Tennessee’s intricate waterways are some of the most beautiful in the whole of the United States. If you’re looking for a kayaking adventure this summer or fall, Tennessee offers a wide range of scenery and required skill levels.
Choose any type of trip, from wide, slow river floats to sheer cliffs hugging narrow ribbons of river, and at least one of our rivers are sure to be perfect for your goals.
If you’re a seasoned kayaker, any destination listed here is great. If you’re a beginner, we recommend taking safety courses before you head out on the more challenging river routes.
Here are our top picks for the best places to kayak in Middle Tennessee. We have included launch spots and highly-rated kayak rental companies for your convenience. Happy paddling!
Barren Fork River
35 Crisp Springs Rd McMinnville, TN
Pepper Branch Park Old Morrison Rd McMinnville, TN
Barren Fork River runs 23.4 miles long and feeds into the Collins River, which then flows into the Cumberland River. While the mouth of Barren Fork is in western Warren County, we recommend launching from McMinnville, where you’ll find many popular access points.
Barren Fork’s steady, smooth current makes it a perfect lazy float, perfect for beginners or families with children.
The Buffalo River is the longest dam-free river in the state, running an impressive 125 miles before feeding into the Duck River. Thanks to its rural location, you’ll likely see wildlife in and alongside the river, including otters, beavers, muskrats, mallard ducks, snakes, eagles, deer, turkeys, cormorants, kingfishers, and a whopping 85 species of fish.
Land along this treasured river is privately owned, so you’ll likely only be able to launch a kayak from a rental shop.
Caney Fork River meanders through 11 counties over 144 miles, flowing into the Cumberland before it joins both the Collins and the Rocky River at Great Falls Lake. It gets its name from the canebrakes that studded the river’s banks when Europeans first encountered it.
Every year, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fills the river with trout, making Caney Fork as well-known for its fishing as for its natural beauty.
If you decide to rent a kayak from Canoe the Caney, keep your eyes peeled for the bald eagle’s nest, cave, and historic 1800s train bridge right in this area.
The Collins River flows 67 miles into the Caney Fork and then the Cumberland River before emptying into Great Falls Lake. Named one of Tennessee’s official “Most Scenic Rivers,” kayaking here will give you views of spectacular natural vistas, charming bridges, beautiful farms, and picturesque riverfront homes.
Cumberland River flows over an incredible 688 miles from its Appalachian Mountain source to its two endpoints, where it joins with the Ohio River in Kentucky and the Tennessee River.
The Cumberland offers both rural and urban views as it passes through forests, by farmlands, and through Nashville and Clarksville. Kayakers can stop at a large number of parks, boat ramps, picnic spots, campgrounds, some caves, and a few quaint general stores. This array of resources makes the Cumberland ideal for both day and overnight trips down the river.
While most of the river is lazy and easy to navigate, the Cumberland does plunge 68 feet down the Cumberland Falls. The stretch before the falls is perfect for paddlers who long for rapids to challenge their skills. Should you be near the falls at night, keep a lookout for the gorgeous “moonbows” that simply dazzle after dark.
Henry Horton State Park 4209 Nashville Hwy, Chapel Hill, TN
The Duck River is the longest river located entirely within Tennessee, which is partly why this is our most popular destination for kayaking. Clocking in at 284 miles, this smooth waterway is consistently packed with fishing enthusiasts, boaters, kayakers, canoers, swimmers, and innertube floaters. While it’s not ideal for a serene escape, it’s loads of fun for extroverts!
Kayaking the Duck River will take you through villages and towns, parks, campgrounds, towering cliff faces, past gravel bars, and into brief patches of secluded woods.
Elk River runs through the Cumberland Plateau for a portion of its 195 miles, though its mouth is in Grundy, and it terminates into the Tennessee River. This scenic waterway features both small rapids and lazy waters, and is heavily populated by wildlife, especially trout, deer, blue heron, beavers, wild turkey, and hawks.
The Harpeth River is another very popular kayaking destination since its 115 miles are almost entirely slow and shallow. These scenic waters are surrounded by a mixture of dense woods, sheer cliffs, and gravel bars. While it’s not an adventurous paddle, it is certainly beautiful and relaxing!
The stretch of Tennessee rivers least traveled may just be the Obey River. This 48-mile waterway’s mouth is the East Fork Obey River, and it ends in the West Fork Obey River. These sparkling, clear waters are surrounded by gorgeous, verdant woods and vivid colors, while gravel bars provide launch and resting points throughout.
Kayak Rentals are not currently available directly on Obey River.
2011 Cash Hollow Rd Nunnelly, TN
While there are many rivers and streams commonly referred to by locals as “Piney River” in Tennessee, we’re recommending a specific, short, 6-mile paddle along the Piney in Nunnelly, Tennessee. This quiet, scenic stretch of river is perfect for a quick day trip or picnic outing.
Cannon County Arts Center 1424 John Bragg Hwy Woodbury, TN
Walter Hill Park Hill Rd Murfreesboro, TN
2781 W Jefferson Pike Murfreesboro, TN
Long Hunter State Park 2910 Hobson Pike Hermitage, TN
Percy Priest Dam on Percy Priest Lake Nashville, TN
Named for the first (known) man in history to travel upstream, the Stones River is historic in more ways than one. Surrounded by former battlegrounds, ranging from clashes between Native and European peoples to Civil War slaughters, Stones River has now become one of the most popular Tennessee watersports locations.
Please be aware that there are long stretches of this river that are closed to the public, so we do not recommend it for long trips. If you are looking to join the fray on the upper portions of the river, you’ll find plenty of recreational paddlers up that way.
We hope you’ve found our Middle Tennessee kayak guide helpful. We love each of these destinations within our beloved state and hope you’re able to enjoy at least one of them in the coming warm months.
In parting, please allow us one safety message:
You never quite know what your kayaking adventure may hold. Therefore, irrespective of your experience and skill level, we suggest wearing a lifejacket, dressing in waterproof/sunproof clothing, bringing snacks, bringing fresh water, and bringing a waterproof first aid kit. Stay safe and enjoy the Tennessee waters!