From your seat at the back of the canoe, you gaze from side to side at the green, refreshing forest that surrounds your little boat and casts shade across the calm river. A glance into the water reveals a clear view of the river’s gravel bed, as a smallmouth bass swims by.
In front, your partner reaches back to grab a cold drink from the cooler you packed at camp, and points out a small beach that looks like a nice place to stop for lunch. You steer the boat in that direction and splash into the cool water to drag it ashore.
This idyllic scene plays out all summer long on the Buffalo River, which twists and turns through South Central Tennessee. It flows freely for 125 miles, making Buffalo the longest undammed river in the United States. The river originates near Henryville, Tennessee, and flows generally northwest to become the largest tributary of the Duck River.
These details make this river geographically and ecologically impressive, but the bottom line is this: For a fun, worry-free canoe trip on a wild and beautiful waterway, you cannot beat a float down the Buffalo River. Whiling away summer days on the beaches and calm waters of the Buffalo has long been a favorite pastime of Tennesseans, and folks routinely drive from all over the state to enjoy its calm waters. There is any number of ways to enjoy a paddling trip on the Buffalo, and you just might find yourself returning year after year to discover them all. And while there’s really no wrong way to do it, here are some of the ins and outs of floating the Buffalo.
Though the upper section of the Buffalo River near Henryville is a designated State Scenic River, it sees relatively little traffic because it has rougher waters and fewer convenient access points than the middle and lower sections. The upper part can reach Class II during times of high flow, but you will never experience true whitewater on the Buffalo. This portion of the river is floatable November through August, though it can get extremely low and require some portaging during the summer months.
A popular run on this section is a 7-mile stretch beginning at Texas Bottoms Bridge. If you rent your boat from Buffalo Canoeing in Hohenwald, they’ll shuttle you to the put-in, and you can paddle back to your car, eliminating the hassle of multiple vehicles or waiting on a ride at the takeout.
This run features a 3-foot waterfall and many twists and turns as it flows past woods and pastures. At some points, the river narrows and the water moves quickly, while in other places the water is perfectly placid and requires some paddling. For a decently experienced paddler, the upper Buffalo offers a fun, laid-back day trip with just enough challenge to keep things interesting.
Middle & Lower Buffalo
Most visitors to the Buffalo opt to enjoy the river’s middle and lower sections, which feature smooth, shallow waters that first-time paddlers can navigate easily. This portion of the river is very calm with beautiful surroundings, including limestone bluffs, hardwood forests, and waterfalls. Plus, you’ll encounter several beaches and sandbars where you can stop to have a picnic and swim.
The most popular way to experience this section is to use a local canoe outfitter, which will typically offer a variety of float packages, allowing you to customize your trip. Generally, float trips range from a half-day (about eight miles) to a full day (16 miles), with some folks even opting for an overnighter (anything beyond 20 miles). While the traditional experience is to canoe the Buffalo, many outfitters now offer kayaks, inflatable crafts, and even inner tubes.
One of the largest outfitters is Buffalo River Resort in Lobelville, which offers canoe, inflatable kayak, and raft rentals, and will even shuttle your personal craft. You’ll also find primitive riverfront campsites, RV hookups, cabins, and glamping campers if you choose to stay the night before or after your float.
Another option is Crazy Horse Recreational Park near Waynesboro, where you can rent canoes or kayaks and choose from one of four pre-planned routes. These range from an 8-mile run from Topsy Bridge to a 21-mile run that begins at Texas Bottoms in the river’s upper section and ends at the Crazy Horse campground.
There are several other local outfitters offering various trips and amenities along the river, and most do a good job of ensuring that customers have safe, comfortable, and fun float trips.
Gear & Other Essentials
Whatever adventure you choose, there are a few essentials that you don’t want to forget. Sun protection and bug repellent should be at the top of your packing list—during summer, the sun in South Central Tennessee can be fierce, especially on the water. You’ll also want to pack swimming gear and towels—maybe even toss in goggles and snorkels to catch a closeup at the aquatic life. Though the river is calm, and there’s a slim chance you’ll flip your boat, always have a life jacket with you. You should play it safe and invest in a waterproof bag or container to hold your valuables.
Many people, especially those who paddle in canoes, choose to bring a cooler along for snacks and beverages. There are no services along the river, so bring all of the necessary food and water. Also, pack trash bags. The Buffalo is a well-traveled river, and it’s important to bring back all of your trash and any other trash that you see.
Because canoes tend to have bench seats, you might opt to bring a canoe seat or other type of back support to make your seat a little more comfortable. (This may seem luxurious, but you’ll be thankful for it after a few miles of paddling.)
If you plan to fish, be sure to obtain a license from TWRA. The permits are cheap, but the fines for not having one are hefty. And, of course, if you plan to stay overnight on the river or at a campground, pack your tent and sleeping gear.
Afloat down the Buffalo River is likely to be one of the easiest paddling trips you’ll ever take, with its gentle flow allowing ample time to play and take in the gorgeous scenery. Whether you choose to spend five hours or five days drifting on its calm waters, the Buffalo River has everything you’ll need for an outdoorsy getaway in South Central Tennessee. For more information or day trip ideas visit www.southcentraltn.com
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated Media in partnership with South Central Tennessee.