The River

The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are among the most biologically diverse watersheds on our planet.

The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers

Providing valuable resources, recreation and fun.

The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River.  The Cumberland River flows into the Tennessee River via a channel near Land Between the Lakes.  The Tennessee River is approximately 652 miles long and is located in the southeastern United States in the Tennessee Valley.  The Cumberland River is approximately 688 miles long and is located in Central Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

The Tennessee River is formed at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers on the east side of present-day Knoxville, Tennessee.  From Knoxville, it flows southwest through East Tennessee toward Chattanooga before crossing into Alabama. It loops through northern Alabama and eventually forms a small part of the state’s border with Mississippi, before returning to Tennessee. At this point, it defines the boundary between two of Tennessee’s Grand Divisions: Middle and West Tennessee.

The Cumberland River flows generally west from a source in the Appalachian Mountains to its confluence with the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky, and the mouth of the Tennessee River.  Major tributaries include the Obey, Caney Fork, Stones, and Red rivers.

Tennessee and Cumberland River Species

The Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers are home to various  species. These rivers are among the most aquatically biodiverse river systems in North America. It is also habitat for the largest nesting population of bald eagles in the United States. The Nature Conservancy considers the Tennessee Basin as a whole to be the single most biologically diverse river system for aquatic organisms in the United States. It also harbors the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America with 57 fish species and 47 mussel species considered to be “at-risk.” The southeastern U.S. possesses about 90% of the world’s species of mussels and crayfish, about 73% of the aquatic snails, and about 50% of the freshwater fish of the continental United States. The Tennessee River system alone is home to about 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels, many of which are endemic to the watershed. The Tennessee River is currently the most important source of commercial mussels in the world.

Keep your rivers flowing as they will, and you will continue to know the most important of all freedoms—the boundless scope of the human mind to contemplate wonders, and to begin to understand their meaning. — David Brower.


River Uses

The natural resources of the Tennessee River watershed generate millions of dollars for state and local governments. Thousands of people enjoy the Tennessee River and its tributaries for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, swimming, hiking, nature photography, picnicking, birdwatching, windsurfing, camping, water skiing, and wakeboarding.


Many citizens fish for fun, sport, or to provide food.  The Tennessee and Cumberland River and its tributaries are nationally renowned for all types of sport and recreational fishing. The BassMasters Tournament is often held on the Tennessee River as are other major fishing tournaments. Fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass is especially popular.

Thousands of people enjoy the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers each year for boating of all kinds from sailboats, motorboats, bassboats to kayaks and canoes – these waterways welcome boaters and vessels of all shapes and sizes.  The Tennessee and Cumberland River watersheds are home to some of the best canoeing, kayaking, and rafting in the United States.  Commercial rafting is popular on the Ocoee and Hiawassee Rivers.  Canoers and kayakers find everything from calm family floats to raging whitewater and steep creeking.  Tellico River in East Tennessee and South Sauty Creek on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville are both regarded as challenging creek runs and are just a few of the many “experts only” runs in the watershed. The Ocoee River is one of the most visited paddling destinations in the world and was home to the 1996 Olympics for whitewater slalom.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority is required by the TVA Act to maintain a eleven-foot channel on the Tennessee River in order to allow commercial vessels to efficiently move their goods by water year round. Nine main and four auxiliary locks, located directly on the Tennessee River, allow for both commercial and recreational boat traffic to navigate down the river.  As a result of the river’s availability for commercial water transportation, truck and rail prices are lowered.  Approximately 54 million tons of goods are transported on the Tennessee River each year. Commercial navigation makes it possible for east Tennessee to be a major distribution center for fertilizer, asphalt, and salt.  Zinc mines in Jefferson County, Tennessee, depend heavily on barge transportation to deliver zinc to customers downriver.  The poultry industry would not be heavily located in Tennessee and northern Alabama without commercial barge traffic options on the Tennessee, Cumberland, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee River systems; partly due to shipping options throughout the Midwest and South and also the availability of grains that can be transported cheaply by barge from the upper Midwest.





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