Noteworthy Float trip in TAG: Elk River, Tennessee
Trip Length: 4 – 44 miles
Activities: Canoe/Kayak, Trout Fishing, Camping, Nature Appreciation, Swimming
Rating: Class 1
The Elk River rises on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Grundy County, Tennessee in Burroughs Cove near the community of Elkhead. It flows southwest through steep wooded hills and farm land to the Tennessee River near Wheeler Dam in North Alabama. It was known to the Native Americans as "Chuwalee," the Cherokee word for elk.
The Elk River is first impounded by the Elk River Dam, forming the Woods Reservoir. The impoundment extends upstream to about the same point where the stream ceases to serve as the Coffee-Franklin County line and is entirely in Franklin County. The Woods reservoir was built under the auspices of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, primarily to provide a large source of cooling water for the U.S. Air Force’s Arnold Engineering Development Center which has large wind tunnels and other military and scientific research equipment. This area is also used as a wildlife refuge. A few miles below the Elk River Dam is the beginning of the slack water, known as Tim Ford Lake and is caused by the Tims Ford Dam, which is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
The Elk River is a floatable river for up to 44 miles below the Tims Ford Dam. It has good current, yet is gentle enough to be suitable for family recreation. However, please note even though the river is dam controlled it can still flood during times of high rainfall. The river is very scenic and is easy to float. It varies in depth from a few inches over the gravel shoals to more than ten feet in the quiet pools. To find the correct course downriver is not difficult, but some care is needed in the bends and around the islands where fallen trees sometime form obstacles known as strainers.
The Elk River also offers excellent trout fishing in the upper stretch and smallmouth bass fishing is popular in the deep pools. Because the river is TVA Dam controlled it provides good canoeing and kayaking even in the dry summer months. Some wildlife you may encounter along the river is blue herons, muskrats, hawks, turtles, deer, and bluebirds.
The Elk River below Tims Ford Dam is also known for its aquatic diversity. It is home to a wide variety of mussels, snails and fish, including a number of species protected by the Endangered Species Act. One of these federally listed species is a small fish called a boulder darter. The only known naturally occurring population of boulder darters exists in the Elk River drainage basin. The Elk River is also home to a regionally important trout fishery. Because this is the only natural location of the darter, the TVA has to ensure it can coexist with trout. The trout fishery, which is stocked by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, is a put-and-take fishery that is maintained during the summer months by the water released through Tims Ford Dam. When TVA releases water from the dam, it is very cold, due to the depth of the reservoir. Trout thrive in the cold water, but it is too cold for the boulder darter, several endangered mussels that inhabit the tailwater and warm-water sportfish. The cold water released when TVA runs the hydropower turbines at the dam for long periods of time can cause a drop in water temperatures many miles downstream of the dam. This change in temperature can stress boulder darters and smallmouth bass, affecting spawning success and growth of young boulder darters. After careful study, TVA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) agreed that TVA would modify its hydropower operations at Tims Ford Dam to warm up the temperature of the tailwater to help protect and promote recovery of the boulder darter and listed mussels. These modifications also should result in improvements to the warm-water recreational fishery in the Elk River. In 2008, TVA began adjusting releases from Tims Ford Dam to provide temperatures suitable for boulder darters, listed mussels and other warm-water species downstream of the cold-water trout fishery. Water temperatures are being monitored along the length of the tailwater with the goal of adjusting the operation of Tims Ford Dam to keep water temperatures at the Farris Creek stream gage (Elk River Mile 124) within the targeted temperature range for trout while keeping water temperatures near the Fayetteville stream gage (Elk River Mile 93) similar to seasonal temperatures in free-flowing streams in the region, which can reach the mid-80s (F) during late summer. Cold water releases from Tims Ford Dam allow a put-and-take fishery for two non-native trout species—rainbow and brown trout—to be maintained in the Tims Ford tailwater. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has designated the Elk River from Tims Ford Dam downstream to Fayetteville (ERM 93) as a trout stream. This area supports trout during the cooler fall and winter months; however, historically, water temperatures in the area between Old Dam Ford (ERM 120) and Fayetteville increase above the temperatures trout prefer during summer months. Water temperature conditions suitable for trout survival and growth in the Elk River are typically restricted to areas upstream of Old Dam Ford beginning in July. TWRA identifies only the area from Old Dam Ford upstream to Tims Ford Dam as a trout tailwater in its Stocked Trout Program. Over the years, TVA has worked with several local groups to improve trout habitat in the Elk River and installed equipment at Tims Ford Dam to add oxygen to the water. Two large blowers are used to force air into the water as it passes through the main turbine when TVA generates electricity. If additional aeration is needed, TVA uses an oxygen-injection system in the forebay of Tims Ford Reservoir to help maintain the water quality criterion for dissolved oxygen for waters having an official ―trout stream‖ designation. Water also is released through the sluiceway at the dam to maintain minimum flows when the hydroelectric turbines are not in operation.
Each year for Easter a group of us do an annual float trip. On multiple occasions we have chosen the Elk River for its closeness to home and ease of access. In one particular year we were able to make two different trips along the Elk River. The first trip we put in at the Farris Creek Bridge and canoed & fished to the Old Dam Ford Access area. The second trip we put in at the Hwy 50 TVA Dam and canoed & fished to the Old Dam Ford. Both the Farris Creek Bridge and Old Dam Ford offer primitive camping. Further downstream the Shiloh Bridge access also offers camping. If you are going to fish for trout you must have a Tennessee Fishing License with a trout stamp. We found that the fishing was better between the Dam and the Farris Creek Bridge. Both times we caught enough trout to feed 4-6 people. You can call ahead of time to find out the water release at the dam at 423-751-2264. Access to put in at Tim’s Ford Dam is off of Hwy 50 next to where the water flows out from the dam. Access to the Farris Creek Bridge is off of Ferris Creek Road and access for the Old Dam Ford is off of Old Dam Road.
For a list of all Elk River Access Points go to:
Public River Access Points
Park in designated areas only. Do not park on the gravel bars along the river. Water may rise rapidly and cover or wash away vehicles. Do not drive across fields or park on private land.
From I-24 take US64 west to Winchester. Then follow road signs on TN 50 until reaching the Tims Ford Dam. Tims Ford Dam/Route 50 Bridge Dam Mile .025 Paved access and parking lot immediately below Tims Ford Dam. Good entry point for canoeists. GPS 35°11'31.16"N 86°16'49.67"W
Farris Creek Bridge, Dam Mile 8.5 Gravel road access on either side of the bridge. Best access is the Franklin Co. (east side) access. One quarter mile below the bridge is Smith Island. GPS 35° 9'48.37"N 86°19'7.11"W Old Dam Ford, Dam Mile 13.9 Good, but remote, public access from the Moore Co. side. One lane gravel road. Owned by the TVA. GPS 35° 7'26.17"N 86°19'55.86"W Shiloh Bridge, Dam Mile 20.5 Limited public access at the bridge on the northwest side. GPS 35° 8'18.26"N 86°22'59.74"W Dickey Bridge, Dam Mile 27.5 Public access on the west side. Good for canoes and boats. GPS 35° 8'20.95"N 86°26'52.68"W Stump Shoals Access, Dam Mile 29.4 One lane. Owned by the TVA
Chenault Ford Pubic Access, Dam Mile 36
One lane. Owned by the TVA GPS 35° 8'58.47"N 86°30'41.33"W Old Stone Bridge Fayetteville, Dam Mile 44
Owned by the city. Direct river access.