Paddle the Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line in Tennessee and North Carolina

Going deep in the Sinks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: William Britten

Going deep in the Sinks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: William Britten

Horizon Lines

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
By Charli Kerns

The Sinks is a swimming hole at the base of a 10-foot falls on Tennessee's Little River, on the road from Townsend to Gatlinburg. When I was a girl, my family spent many a summer day there swimming, drying on the sunbaked rocks and picnicking. My sister would jump over and over from a cliff into the water below. I, however, shied away. I hated even looking over.

I remember the first time I mustered the courage to curl my foot over the rough rock at the edge, my 10-year-old heart pounding in my chest—THUMP—my younger sister and parents yelling from below—JUMP! The sounds battled from the inside out—THUMP, JUMP!, THUMP, JUMP!—until after what felt like hours I finally lunged off the cliff, falling 18 feet into the cold, clear water.

A decade later, I faced the same heart-pounding feeling on the same Class III-IV creek, this time from the seat of my canoe. My friend Randy told me the line, then peeled into the current and dropped out of sight. THUMP, THUMP, THUMP. All of my paddling up to this point had been on rivers like the Ocoee, where you can see around the next bend. Now I was alone for the first time. I just had to trust that I was ready. I remembered the cliff, peeled out of the eddy and entered the rapid.

Here's the thing about paddling in the Smokies. There's almost always a horizon line or a sharp bend in the flow; try as you might, you just can't see that far ahead. So you have to trust yourself and keep moving. You'll always be rewarded with some awesome rapid ahead and a deeper understanding of how far you can go.

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Paddle through a seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri


Channel Islands National Park

Experience isolation 40 miles south of Santa Cruz, California


Grand Canyon National Park

Experience America’s 2 billion-year-old river canyon in Arizona


Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks

Follow in the footsteps—paddle strokes—of great American explorers in Washington and Oregon


Big Bend National Park

Float through an isolated wilderness on the edge of Texas and Mexico


The Missouri National Recreational River

A journey through time in South Dakota and Nebraska


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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