Before you know where to look, you've got to know what you're looking for. That's kind of the deal when it comes to seeking out standup paddle boarding destinations. Do you want to catch waves? Or is paddle board fishing more your speed? Maybe you're more of a SUP camping trip kind of person. Whatever your paddle preferences, the good news is that the Southeast is loaded with world-class options for every kind of paddler. Like an overstuffed burrito, the Southeast is basically bursting at the seams with rivers, lakes, bays, bayous, freshwater springs, and more.
Lately, it seems we're all craving the outdoors. And even more so, traveling to new places where we won't run into hundreds of other people with the same itinerary. Getting outside and getting on the water is good for the soul, no matter what time of year. So whether you're looking for a weekend SUP trip or wondering if you're overlooking a great paddle spot nearby, here's a rundown of some of the best places to SUP across the Southeast.
LIKE AN OVERSTUFFED BURRITO, THE SOUTHEAST IS BASICALLY BURSTING AT THE SEAMS WITH RIVERS, LAKES, BAYS, BAYOUS, FRESHWATER SPRINGS, AND MORE.
SUP CAMPING TRIPS
For overnight long-distance paddle trips, or "journey trips" as Corey calls them, there are a number of killer options in the South. The basic gist of a journey trip? You seek out a river, as rivers very naturally give you a point A to point B trajectory. You set up a shuttle system and determine your daily mileage and predetermined campsites. Then you load up all your gear on your board (tent, sleeping bag, cookware & food), and then quite literally just go with the flow.
Apalachicola River Blueway
In Florida, the Apalachicola River is a 107-mile blueway that makes for a killer multi-day paddle trip. Starting at the Jim Woodruff Dam on the border of Georgia and Florida, where the Chattahoochee spills into Lake Seminole and then becomes the Apalachicola, this trip can be done in 3-7 days depending on your speed and style. Along the way, expect pristine waters, dense forests, sandstone bluffs, hidden coves, and plenty of sandbars to set up camp.
French Broad River Paddle Trail
In North Carolina, the French Broad River is a loved and lauded local blueway where every summer Ashevillians hit the water with innertubes and coolers full of beer and then float the day away. But for standup paddle boarders, the French Broad makes for an excellent multi-day SUP camping trip. There are plenty of ways to break it up, but one particularly solid option is the 4-day paddle from Hap Simpson Park to Woodfin Park. It's 55-miles all told, a great stretch of river with minimal rapids, and you can end the trip with some cold brews from one of the many Arts District Asheville breweries lining the French Broad.
Hiwassee River Blueway
Similar to the French Broad, the Hiwassee River is another of those rivers that folks with innertubes "flock to like the salmon of Capistrano", to quote Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber. But it too, like the French Broad, is so much more than just a casual day float. Put a paddle board on this bad boy, and you're looking at a 55-mile blueway that travels through some of Southeast Tennessee's most majestic territory. The full 55-miles is probably out of the league for most paddle boarders, as the upper stretch features Class I and II (and even a handful of Class III) rapids. But the lower section is a flat water paradise with calm waters, great fishing, plentiful campsites, and a verdant beauty that John Muir once described as "vine-draped and flowery as Eden."
So, let's talk about lakes. Some might find them boring. But these are probably the same folks that find cheeseburgers boring. There's something tried and true about lakes (and cheeseburgers). They're always there, probably the most accessible type of body of water there is for most Americans. They have calm water. They're serene. And they're often great for casual exploration.
Located on the border of Louisiana and Texas (which might technically be outside the "Southeast" jurisdiction we've outlined for this article, but who's counting?), Caddo Lake is one of the most surreal spots to paddle in America. First off, it's huge—25,400 acres to be exact. Second, it's totally otherworldly—which is an overused word, but here, it's true. With the thousands of bald cypress trees and the Spanish moss dripping like a Civil War general's beard and the huge number of Bigfoot sightings, Caddo Lake really doesn't feel quite "of this world". Finally, there's nothing like paddling through Caddo's gator-infested waters, then wolfing down a fried catfish with a Budweiser at one of the many dive bar saloons lining the water's edge.
The Dead Lakes, in Northwest Florida, is another somewhat spooky and terrifying—yet terrifyingly beautiful—paddling destination worth exploring. As BOTE CEO Corey Cooper says, "It's like something from Jurassic Park." BOTE's Director of Photography goes one step further: "There are thousands of cypress trees. Nothing but cypress trees and black water. Eerie black water. That goes down so deep. And all I can picture is something snatching me." If you don't get spooked easily, however, paddling among a maze of cypress canopies is hands down of the best lake paddle board experiences around.
PADDLE BOARD FISHING
If your idea of a great paddle board experience is sitting on a KULA 5 Gallon Cooler, cracking open a cold one, and seeing what bites, then you're in luck. Plenty of the spots already mentioned are top notch spots for anglers (looking at you, Caddo Lake). And here are a couple more to grow on.
Tennessee's Clinch River is the most biodiverse in the Northern Hemisphere. Translation: lots of fish, and lots of different kinds. Not only is it one of the best trout rivers in the country (for both brown and rainbow trout), it's also got huge populations of walleye, large striped bass, and perch. And the best part for paddle board anglers? The best sections for fishing are only reachable by boat.
Spanning 69,000 acres, Lake Guntersville is Alabama's largest lake. It's also rated as one of the top bass lakes in the country. For scenery, you're workin' with rolling foothills draped in hardwoods, sandstone cliffs diving into serene waters, and lots of vegetation on the surface like lily pads, coontail, milfoil, and hydrilla (aka bass paradise). For a great paddle boarding day trip, put in at Short Creek and head upstream. The inlet here narrows and you're sheltered from the lake's main channel and motorboat traffic.
SALTWATER PADDLE ADVENTURES
So, you like your paddle boarding with a little bit of surf, sand, waves, and salty winds? You're in luck. Florida has more miles of coastline than any state in the continental US. (Yep, more than California.)
If you're like Corey and Sean and maybe have a few screws loose, then the Everglades serve up one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, paddle experiences in the world. Expect shark-infested waters, soul-crushing tides, blistering temperatures, alligators and crocodiles, yet supreme natural beauty within its 10,000 islands. Withstand the elements and you'll have memories that'll last a lifetime.
When people think of paddle boarding in Florida, they think of the Keys. Turquoise waters that are shallow and see-through, mangrove forests, fascinating marine life like manatees and stingrays, and long lost shipwrecks to see from above are just some of the all-star options on show. You can even use your board as a launchpad to go lobster fishing. And once you've paddled your heart out, you can't really beat taking a load off on the sugar-white sands.
FOR THOSE UP FOR A GORGEOUS ENDURANCE CHALLENGE
Tennessee River Gorge
Home of the Chattajack—a 31-mile stand up paddle board race through the Tennessee River Gorge—this section of the Tennessee River is known as the "Little Grand Canyon", and for darn good reason. The Gorge itself is stunning: a river that snakes and wraps back upon itself in such a pronounced spiral that it almost touches itself sometimes. From the banks of the river, mountains sprout up 1,600-feet on each side. The river becomes so narrow you could almost through a rock from one bank to the other. It's incredibly scenic. Throw in the fact that this particular paddle starts in downtown Chattanooga (where paddlers are granted one of the most unique views one can get of the city), then bends beneath Lookout Mountain, and eventually plunges into the Gorge before spilling into Nickajack Lake, and it's clear the scenic diversity is worth the effort. Even if the effort is 31-miles' worth of hard-charging paddling.
THE BEST THING ABOUT PADDLING IS THAT THERE’S SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY.
At the end of the day, according to Sean at least, "The best thing about paddling is that there's something for everybody." This rings especially true in the Southeast, with SUP destinations around every corner and mild winters, to boot. Whether it's a journey trip in the mountains of Western North Carolina or a saltwater adventure in the Gulf of Mexico, there's no time like the present. Grab your inflatable SUP and get out there.