Alabama has a lot going for it: amazing barbecue sauce, scores of hiking trails, a college football dynasty, a place in the space race and more water than most paddlers know what to do with. In northern Alabama, two broad escarpments—Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain—mean the region is packed with steep creeks that run wild after storms.
“You can paddle for 200 days in a row,” says Adam Goshen, a Class V paddler who moved to Alabama from Virginia for work in 2003 and stayed, in part, because of the paddling. “There’s so much good whitewater in close proximity to major cities like Birmingham and Huntsville.”
And while north Alabama doesn’t lack rushing rivers, it’s not all rapids and riffles. The state has massive man-made lakes and languid rivers perfect for easy kayaking tours and fishing on the float.
Best for Paddle-in Camping
Difficulty: Class I
Put in: Sipsey Picnic Area on County Road 6
One of Alabama’s few federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Sipsey carves a long, narrow sandstone canyon inside Bankhead National Forest, southwest of Huntsville. The full-day paddle is packed with beaches, massive boulders and tall sandstone bluffs rising from both sides of the river. The highlight, though, is the dozens of small cascades that trickle down from the cliffs after a rain, earning the Sipsey the nickname “Land of 1,000 Waterfalls.” It’s a calm river, but there are some ripples and one section called the “100-yard dash,” where the river narrows and creates a long wave train. (Don’t worry; it’s more fun than dangerous.) Since most of the river passes through national forest, where there are no restrictions on primitive camping outside of hunting season, overnighting is as easy as dragging your boat ashore and pitching your tent wherever you like.
Best for an Urban Escape
Difficulty: Flatwater and Class I
Put in: Grants Mill Road
The Cahaba River is the longest free-flowing river in the state and boasts more than 130 different fish species. It’s also home to the rare Cahaba River lily, which blooms white in May and June every year. But maybe more importantly for city dwellers, the river runs just east of downtown Birmingham, with multiple put ins that make for an easy urban float. If you launch from Grants Mill Road, the water is slow enough for some upstream paddling, so you don’t have to worry about arranging a shuttle vehicle, crucial when you’re looking for a quick post-work paddle. Keep an eye out for rope swings and trees to jump from along the banks near the put in.
Town Creek and Guntersville Lake
Best for Kayak Fishing
Put in: Lake Guntersville State Park
With almost 900 miles of shoreline dotted with several state parks and public recreation sites, 67,900-acre Guntersville Lake is easy to access. But if you’re looking for fish, head to Town Creek. Smallmouth bass lurk in slow-moving tributary which joins the lake inside Lake Guntersville State Park. Head upstream from the park’s put in, and in 3 miles you’ll hit a series of grassy islands, a good point to turn around.
Best for Families
Difficulty: Class I
Put in: County Highway 14 bridge
Less than an hour south of Huntsville, Locust Fork offers roughly 50 miles of beginner-friendly paddling that’s broken up into 10-mile stretches between launch points. The river is often the first “whitewater” experience for Alabama boaters as it progresses from mild, Class I features in the river’s upper reaches to Class II-III whitewater lower down. True beginners and boaters with kids should stick to the first section. The 8-mile float has a handful of easy, shallow-water shoals to keep things interesting. If you’re up for a longer paddle, continue on to the second section for 10 more miles of slightly harder rapids peppered with striking rock formations.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
Best for a National Park Paddle
Put in: Millers Branch, backcountry road 5
Difficulty: Class II-III
There are two distinct sections of the Little River as it flows through the 15,000-acre Little River Canyon National Preserve, southeast of Huntsville: one mellow, one not so much. The so-called “backcountry” portion of the waterway extends upstream from the 45-foot-tall Little River Falls for 8 miles. It’s relatively calm, with Class I and II rapids inside the preserve boundaries and some tougher Class III rapids in Desoto State Park, farther upstream. If you stick to the river within the preserve, you’ll be in for a mellow ride—just be sure to pull out at Blue Hole on Highway 35 before the Little River Falls. The section below the cascade is only for the most experienced boaters: The classic run starts by launching over the 45-foot falls. And things actually get more serious after that.
South Sauty Creek
Best for Creek Boating
Difficulty: Class III/IV
Put in: Intersection of county road 43 and 56
South Sauty is meat and potatoes for boaters in Alabama. Aside from a mellow “intermission” in the middle, its nonstop whitewater that starts immediately at the put in with an 8-foot tall river-wide ledge. An hour southeast of Huntsville and two hours north of Birmingham, the drop-and-pool-style creek is central to the state’s biggest population centers. It also hits the Class III and IV sweet spot for a lot of intermediate and advanced paddlers and is fun to run at a variety of different water levels, which means you can hit it often. There are a number of Class III ledges, but even the harder Class IV rapids are safe, as these things go, with big pools at the bottom perfect for boaters looking to push themselves. Below the cascade, the river changes drastically to become what’s known as the Canyon, home to several miles of Class IV-V+ expert whitewater.