The Rockcastle River Narrows: A Kentucky Wild River Adventure
This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by sharing stories from adventures on the Kentucky wild rivers. The Red River is the commonwealth's sole waterway with national designation, however streams that include the Rockcastle River, Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, and Green River are administered protected in a similar manner through Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission's Wild River Program.
Brandon Jett is a former GIS analyst, whitewater kayaker of many years, and most recently has focused on exploring the wild and remote places left in in the southeast US. Most of his time is spent in wilderness areas of the southern Appalachians, the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and the Red River Gorge in Kentucky by backpack or kayak. With over 20 years of backcountry experience his main passion is to share these areas with others either by guiding friends or with photographs.
The 55 mile Rockcastle River begins its journey to the Cumberland River in Jackson County, slowly making its way south until reaching a wild and rugged section known as the Narrows. The Narrows are a whitewater kayaker’s playground when conditions are just right, and catching it with enough water combined with low Lake Cumberland water levels is the crux for Kentucky boaters. This short section of river must be earned, but the rapids and scenery are worth every step.
Most of the Rockcastle River is perfect for canoe camping and fishing, with long sections of flat water, small riffles and very few access points making it perfect for getting away for an overnight trip or just an afternoon casting for smallmouth bass. Trails can be found around Bee Rock Campground where the river flows into Lake Cumberland, and also the take-out for the Narrows whitewater section.
If you’re a class 3-4 whitewater paddler and in good shape, the Rockastle Narrows offer 7 quality rapids when the lake level is low enough, typically in the fall and winter. This is when the water turns a beautiful blue-green, noticeably different from the brown muddy runoff of summer. The rapids change character at different water levels…the USGS gauge is far upstream near the town of Billows. Water levels from 100-1000 cubic feet per second (CFS) makes the Narrows solid class 3-4 if you run the first optional drop, Beech Narrows. The rocks are undercut, sieved out and this is not a run for novices! Know how to read water, control your boat and prepare to scout the rapids if it’s your first time. Go with a Rockcastle veteran for the first run to help the nerves.
Getting here is the hardest part. From Bee Rock, take Highway 192 West a few miles and then a right on Close Road. A few miles on gravel will lead you to trail 503, noted by the orange markers on the trees. Park near here and hike your gear for about 25 minutes until you see the river. Head left until you reach Beech Narrows, the first and largest rapid. Put in below, or run it after scouting. The middle line can be very challenging! Paddle a few miles of flat water until you come to a big 90 degree turn in the river where you’ll find a few more class 3 rapids leading into the Narrows. First Drop can be run center or left, Second Drop down the middle and the next rapid, Teeth, has some interesting features and moves. Be careful of the large sieve on river right above Teeth rapid.
The lake can cover the remaining rapids depending on the water level. 2 more drops can be found in ideal conditions…Cry Baby and Guy’s Surprise. At high water Guy’s Surprise has been known to dish out some punishment, so be wary! Always scout and set safety. After Cry Baby rapid, you’ll have the option to shoulder your boat and hike back up on the river left trail for another lap of the Narrows which by now is less than a mile to First Drop. Paddle out the remaining few miles of flat water…or tackle Guy’s Surprise if it’s in play, to the take-out boat launch at Bee Rock.
The hike in, exciting rapids, stunning scenery and option to run multiple laps make this section of river a Kentucky whitewater gem, and a heckuva lot more fun than working out at a gym! A few laps on the Narrows is exhausting, yet fulfilling. Grab the camera, recruit some whitewater paddlers that know the river, and enjoy a rarely visited section of whitewater that will have you wanting more.
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