting in/taking out at Castleberry Bridge near the town of Auraria.
The 6-mile section above Castleberry Bridge includes most of the significant whitewater on the Etowah. This section has wooded banks (which are giving way to residences) and several rock bluffs. The river has several Class I-II rapids and two rapids worthy of particular attention, Class II Chuck Shoals and Class IV Etowah Falls.
Chuck Shoals is a fairly straightforward slide normally run at an angle from left to the center chute. Scout from the rocks on the right, as the banks are private property. Check for logs and debris that tend to accumulate at the top and bottom of the rapid.
Warning Drop, a two-foot ledge shortly downriver of a large waterside residence on river left, serves as a warning for the upcoming Etowah Falls. Warning Drop can be run using any of several chutes, but the chutes on the left are clearer when the water is low. A long pool below Warning Drop, also known as Look Back Lake, provides ample opportunity to move right in preparation for portaging the Falls.
Etowah Falls, consisting of a 10+ foot ledge between two smaller drops, is just beyond the left turn at the end of Look Back Lake and presents a clear horizon line and a pronounced roar. The first small drop should not be run unless you also plan to run the main drop. Portage along the path on river right, beginning at or above the large rock: the land is privately owned, but boaters are permitted to use the path.
The main drop of Etowah Falls can be scouted from the high rocks on river right, also reached by the path: check for others playing in at the Lower Ledge/Rocky Road. In 1980, the main drop was considered a mandatory portage by Sehlinger and Otey and most Etowah boaters portage it, but it has been run often, especially at higher water levels. At normal levels, the usual procedure is to boof the chute just left of center into a narrow landing area: other options are available at higher levels.
The end of the path presents an opportunity to scout the Lower Ledge of Etowah Falls, also known as Rocky Road, and options to run or portage it. Just before the end of the path is a steep drop where it is easier and safer to pass boats than to carry them.
The last half mile before the take-out at Castleberry Bridge includes three technical Class II rapids, Island Shoals, Middle Shoals, and Castleberry Rapid: the cleanest path through the first two is on river right, and for Castleberry Rapid is on river left. Move right after Castleberry Rapid for the take-out at Castleberry Bridge. Take out at or just below the prominent rocks on river right or, if you prefer, run the last small rapid and take out under the bridge. The walk to Castleberry Bridge Road is short and easy.
The 8.8-mile lower section is much flatter, with only Class I-II rapids, but has pleasant woods and bluffs. The lower section also includes a truly unique feature: 3.5 miles below Castleberry Bridge, much of the river's flow disappears into a quarter-mile long abandoned mining tunnel on river left. Look for a fast-moving stream running away from the river to the left and into a big hole in the side of the mountain; eddy out at the split to check for debris, strainers, etc. Get out of your boat and look for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel; if it beckons, even advanced boaters will enjoy the ride. If you can't see the light from the far end when scouting, or if it is partially blocked, avoid the tunnel and stay on the main river.
There are slides in the tunnel (to correct the alignment of the crews working from each end to drill it), there's virtually no light and the noise is intimidating, so hang on, stay seated and keep your limbs in the boat for a fun ride. There's also a hole at the end of the tunnel on river right and a potentially dangerous rock shortly below the tunnel exit, also river right. Because the tunnel is extremely dark, it is important to leave enough time between boats so that anyone swimming in the tunnel can reach safety at the lower end. The tunnel is a challenge, especially at higher water levels, and first-timers should be in a group that includes someone who knows the tunnel.
The usual take-out is under the Highway 136 bridge. Both banks are steep enough to be a challenge when carrying a boat and other gear, and the designated roadside parking area is 100+ yards west of the bridge. Some roadside parking is available on the east (river left) side of the bridge; the climb is easier (or, more accurately, less difficult) on river left, and a gradually climbing path leads from the downriver side of the bridge to the roadside at the southeast corner.
To reach the put-in, take Highway 9 about 4.5 miles southwest from Dahlonega or north from the intersection with Highway 136 (about 7.2 miles) or Castleberry Bridge Road (about 5.1 miles). The put-in is under the south (river right) end of the bridge: look for a dirt road on the west side of Highway 9. Parking is available under the bridge.
To reach the access at Castleberry Bridge, take Castleberry Bridge Road west about a mile from Auraria Road (the turn is at the largely abandoned town of Auraria, 6.7 miles north of Highway 136: look for a "historical site" marker on the left or an old, brown, abandoned hotel building on right) or east about 3.1 miles from Highway 9 (the turn from Highway 9 is 5.1 miles southwest of the put-in or 2.1 miles north of Highway 136 (turn just past the tall water tank on the right)). Roadside parking is available and the access is down the path at the northwest corner of the bridge.
To reach the Highway 136 take-out, follow Highway 136 West from Highway 400 or the south end of Auraria Road or east from Highway 9. The designated parking area is roadside and west of the bridge, at the end of the long guardrail on the north shoulder of the road; parking is also available on the other three corners of the bridge. Be careful, as traffic on Highway 136 tends to move fast and lines of sight are limited.
From its source deep in the mountains of north Georgia, the upper Etowah is a swift-flowing stream with small, manageable rapids suitable for recreational canoeists and other boaters. Nearly 10 miles of river wind through the secluded farm country of northern Dawson County, and although the upper section is paralleled by roads on both sides for much of its length, it is set back far enough from traffic noise to give paddlers a sense of seclusion and wilderness. Put-in for the upper Etowah River is at Highway 136 where the river runs under the highway. Highway 136 is about 6 miles west of Georgia 400. Be careful putting your canoe or craft in the water as the hillside is quite steep down to the water. Although there is parking room on both sides of the road and the river, the designated parking lot is just west of the bridge on the north side of Highway 136.
In its upper reaches, the river runs fairly fast over a mostly gravel and sand/silt bottom with an abundance of rocks – some of which are exposed, while others sit just below the surface. Expect scraping and bumping over rocks in this section, particularly during periods of low water. About 1.5 miles below the put-in, the only serious rapid in the entire upper stretch – Etowah Falls – stretches nearly river-wide and drops more than 10 feet. Experts and thrill seekers have run the falls; most boaters portage, however. Just above the falls there is ample area to pull onto the gravel and rocks on the right side of the river. This is the only rapid of consequence to be concerned with, although the entire upper river moves swiftly and provides an exciting float trip for any skill level.
Scenery is spectacular; pastoral farms and abandoned fields often have a resident deer or two feeding peacefully. Boaters frequently spot wild turkey, grouse, songbirds, and other wildlife as they navigate this section. Just past the falls, another river feature beckons daring boaters; this one is man-made but thrilling nonetheless. An old tunnel bored through the river rock provides a few hundred yards of adventure before emerging from the other side. Boaters are warned that the water moves swiftly through the tunnel, so be prepared! Do not enter if you can’t see light from the other end, as seasonal debris and logs can block the exit, making for a little too much adventure!
The river’s close proximity to both Highway 53 and Highway 9 a few miles further south give the boater several choices for ending or beginning a river trip on the Etowah. The take-out point for the upper Etowah and the put-in for the lower river is a matter of preference. The banks down to the river at the Highway 53 and Highway 9 bridges are very steep, and parking adjacent to the bridges is minimal and difficult to access or egress due to traffic. The launch at Hugh Stowers Road has better parking and also is out of the main flow of traffic. A new canoe launch is planned for the parking area at Highway 9, and will be open for public use, including parking areas, portable toilet, picnic tables, and trash cans.
The lower Etowah is more of a wilderness experience than the upper section, flowing for about 9 miles through mostly Dawson Forest WMA land and well away from traffic and major roads. Minor rapids and many twists and turns, combined with a relatively fast-flowing current give boaters plenty of challenge but no real concerns. The river is larger in this section, having picked up the flow from several area streams along the way. Banks are steep and high, and aside from a few access points within the Dawson Forest WMA, (see A Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to Georgia) takeouts are non-existent from Highway 53 until either the Highway 9 bridge a couple miles downriver, or Kelly Bridge Road bridge another seven miles or so below Highway 9.
To reach the take-out, go west off Highway 400 on Dawson Forest Road, bearing left when you reach Highway 9. Proceed south until reaching AT Moore Road, which shortly merges into Kelly Bridge Road. Stay on Kelly Bridge until reaching the Etowah, stopping on the upstream side of tthe bridge. A gated road is closed but unlocked, and the private landowner allows parking for 2 per person.
The lower river offers scenic vistas of surrounding mountains as well as a more remote float experience. Floaters will see the signs of high water with debris far up the steep banks, testimony to the river’s power during turbulent weather. For the most part, rapids in this section are nothing more than swift sections, with most of the challenge coming in the form of frequent turns and the occasional log or debris dam partially obstructing the river.
The Upper Amicalola has rapids ranging from Class II up to Class IV; several of the rapids are major drops requiring either basic whitewater skill or a short portage. The upper river runs swiftly through a forested valley flanked by hemlocks and oaks, dropping from one section to the next in a series of ledges and falls guaranteed to keep boaters on their toes. Canoers, rafters, and kayakers often share this section of the river with inner tubers and trout fishermen.
The Upper Amicalola lies within the Dawson Forest WMA for the most part, making the entire river accessible to the public for outdoor recreation. Horseback trails, mountain bike trails, and myriad fishing holes draw visitors to the area year round. Several of the rapids on the Upper River are infamous and offer challenge to even experienced whitewater boaters. The Ledge is a Class II river-wide drop of 4-5 feet. Devil’s Elbow is a Class III/IV rapid caused by a sharp, 90-degree turn in the river’s course, forcing the river’s current against high rock walls and kicking up standing waves and rapids. High cliffs above the deep pool following the rapid tempt the daring diver to toss caution to the wind and jump into the crystal waters some 20-40 feet below. The Play Hole is a Class II/III hydraulic suitable for kayak surfing when water conditions are right.
The Lower Amicalola is a serious whitewater stream, with Class II-IV+ rapids and enough volume to challenge the most experienced whitewater enthusiast. Starting at the launch just north of the Highway 53 bridge, the lower Amicalola immediately picks up steam, with a series of small ledges, holes and drops in the few hundred yards leading up to the first major rapid in the lower river – Edge of the World. This rapid is a series of drops and slots with several major cataracts. The entire rapid can be easily scouted, and prudent boaters should take heed because this section has the potential for real problems should a boater end up in the water. From this point, the river’s character is wild adventure, with major rapids like Off-the-Wall, Split Rock, and Roostertail, interspersed with plenty of Class II water, providing back-to-back action for the next 9 miles.
The take-out for the lower section is off Kelly Bridge Road. Travel west on Highway 53 until you reach the Cowart Road stop sign. Turn left onto Kelly Bridge and proceed about 3.5 miles to the take-out.