Best Places To Kayak In Tennessee

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Besides being the home of Graceland, Tennessee whiskey, country music, Blue Ridge Mountains, and barbeque, Tennessee has many kayaking opportunities to offer. There are many rivers, lakes, and dams in this landlocked state that offer kayaking for all levels of kayakers!

Tennessee holds a vast number of kayaking opportunities for beginner to advanced kayakers, from flatwater adventures to wild, whitewater kayaking! The state is renowned for whitewater kayaking with up to class IV rapids, which is considered to be the best in the country!

Tennessee has diverse cultures and regions, from mountains to rolling hills and valleys and extensive plateaus; this state offers spectacular, scenic kayaking. Whether you are looking for a family outing on the water or a kayaking adrenalin rush, Tennessee has got you covered!

Is Tennessee Good For Kayaking?

Tennessee, known as the Volunteer State, is located in the southeastern region of the USA. The Mississippi River forms the boundary on the west, while the Blue Ridge Mountains provide the boundary in the east.

There are 3 distinct regions in Tennessee, divided geographically, politically, and culturally. The regions are East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee.

The state abounds in lakes and rivers, with picturesque hills, mountains, and valleys providing spectacular backgrounds for your kayaking!

Is the Weather In Tennessee Good For Kayaking?

The majority of Tennessee is classified as having a humid subtropical climate characterized by hot, humid summers and cool but mild winters. The exception to this is the mountainous regions at higher elevations where the climate is described as a humid continental climate, with 4 distinct seasons.

Rainfall occurs throughout the year across most of the state, so kayakers must be aware of the dangers of flash floods and sudden changes in the skill level required on rivers. Rain in the catchment regions in the upper reaches of rivers can suddenly change the conditions on a river, even if there is no rain in sight in your location.

The summer temperatures generally average at around 90°F or 32°C, making the summer conditions ideal for outdoor activities, especially kayaking.

The winter temperatures across the state are mild to cool outside the mountainous regions. The average winter high temperature in Tennessee is 49°F or 9.4°C with an average low temperature of 30°F or -1°C.

For the most part, the winter temperatures preclude kayaking as an outdoor activity; the temperatures are simply too low.

Kayaking Waters In Tennessee

Tennessee is a landlocked state bordered by Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. This means that there are no coastal kayaking opportunities in Tennessee, but there are plenty of other kayaking waters to compensate!

Tennessee has kayaking waters for all skill levels, from complete beginners to advanced adrenalin junkie kayakers!

Many kayakers consider Tennessee to have some of the best whitewater kayaking in the country, especially on the Ocoee River in southeast Tennessee.

Flatwater Kayaking In Tennessee

There are many lakes and dams across Tennessee where kayaking can be done, from large lakes to small dams and everything in between!

The following list some of the more popular and sizeable lakes and dams in Tennessee to kayak.

West Tennessee Lakes

  • Kentucky Lake. This lake is on the Tennessee River and is one of the largest lakes in the US east of the Mississippi River. The lake is a renowned fishing location for white bass, buffalo carp, and yellow perch, making it popular among kayak anglers.

Middle Tennessee Lakes

  • Dale Hollow Lake. This lake is the result of the flood control dam on the Obey River, on the border of Tennessee with Kentucky in the north.
  • Center Hill Lake. The main tributary feeding this lake is the Caney Fork River. The dam was constructed for flood control and electricity generation by the US Army Corp of Engineers.
  • Old Hickory Lake. This lake is in the north of middle Tennessee on the Cumberland River.
  • Tims Ford Lake. This lake was formed when the Elk River was dammed for hydroelectric purposes, located in southern middle Tennessee.

East Tennessee Lakes

  • Cherokee Lake. This lake is on the Holston River in the north of East Tennessee and was built for flood control and hydroelectric power generation. It is a popular kayak angler spot for Black Bass, Crappie, Sauger, Walleye, and Sunfish. The sailing club on the lake frequently hosts regattas, so be on the lookout to stay out of the way of these boats.
  • Chickamauga Lake. Located in the south of East Tennessee, this lake is on the Tennessee River, a popular kayaking location.
  • Watts Bar Lake. This lake is upstream from Chickamauga Lake on the Tennessee River. Bird watching while kayaking is a popular activity here due to the large populations of Osprey, Great Blue Herons, and a few resident Bald Eagles near the lake.
  • Douglas Lake. Located in the east of East Tennessee, this lake is on the French Broad River and functions for flood control and hydroelectric power generation.
  • Norris Lake. This lake is near the town of Norris, Tennessee, providing electricity generation and flood control. The lake has significant forested areas on its shores, making it a popular destination for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts.

All these lakes are suitable for kayakers at all skill levels, and kayaking activities range from racing to recreational kayaking and kayak fishing.

River Kayaking In Tennessee

Tennessee has roughly 61 075 miles of rivers, providing ample river kayaking opportunities across the state. In Tennessee, the river kayaking ranges from mild to wild, with some of the best-rated whitewater kayaking across the country.

Here are some of the best kayaking rivers in Tennessee and what you can expect to encounter on these rivers.

  • Ocoee River. Located in the south of East Tennessee, this river has everything for all levels of kayakers. The river is divided into upper, middle, and lower regions. The upper and middle regions are for advanced kayakers only, with class III to class IV rapids on the river. The lower regions of the river are relatively tame and suitable for kayakers of all levels.
  • Cumberland River. This river in northern middle Tennessee is one of the longest rivers in the state and provides great kayaking for kayakers of all levels. The river’s length is conducive to multi-day kayaking camping adventures, with many camping spots located along the banks.
  • Obion River. This river is a mild river in the north of west Tennessee with various put-in and take-out locations. The rapids only go up to class II, which gives beginner to mid-level kayakers a chance to test their skills in some basic rapids.
  • Obed River. This river in west Tennessee is a whitewater paradise for kayakers. It offers rapids of class II all the way to class IV, making it challenging for kayakers in various skill ranges.
  • Mississippi River. This river winds lazily down the western border of Tennessee. The kayaking is calm and easy on the Mississippi, making this river suitable for the entire family!

What Are The Regulations For Kayaking In Tennessee?

The rules and regulations regarding kayaking in Tennessee are set, governed, and enforced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency or TWRA. This agency has its own officers tasked with policing and enforcing the regulations in all the state’s waterways.

Tennessee is a popular kayaking destination, which has led to the authorities actively enforcing all boating regulations for the safety of everyone out on the water. Consequently, you need to ensure that you comply will all the regulations to avoid a run-in with the law!

Do You Need To Register Your Kayak In Tennessee?

Tennessee regulations classify kayaks as non-powered vessels. This means they are exempt from the registration requirements of motorized or powered vessels.

Tennessee classifies a non-powered vessel as powered by oars or a paddle only, which means that if you add a trolling motor to your kayak, it is no longer exempt from registration.

If you have a motor on your kayak, you will need to register your kayak and obtain a Certificate of Number or CoN, which is in the form of a registration card. At the time of registration, the agency will provide you with markings or decals for your kayak, which validate the registration, making it easy for agency officers to identify registered vessels.

The registration validity can be for 1 year, 2 years, or 3 years, depending on your choice of registration.

Is A License Necessary For Kayaking in Tennessee?

Depending on when you were born, the requirement for a license to operate a kayak in Tennessee can vary.

If you were born after the 1st of January 1989, you must become certified by completing the TWRA boating safety exam. This is a requirement to operate any vessel in the state of Tennessee, including kayaks.

This process is similar to acquiring a motor vehicle driver’s license. You must purchase the prescribed books and study material, learn the material by self-study, attend a class, and finally take the exam administered by an official from the TWRA.

If you were born before the 1st of January 1989, you still need a boating safety certificate, but the TWRA will accept any boating safety certificate approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators or NASBLA

Is There A Lower Age Limit For Kayaking In Tennessee?

There is no age restriction on the age limit for persons allowed to operate a kayak in Tennessee, but the requirement for every person operating a vessel to be in possession of a boating safety education certificate implies certain age limits.

If the child operating the kayak is not old enough to undertake the training and exam required to obtain the boating safety certificate, they will not be allowed to operate a kayak on their own.

If the kayak has a motor, the legislation stipulates that a child under the age of 12 is not allowed to operate a vessel with an 8.5 Horsepower motor or more unless supervised by an adult of 18 years or older. The adult supervisor must have the required boating safety certificates to be a valid supervisor.

Is It A Requirement To Wear A Lifejacket When Kayaking In Tennessee?

The regulations regarding lifejackets for kayaking leave the use of this important safety device up to the kayaker.

The regulations state that a US Coast Guard or USCG-approved PFD or lifejacket must be aboard the vessel for each person on the vessel. The lifejacket or Personal Floatation Device (PFD) must be in good condition and of a suitable size to fit the people on the vessel correctly.

This means that a lifejacket or PFD must be aboard the boat and easily accessible, but the safety device doesn’t need to be worn at all times. The regulation also states that inflatable lifejackets are not allowed for any child under the age of 16 years.

The only exception to this regulation is that all children under the age of 12 must wear a lifejacket when the vessel is in motion.

Due to these regulations, much of the wearing of lifejackets is left to the kayakers’ discretion. It is always important to consider safety as a top priority in water-based activities, so use your discretion wisely!

Does Your Kayak Need Lights And Sounding Devices In Tennessee?

The Tennessee regulations for lights on a kayak are fairly simple, but you need to ensure your kayak has the necessary lights to comply with safety regulations.

All non-powered vessels require a bright, white light, which must be illuminated when the kayak is stationary when the sun has set, or in times when visibility is reduced, such as with fog or rain.

Similarly, a kayak must have a sounding device since it is a vessel less than 39.4 feet in length. The most appropriate form for most kayakers is a whistle, usually attached to your lifejacket or PFD.

The whistle can be sounded if you are in distress or warn powered vessels of a pending collision with your kayak.

What Are The Rules Regarding Alcohol And Kayaking In Tennessee?

The rules in Tennessee regarding the use of alcohol and kayaking are somewhat different from many other states.

The regulations in Tennessee relating to boating under the influence (BUI) of drugs or alcohol only pertain to motorized vessels or those propelled by sail.

If your kayak has a trolling motor, the BUI regulations will apply. A blood alcohol content of 0.08% or more will land you in trouble with the law if you are operating a motorized kayak.


Tennessee is a popular destination for kayakers worldwide, and several global whitewater kayaking competitions have been hosted on the rivers in this state.

The waterways in the state offer kayaking opportunities from the novice kayaker to the advanced kayaker. The length of the rivers allows for single-day outings on the water to multi-day camping kayaking adventures.