Paddling the South Fork of the Catawba

The South Fork of the Catawba River is west of the Catawba River and merges with the Catawba at Lake Wylie near the North/South Carolina boarder. The river offers miles of natural landscapes, with great fishing and paddling opportunities. The easiest and most popular trip is 5.5 miles from the Catawba Lands Conservancy access near Spencer Mountain to the R.Y. McAden River Access take out point (just below I-85). Under normal flow conditions, this trip takes approximately 2 hours.

South Fork 


Most of the 5.5 miles is beginner friendly; however there are a few shoaly areas that might have to be portaged during low water and might present a hazard during high water. River stream features vary from slow moving water with a few Class I/II rapids where rock ledges have been carved from the river bottom to swift water at approximate mile 3.5. There is a dam approximately 5.5 miles down the river - users must exit the river on the right (river right) before the dam. Those continuing downstream can use the Adam Springs Portage on the left. Downstream from the dam, paddlers will encounter the headwaters of Lake Wylie which is slower moving water featuring a number of rich wetlands along the stream banks.

The South Fork of the Catawba River is home to a variety of wildlife, including great blue herons, osprey, bald eagles, and deer. Users who access the river from the Spencer Mountain River Access will paddle through some of the most ecologically diverse lands in our region, many of which are permanently protected by the Catawba Lands Conservancy.


The northern most put-in is located in Spencer Mountain and is maintained by Catawba Lands Conservancy. The access is located at 200 Stanley-Spencer Mountain Road in Spencer Mountain, NC. Spencer Mountain River Access requires a permit issued by Catawba Lands Conservancy. It takes approximately three business days to process the request and mail the permit. Plan accordingly as permits are not issued over the phone. Please have vehicle registration information available as this is required to process the permit. The Catawba Lands Conservancy contact number is 704-343-3330, ext. 206. 

Other available launch locations include:

  • South Fork River Park (Gaston County Parks and Recreation), 4185 Mountain View Street, Gastonia, NC
  • R. Y. McAden Take-out in McAdenville (Catawba Lands Conservancy)
  • Goat Island Park (Town of Cramerton), Greenplace Road, Cramerton, NC
  • Riverside Park (Town of Cramerton)

The following link contains additional information and a map:

Dam Portage Information

Approximately 5.5 mile down stream of the Spencer Mountain River Access paddlers will encounter the McAdenville Dam. Paddlers can exit the river at the R.Y. McAden take-out on the right-side bank. For paddlers wishing to continue downstream to Cramerton, you can use the Adam Springs Portage on the left-side bank.

Directions to Spenser Mountain River Access 

 Approximate physical address— 282 Stanley Spencer Mountain Road, Spencer Mountain, NC 28056


Take I-85 South to exit 23 – Lowell/ McAdenville/Hwy 7. Turn RIGHT at the stoplight onto Hwy 7 – towards Lowell and proceed .6 miles. Turn RIGHT at the next stoplight onto Main St. (Citgo gas station on corner). Proceed 3.2 miles, at the T-intersection turn RIGHT onto Stanley-Spencer Mountain Rd. Travel .1 mile, you will cross a bridge, just as the bridge ends, the entrance to Spencer Mountain River Access will be on your RIGHT.

Access will be on your RIGHT.


Head north on NC-279/S New Hope Rd.

Turn RIGHT on NC-7/E Ozark Ave and travel 0.8 mile.

Turn LEFT on Spencer Mountain Rd and travel 1.7 miles.

Continue on Ranlo Spencer Mtn Rd for 0.8 mile.

Turn RIGHT on Dallas Spencer Mtn Rd/Main St/NC-2003 for 0.3 mile.

Continue on Stanley-Spencer Mtn Rd for 0.2 mile.

Travel .1 miles, you will cross a bridge, just as the bridge ends, the entrance to Spencer Mtn. River Access will be on your RIGHT.

Directions to Take-out at R.Y. McAden River Access From Spenser Mountain River Access 

Approximate physical address - 149 Willow Dr, Gastonia, NC 28056

Turn LEFT on Stanley-Spencer Mtn Rd - 0.2 mile. Turn LEFT on Lowell Spencer Mtn Rd/NC-2201, proceed 3.3 miles. Turn LEFT at traffic signal (Citgo gas station on corner) on McAdenville Rd/NC-7, proceed 1 mile. Turn LEFT at Dickson Rd - you will see a sign that reads “Proceed slowly, automatic gate ahead.” Continue straight. Less than one tenth of a mile further, Dickson Rd. turns left; do not turn. Proceed through a right-hand curve onto Willow Dr. The entrance to the R.Y. MacAden River Access is just beyond the green wooden building. Signs will direct you to the river access point.


Other Places to Paddle (organized from the lower part of the basin to the upper part of the basin):

    • Landsford Canal Park map - map showing the location of the put-in and take-out as well as the major shoals in the River.  The trip through the spider lilies typically takes 1-3 hours.  There is a put-in and take-out in the park.
    • Catawba River Trail from Lake Wylie to Landsford Canal - Description of access points and points of interest on the 31-mile long "free-flowing" section of the Catawba below Lake Wylie.  The first section from the Lake Wylie dam to River Park in Rock Hill is about 6 miles long.  The next section from River Park to Landsford Canal State Park is about 18 miles long.  The final section, from Landsford Canal State Park to the Hwy. 9 bridge access is about 7.4 miles long.  If the release from Lake Wylie is 80 cubic feet per minute (cfm) or less, the water may be too low for this section to be enjoyable.  If the release from Lake Wylie approaches 11,800 cfm, Class I rapids become transformed into Class III rapids suitable for experienced paddlers only.  3,000 cfs to 4,000 cfs is about right for most paddlers.  However, you need to be the judge of what looks safe for you.
    • South Fork River access points - There are various sections of the South Fork of the Catawba that can be paddled, but the easiest section to paddle is a section between the Spencer Mountain access point and I-85.  This section is about 5.5 miles long. 
    • Riverbend Park in Catawba County (Lookout Shoals Lake)
    • Upper Catawba River Trail brochure - page 1 (large PDF file)
    • Upper Catawba River Trail brochure - page 2 (large PDF file)
    • Wilson Creek Gorge - Wilson Creek Gorge is spectacular, but only appropriate for the most experienced paddlers (unless you just want to look at the scenery and watch the paddlers).
    • Upper Catawba River Basin Map - including locations of access points
    • Lower Catawba-Wateree River Basin Map - including locations of access points.
    • Catawba Basin Whitewater Information compiled from American Whitewater site - This information includes information about tributaries of the Catawba including the Johns River, Linville River, and Wilson Creek.  Most of the sections described in this summary are serious whitewater for skilled paddlers only.

To get additional information about access points on the various lakes, click here.  For information about paddling other rivers in South Carolina, click here.


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Jan 25, 2017 NC Riverkeeper Report
From the perspectives of 12 NC Riverkeepers, this report discusses how multiple environmental issues pose challenges in the pursuit of clean, plentiful water. Whether you are in North Carolina or downstream in South Carolina, read this report about the state of environmental enforcement.
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