The Chattooga River cuts a gorge that begins near its headwaters in North Carolina, then flows along the border between South Carolina and Georgia, forming one of the best whitewater streams in the eastern USA, perhaps in all of the country.
First made famous (or infamous) by the film adaptation of the novel DELIVERANCE by James Dickey, the Chattooga filled in for the fictional Cahulawassee River, which was, in fact, a fantasized version of the Coosawattee River that flows through Ellijay Georgia and which now has been inundated by Carters Reservoir. That river was impounded by Carters Dam, one of the largest earthen dams on the planet, and which succeeded in destroying a vast wilderness that lay on either side of the deep gorge cut by the river as it exited the mountains to spill out onto the Piedmont. In places that gorge was 700 feet deep and not a single human inhabited the forests from the edges of Ellijay to the site of the dam. The loss of that wilderness is one of the great untold tragedies of the eastern US.
So, for years, everyone assumed James Dickey was writing about the Chattooga when, in fact, he was writing about the Coosawattee and the people of Gilmer County. As a resident for a time in Gilmer County during the early 1970s, I can assure you that James Dickey was not writing in metaphor when he delineated the inhabitants of that area so exactingly.
However, if one wants to see an existing river that’s a rough approximation
of a river that is now under many hundreds of feet of reservoir, you can journey to the area where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia meet. The river itself is
relatively well protected, but the usual criminals we know as suburban sprawl and over development encroach on all sides and threaten to destroy what remains of the wilderness aspect of the watershed. In addition, the hemlock wooly adelgid has wiped out the two hemlock species in the gorge and every one of these trees you encounter is either already dead or almost so. In a couple of more years the gorge will not have a single living hemlock tree.
This section of the gorge, in North Carolina, is less rugged and slightly more protected than the sections that lie to the south. The Ellicott’s Rock Wilderness Area is here, locking up a few thousand acres from
exploitation, but one doesn’t have to hike very far to encounter the back yard of the vacation home of some multi-millionaire. Also, this section is not quite so impressive as farther downstream, with fewer sheer rock walls and not quite so impressive rapids and waterfalls.
The best way to experience the gorge in North Carolina is to hike the
Chattooga River Trail in the Nantahala National Forest. One trail terminus is at a well graded and well marked parking area on Whitecove Road, and the other end is at The Iron Bridge on Bull Pen Road. There is more space for parking on Whitecove Road than at The Iron Bridge.
While it would be tempting to kayak or tube this section of the Chattooga River, this is not currently allowed. This upper section of the river has been reserved for fly-fishing only, and the activities of kayakers and other water sports enthusiasts would interfere with the fishing. So, to avoid confrontations with fishermen (or getting arrested), don’t kayak this section of the Chattooga.
Also, be aware that fans of Off Road Vehicles sometimes flaunt the law and
bring their stinking four-wheeling down into the gorge where they have been known to threaten hikers, whom some of them consider not worthy of life. These assholes generally carry firearms, so it’s not wise to confront them. Just report the incidents at the nearest National Forest office as soon as you can (to no effect).
One can find some actual real solitude during certain months along the Chattooga River drainage within the Ellicott’s Rock Wilderness. Despite being near the hideous spreading cancers of Highlands and Cashiers, the wilderness offers a chance to avoid crowds of people and witness something akin to a peaceful and quiet journey through a southern mountain ecosystem.
The Chattooga River Gorge (North Carolina section)