Close-up of young person rafting on the river

Head South for Winter Whitewater

Georgia quietly hosts a world-class section of high-volume rapids right in revitalized downtown Columbus.

The Chattahoochee River might be a mild float as it passes through Metro Atlanta, but things change drastically as it hits Columbus, Ga., about 90 minutes south. There, a large-scale river restoration project has helped re-establish more natural flows and repaired natural habitat on a section of river that drops 35 feet in 2 miles, right through downtown Columbus. The city also added an adjustable surf wave, called a Waveshaper, that allows park managers to fine-tune the size of the wave for kayakers. They even installed lights so paddlers can play at night. 

The final result is a 2.5-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee called the RushSouth Whitewater Park, with more than five Class IV-V rapids and 10 smaller rapids scattered between the big hits. It’s considered the largest urban whitewater park in the world, and the southernmost whitewater river in the United States. The Chattahoochee has a lot of rapids in a short stretch, but what truly sets the run apart is the sheer volume of water being released from the dam, which can reach up to 13,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) in volume. By comparison, southeast Tennessee’s popular Ocoee River peaks at 1,100 CFS. The RushSouth section typically shifts between 800 and 13,000 CFS during the day, giving the features’ incredible variety between morning and afternoon. 

The response from the paddling community has been overwhelmingly positive. The whitewater park hosted the 2018 USA National Freestyle Kayaking Championships and is slated to host the Freestyle World Cup in October 2022 and the Freestyle World Championships in July 2023. The area has become particularly popular during the winter, when other well-known whitewater destinations are too cold to paddle. Locals quip that the water is “as wild as Colorado but as warm as Costa Rica.” As a result, dozens of migrating kayakers take over an abandoned parking lot each winter living in campers and cars for months on end. They call the place their “Wintering Grounds.”

Run the River

You don’t need to be a professional kayaker to enjoy the Chattahoochee. Local outfitters run rafting trips in RushSouth year-round, and those trips can be dialed in to your skill level. The river changes character based on the water flows, which are dictated by water releases from the North Highlands Dam upstream. There are two types of rafting trips regularly available: In the morning, low flows are ideal for families looking for more gentle rapids; in the afternoon, higher flows kick in, turning those gentle rapids into more powerful Class III-V rapids. If you’re looking to break into kayaking, you can find instruction from local pros. Classes in SUP yoga are also a regular occurrence in mellow sections of the river, and fly fishing for shoal bass is off the charts. There are also ziplines and a 15-mile long RiverWalk when you’re done with rafting. More Info:


Where To Camp

There are a number of privately owned campgrounds that cater mostly to RVs near Columbus, but F.D. Roosevelt State Park, 45 minutes north of downtown Columbus, is your best bet for tent camping. At 9,049 acres, F.D. Roosevelt is the largest state park in Georgia, and has 42 miles of hiking trails in the rolling, pine-covered mountains. Choose from backcountry sites to car-camping sites—a handful even back up to Lake Denier ($30 per night). More Info: 


Refresh & Refuel

The Chattahoochee River restoration project has helped revive Columbus, a former manufacturing and textile town that once saw decades of decline after those industries shut down. Now, old factories have been converted into condos, restaurants and shops. For an eclectic mix of options, head to Banks Food Hall, a 12,000-square foot collective eatery next to Woodruff Riverfront Park, where you can get anything from tacos to poke bowls. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.