My wife and I recently moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee to be closer to a lake. We chose Chattanooga because of Chickamauga Lake and access to the entire Tennessee River system. Once settled in, we did some paddleboarding, jet skiing, kayaking and boating in our general area of the lake.

After getting our feet wet, I went looking for some of the more memorable places to visit nearby. I reached out to Sunshine Loveless at Outshine Adventures, and these are the local trips she recommended.

Top places to paddle board in Chattanooga

  • Nickajack Cave Adventure
  • Tennessee River Gorge
  • Downtown Chattanooga
  • Sale Creek

If you plan on visiting Chattanooga, already live here, live nearby or maybe work in the area and want to take an office or corporate employee adventure, these trips may be perfect for you. As an added bonus, these trips can be completely different when taken in different seasons. Maybe check them out in spring and in the fall.

Chattanooga’s Appeal for water lovers

Chattanooga is a water lover’s dream and a paddlers paradise. Within an hour of downtown, boaters can easily access world-class whitewater and scenic flatwater paddling destinations. At all times of the year you’ll find Chattanooga’s dedicated weekend warriors exploring the many nearby creeks and rivers with kayaks, canoes, rafts, and stand-up paddleboards.

This rundown of some of the best local spots will help you plan your next excursion at one of Chattanooga’s many paddling attractions.

Tennessee River

The Tennessee River flows through the heart of downtown Chattanooga and is a designated Blueway, spanning 46 miles from Chickamauga Dam to Nickajack Dam.

Blueways offer paddlers a scenic waterway with a multitude of launch points, overnight lodging options and other amenities to accommodate paddlers on short excursions and multi-night explorations.

Our favorite sections of the Tennessee River for paddleboarding are listed below.

Nickajack Cave entrance. Photo credit Outshine Adventures.

Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge

Launch at Maple View Public Use Area managed by TVA and TWRA for a short and easy paddle to the mouth of the cave. The best time to go is at sunset, May through September when the female bats are using the cave as a nesting roost to raise their young.

Roughly 100,000 bats fly out of the cave each night at sunset, May – September putting on a spectacular show! The cave was flooded in 1967 when TVA built Nickajack Dam and you can’t actually enter the cave due to preventative measures implemented by TWRA to protect the endangered bats who are afflicted with the White Nose Syndrome.

You’ll need a watercraft to get a front row seat to this mystical wildlife experience. Curious about this experience but don’t have your own water transportation? There are a couple outfitters that provide guided paddle board tours. You can book a Nickajack Cave guided tour with Outshine Adventures.

This is considered an easy paddle. Ensure your watercraft has a white light attached when paddling back after the sunsets. 

  • Other points of interest in the area – Hales Bar Marina and Resort, Camping at Shellmound Campground, Lookout Winery and Wood Fired Pizza, Tri state marker where Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia meet, Lodge Cast Iron in S. Pittsburgh
Nickajack Lake Bat Cave Paddleboard Tour with Outshine Adventures

Tennessee River Gorge – Little Grand Canyon

For many, floating down the grand canyon is an unattainable dream. Did you know that just outside Chattanooga is a little grand canyon with steep canyon walls and breathtaking scenery?

A 9 mile paddle from Suck Creek boat Ramp to TVA Raccoon Mountain will take you through the steepest part of the gorge. This is considered a difficult paddle due to the distance. Even though it’s downstream, the current doesn’t help much.

The shuttle is long! But all this is worth it if you want to spend the whole day soaking up some of the greenest and least developed sections of the Tennessee River thanks to the conservation efforts of Tennessee River Gorge Trust.

Best time of year is April – November with late October and early November being our favorite when we can catch the leaves changing colors in the gorge. You can do this trip with the above information.

  • Other points of interest – TVA Raccoon Mountain Pump Storage Facility and Recreation trails. Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground. River Drifters, Ritchie Hollow Trail to Snoopers Rock, pot point cabin, Prentice Cooper state Forest primitive campground.

Downtown Chattanooga

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the paddling launch points in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. These areas offer paddlers a whole new perspective of Chattanooga and an opportunity to explore parts of the city that many don’t get to see.

There are 2 free public launch points in Coolidge Park. One under Market Street Bridge, which has an easy approach. The other is off Tremont Street near the Blue Rhino and has a steep approach with a canoe railing and lots of steps.

Both give easy access to Maclellan Island, a bird sanctuary in the middle of the river owned and managed by Chattanooga Audubon society. There are hiking trails on the island and you can camp there, but you must get a permit from the Audubon society.

You should always check the current before going out. Anything under 30,000 CFS is easy to paddle upstream against. Chickamauga Dam current conditions.

There’s no bad time of day to paddle here, but the current tends to be lower in the mornings and higher in the evenings in the summer as energy demands rise. The river flows east to west here so we think sunrise and sunset are the best time of day to get out on the water!

Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge at sunset. Photo credit Outshine Adventures.

As the sunsets over the iconic Walnut Street and Market Street Bridges you’ll often find several paddlers out on the river. If you don’t have your own gear you can rent from L2 Outside or go on a guided tour with Outshine Adventures.

The bridges across the Tennessee river caught our eye on the first visit. Seeing them from the city is nice. Paddling under them gives you a better perspective of their architecture and design.

  • Other points of interest: downtown chattanooga has lots of eateries, breweries and things to do. 

Sale Creek Tennessee

Sale Creek is a large tributary that enters into Lake Chickamauga approximately 20 miles north of the downtown Chickamauga Dam. Travel to the area is easy, typically by taking SR 27 from north or south to the Sale Creek area.

There are several public places and privately owned spots to park and launch. Sale Creek Campground (formerly Recreation Area) is our go to launch spot for our boats and jet skis. It is located in a large cove around 0.5 miles from the junction of the creek and lake. You can paddle around the area for hours in quiet no wake zones along shorelines.

You can also cross under the May Road bridge to a very quiet open bay, or you can go the opposite direction down to Lake Chickamauga. Be careful, though, as this route is frequently busy with bass boats coming and going. Wear bright colors and a life jacket.

My wife takes a route near this area every morning on a kayak or paddleboard. She commonly sees deer, geese, turtles and the occasional river otter, osprey and even a bald eagle. You can park at the campground for $5 for 24 hours. There is a public launch just around the corner that’s free but small and unpaved.

For those who want to start further up river for a drift paddleboard, start at the Patterson Cemetary road and launch at Sale Creek Boat Launch in the narrow, shallow part of Sale Creek. There isn’t much parking.

Launch ramp off Patterson Cemetery Road

Patterson Boat Launch is across the same section of the creek. It is slightly larger.

You can then paddle downstream to the Sale Creek campground area and have friends meet you there for pick up. Or you can arrange for one of the rental companies below to help with your trip.

Expect this trip to take about 90 minutes. Spring and Fall are the best seasons due to flora. Summer is a bit humid, as we’ve learned.

Head left to go upstream Sale Creek or right to Chickamauga Lake. Patterson launch ramp behind me.

Paddleboard Rental Companies

What to Bring for Self-Guided Trips

  • Eco friendly sunscreen or cover ups
  • Eco friendly bug repellent
  • Waterproof pouch for keys, wallet, phone
  • Waterproof Camera
  • Towels
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Extra clothes if you need to dry off afterwards
  • A good attitude
Fall tree colors along Sale Creek Tennessee from kayak
Sale Creek Tennessee Fall photo from kayak original photo AquaSportsPlanet

Bring Your Own Board

If you’re heading out to Chattanooga, or any other area for water adventures, you can bring your own paddle board. Inflatable boards are easy to pack, transport, and unpack once you’re at your destination. There are hundreds to choose from.

Final thoughts

My wife and I love being near the water. Chattanooga offers access to a large lake above the downtown dam and a winding river heading out out of town.

It’s a perfect place for us to indulge in all of our watersports activities. It’s also a very popular tourist and travel destination due to all of the available activities and entertainment.

I highly recommend taking one or more of the above guided trips if you’re in the area. Self-guided or with a tour company, you’ll have a blast. Hopefully I’ve given you something for the family to do in addition to all of area’s other tourist spots.

Now’s the time to get out there, stay safe and have fun!