New Surf Spot in Southeast

Georgia, and Alabama's Chattahoochee River gets awesome new whitewater park

Hunter catching air. Photo courtesy McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group

By Eugene Buchanan
Georgia and Alabama’s Chattahoochee River is now on the must-visit paddling list alongside such other Southeast boating hotbeds as the Ocoee, Nantahala and Chattooga rivers.

On May 25, the communities of Columbus, Ga., and neighboring Phenix City, Ala., are celebrating the grand opening of what designers call “the largest urban whitewater venue in the world” on the Chattahoochee River, which flows through both Columbus and Phenix City.

Designed by Denver’s McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, now part of Merrick & Co., the project removes two obsolete dams while restoring more than two miles of river into the newest whitewater destination in the Southeast.

“It’s already bringing a lot of new boaters into town,” says Chris Largent, store manager for local outdoor and paddling shop The Outside World. “Everyone’s super excited about it and can’t wait to get out there and check it out.”

The Outside World has been located in Columbus for the past three years, with already a robust business in flatwater and recreational paddling, as well as kayak fishing, due to its proximity to local lakes and flatwater stretches of the Chattahoochee. But the new play park, whose crown jewel is an adjustable wave at the bottom of the course, is fast increasing its whitewater operations as well. It already has two whitewater paddling instructors and Largent says it hopes to increase that number to six by the end of the summer. It’s also partnering with local raft outfitter Whitewater Express, which already has operations in northern Georgia and Tennessee, to book and offer rafting trips on the new park.

Designer McLaughlin bases its “largest urban whitewater venue in the world” claim on the fact that the course, with an in-river construction cost of $24.5 million, is 2.3 miles long, encompasses 180 acres of in-river area, has a normal daily high flow of 9,200 cfs or 13,300 cfs (the upstream hydropower dam has four typical releases, 800 cfs, 5,000 cfs, 9,200 cfs and 13,300 cfs). “It’s also based on the size of the features,” says project engineer Jack Goble, adding that the total drop of the course measures 35 vertical feet. “It has 6-feet-plus high waves, which may include the biggest and most reliable big river surf wave in the country. The size and magnitude of this venue is difficult to describe. Experienced boaters are calling it the biggest river — natural or otherwise — in the South and the lower rapid rivals some of the larger rapids in Grand Canyon.”

While the neighboring riverfront communities have made the Chattahoochee a centerpiece of economic revitalization for the past decade or so, including the building of new river walks and commercial development, the new river park adds recreation into the mix. Spearheaded by local partnership Uptown Columbus, the redevelopment received a major boost by the acquisition and decommission of two hydro dams that had powered the local mills but were no longer economic. The mill and powerhouse complexes were acquired by local interests and are being converted to upscale residences and commercial/restaurant space.

By the end of the month, both dams will have been completed removed to reveal rapids that have been inundated for nearly 200 years. The two-mile-long park restores the river where it was once altered by the dams and adds a large adjustable wave — which can be tuned to suit kayakers and board surfers, and host events — at the course’s bottom, as well viewing terraces for the public. While the historic rapids are at the center of a revitalized mill complex, creating a unique juxtaposition of urban amenities with whitewater rafting, the park also include quiet water areas suited for fishing, rec paddlers and stand up paddle boarders.

A recent economic study anticipates the park will lure up to 100,000 visitors to the area per
year, with an annual economic impact of $4 to $7 million.

“It’s an awesome spot,” adds Largent. “It totally puts us on the map as a whitewater destination.”

To see videos of the course in action, click here:

Photo Courtesy McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group

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