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Photo by Ryan Horn

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork

It’s no secret that we are blessed with an abundance of amazing whitewater runs here in East Tennessee. The Appalachian Mountains of our region sculpt the gorges and valleys to form our local streams and rivers. When it rains these waterways fill with flow that transforms into natural playgrounds for whitewater paddlers to enjoy these steep landscapes in an adrenaline filled unique way.

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork
Photo by Josh Dalton

Last summer some local paddlers came together in a service project with Rocky Fork State Park staff to create a safer paddling reach within the park:

Reaping the rewards of this effort came to fruition in early February this year after numerous and heavy rains saturated the Unicoi County Mountains. With the rising flows some paddlers started to chat about missions to this newly reborn Class IV-V micro creek run. Local paddlers started scouting missions and gauge level checks.

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The 1 mile steep creek style run from the park gate down to the highway is all roadside which makes it easy for scouting and appealing for multiple laps with easy shuttle. There is also a hike-up option from the park gate for those wanting to have more of an expedition style whitewater experience also. Many who have experienced this gem of a run as of late describe it as “micro creeking at its finest”.

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork
Photo by Tim Pharis

The new visual gauge installed by the park staff is at the river right upstream side of first bridge you cross on Rocky Fork Road after you turn off Highway 352. The gauge is measured in tenths of a foot up to 4 feet. Park staff has been collaborating with local paddlers to figure out runnable gauge levels with all the recent surges in flow.

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork
Photo by Mike Patterson

Visual Gauge Range:
3.0’ = Jedi Level

Most of the photos you see in this report are from a 1.7’ gauge level rally.

The only named rapid on the roadside run is the steepest drop, Urethra. It is located about halfway down the run. There is a nice pool above this drop known as “Blue Hole” that has a 4’ drop into the pool that is reminiscent of Midnight hole on Big Creek in the Smokies.

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork
Photo by Tim Pharis

The gradient for the run averages over 200 feet per mile, so there are numerous smaller drops and bedrock slides all the way down the roadside run. There are also some spots along the run requiring tight technical maneuvers in small boulder fields.

Riding the Lighting of Rocky Fork
Photo by Kevin Colburn

The paddlers who have had the pleasure of paddling this extremely fun creek so far this winter have been treated to a magical experience. The creek run is filled with big booming boofs, grinds and boogie sections that are so much fun to flow ride with the appropriate skill set. American Whitewater’s National Stewardship Director, Kevin Colburn, described his recent Rocky Fork run as, “Snowy Rocky Fork lap with the locals. Micro creek’in is part nuanced dance, part barroom brawl, but mostly fun that is funny.”

Riding the Lighting of Rocky ForkPhoto by Alex Stiner

The State Park staff has created a wonderful partnership with our local paddling organizations (Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts and Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute) by embracing this outdoor recreation into their programing for the park. This is not the case for many park systems throughout our nation. This newly formed Rocky Fork relationship is truly valued by many paddlers of the region. If you head out to Rocky Fork for your own lighting ride be mindful of the skillset needed for this run and keep it “Safe is Sexy” style all the way to the takeout to continue this tradition!