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Watauga River
River course from western North Carolina
and into northeastern Tennessee.
Origin Watauga County, North Carolina
Mouth South Fork Holston River near Kingsport, Tennessee
Basin countries USA
Length 60 mi (97 km)

The Watauga River is a large stream of western North Carolina and East Tennessee. It is 60 miles (97 km) long with its headwaters on the slopes of Grandfather Mountain and Peak Mountain in Watauga County, North Carolina.



The Watauga River is formed by the confluence of the Shanty Spring Branch and the Green Ridge Branch in Watauga County, North Carolina. The river then flows across the Tennessee state line at Johnson County. Crossing into Johnson County, the Watauga River is first impounded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Watauga Dam, creating the 6,430-acre (2,600 ha) Watauga Lake.[1] This earth impoundment of the Watauga River receives two important tributaries, the Elk River and Roan Creek, whose former valley of bottom land forms a very large embayment of Watauga Lake.

Watauga Lake is bridged by Tennessee State Route 67 at Butler Bridge just as the watercourse enters Carter County, Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Watauga River at Watauga Dam.

The Watauga River near Valle Crucis, North Carolina

Just below Watauga Dam on the Horseshoe section of the Watauga River is the TVA Wilbur Dam, an impoundment which forms a much smaller but very deep reservoir known as Wilbur Lake that releases approximately 130 cubic feet per second (3.7 m3/s) of discharged water back into the Watauga River during the summer months.[2]

The Watauga River flows generally north and then west into Carter County where it forms the northern limits of Elizabethton, where the Watauga then receives the Doe River. Further downstream on the Watauga River at the boundary between Carter County and Washington County is the old TVA Watauga Steam Plant.

A considerable portion of the boundary line between Washington County and Sullivan County is formed by the Watauga River. Boone Lake is located below the slackwater confluence of both the downstream end of the Watauga River and the South Holston River. The distance afloat between the TVA Watauga Reservoir and Boone Lake is approximately 20.6 miles (33.2 km).[3]


The Watauga River below the TVA Wilbur Dam

The word "Watauga" comes from the Cherokee, who had several towns so named, including one at present-day Elizabethton, which became known as "Watauga Old Fields", first explored by Daniel Boone and James Robertson in 1759. A larger Cherokee town called Watauga was located on the Little Tennessee River near Franklin, North Carolina. The Cherokee word is more accurately written Watagi. Other common spellings include Watoda, Wattoogee, and Whatoga.[4] A North Carolina State University web page (The Watauga Medal) cites that the word "Watauga" is a Native-American word meaning "the land beyond",[5] however local reference to the name origin is attributed to the meaning "beautiful river" or "beautiful water".

The original settlers of Nashville, Tennessee, set out from the Watauga River area, called the Watauga Association, during the American Revolution when they realized that the British Proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement of its colonists west of the Blue Ridge Mountains was essentially unenforceable.

Wibur Dam is the site of first hydroelectric dam constructed in Tennessee (beginning in 1909), going online with power production and distribution in 1912. It was constructed by the former Tennessee Electric Power Company, a privately-owned utility purchased by TVA in the late 1930s. Elizabethton acquired the moniker "City of Power" because of the early local access to hydro-generated electricity from Wilbur Dam.


Whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, fly fishing, and angling with fishing reels are all popular recreation activities pursued on the Watauga River. Rainbow trout, brown trout, and striped bass are all caught in the Watauga River.



Kayaker at the Bee Cliff Rapids paddling inside "The Big Hole"

The Watauga River downstream of the TVA dams draws commercial rafting outfitters from both northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina during the summer months and commercial fishing guides throughout the year.The picturesque Class II+ Bee Cliff Rapids on the Watauga River (also referred to the "Anaconda Rapids" by some North Carolina-based rafting companies) are found downstream between Wilbur Dam and the Siam Bridge, southeast of Elizabethton, Tennessee.[6]

For commercial whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Watauga River, the most popular Carter County "put-in" for is immediately downstream of the TVA Wilbur Dam, and the most popular "take-out" is 2 to 2½ hours downstream (depending upon the volume of the reservoir release and other factors) at the Blackbottom riverside portion of the city linear trail park in Elizabethton.

Raft guide plunging whitewater rafters downstream through "The Big Hole" in the Bee Cliff Rapids

The distance afloat for paddlers from the put-in at Wilbur Dam to the Blackbottom take-out is approximately seven miles with landmarks along the Watauga River providing good estimate of time and distance traveled.

Wilbur Dam to Bee Cliff Rapids - 15 minutes
Wilbur Dam to Siam Bridge - 45 minutes
Wilbur Dam to Hunter Bridge (TWRA put-in/take out) - 75 minutes
Wilbur Dam to Gilbert Peters Bridge at US 19-E in Elizabethton - 105 minutes
Wilbur Dam to Bristol Bridge in Elizabethton - 135 minutes

The Watauga also has a section of Class IV-V whitewater popular with expert kayakers, upstream of Watauga Lake. [7] This section requires significant rainfall to bring it up to runnable levels. It features continuous steep boulder bed rapids dropping up to 150 feet per mile (28 m/km), and several falls and ledges only runnable by expert paddlers.

TVA recreation areas

The Tennessee Valley Authority maintains a self-service public campground below Watauga Dam. Amenities and recreational opportunities at the TVA Watauga Dam Tailwater Campground include 29 camp sites with electric hookups, rest rooms with heated showers and flush toilets, dump station, public phone, picnic tables and grills, canoe access, boat ramps above and below dam, lake and river fishing, hiking trail, walking trail, wildlife viewing area, birdwatching.[8]

Influence of weather

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) regulates flow of the Watauga River by scheduling the release of deep, impounded reservoir waters from behind both the TVA Watauga Dam and the TVA Wilbur Dam. As a result, the summer temperature of the Watauga River is approximately 52–53°F (11–12 °C) downstream of the TVA dams. The Watauga River is generally comfortable for kayaking, canoeing, and rafting during the summer months, but care must be taken to prevent hypothermia by prolonged exposure to the cold river water.

As TVA also guarantees a minimum release schedule during the summer season for rivine recreation below the TVA Wilbur Dam, the Watauga River will draw commercial whitewater rafting companies from distant rivers ---such as the Nolichucky River running through Erwin, Tennessee in Unicoi County[9]--- when lack of adequate summer rain fall will not allow for rafting trips on these naturally flowing rivers during seasonal droughts.

Climate of Watauga River at Elizabethton, Tennessee
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Annual
Avg °F(°C)
34.0°F 1.1°C
37.4°F 3.0°C
47.2°F 8.4°C
55.2°F 12.9°C
63.4°F 17.4°C
71.1°F 21.7°C
74.4°F 23.6°C
73.6°F 23.1°C
67.9°F 19.9°C
56.7°F 13.7°C
47.0°F 8.3°C
38.2°F 3.4°C
55.5°F 13.1°C
Avg high °F(°C)
43.7°F 6.5°C
48.0°F 8.9°C
58.9°F 14.9°C
67.4°F 19.7°C
75.2°F 24.0°C
82.2°F 27.9°C
84.6°F 29.2°C
84.1°F 28.9°C
79.1°F 26.2°C
69.1°F 20.6°C
58.2°F 14.6°C
48.1°F 8.9°C
66.6°F 19.2°C
Avg low °F(°C)
35.4°F 1.9°C
43.0°F 6.1°C
51.6°F 10.9°C
59.9°F 15.5°C
64.1°F 17.8°C
63.1°F 17.3°C
56.6°F 13.7°C
44.2°F 6.8°C
35.9°F 2.2°C
28.2°F -2.1°C
44.4°F 6.9°C
Rain (inches)
3.2 in.
3.4 in.
3.7 in.
3.3 in.
3.8 in.
3.5 in.
4.3 in.
3.2 in.
3.3 in.
2.6 in.
2.9 in.
3.4 in.
40.7 in.
Snow (inches)
5.2 in.
4.2 in.
2.3 in.
0.4 in.
0.05 in.
0.05 in.
0.0 in.
0.0 in.
0.05 in.
0.0 in.
0.9 in.
2.6 in.
15.6 in.
Sources for Watauga River at Elizabethton (Bristol-Johnson City, Tennessee) climate statistics:'

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ TWRA - Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency - Watauga Reservoir.
  2. ^ TVA. Wilbur Dam.
  3. ^ American Whitewater NWRI - Watauga Watauga Reservoir to Boone Lake.
  4. ^ Mooney, James. "Myths of the Cherokee". (1900, reprint Dover: New York, 1995)
  5. ^ North Carolina State University - The Watauga Medal.
  6. ^ USGS GNIS - Bee Cliff, Tennessee
  7. ^ American Whitewater NWRI - Watauga Guys Ford Bridge to Watauga Lake.
  8. ^ TVA: Camping and Recreation Areas - Watauga Reservoir: Watauga Dam Tailwater Campground.
  9. ^ Nolichucky: High water temporarily strands campers; rafting company expects boon in business.
  10. ^

External links

Coordinates: 36°26′51″N 82°25′21″W / 36.4475°N 82.4225°W / 36.4475; -82.4225


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