Lehigh River Gorge and the “Dam Release” Program

The Lehigh River Gorge is a magical place. If you’ve never been here, you are missing out of one of the local wonders of nature. The Lehigh River is most famous for its miles of pristine whitewater, but its also home to all kinds of outdoor sports like kayaking, mountain biking, and hiking. 10 years ago the Lehigh River had great whitewater only in March, April, May, June, and several days in the fall. Things have changed for the better – and the warmer!

Now WARM WEATHER WHITEWATER lies less than 90 miles from the heart of Philadelphia and less than 2 hours from Midtown Manhattan! We’re talkin’ REAL whitewater, outdoors thrills and breathtaking scenery during the summer months of May, June, July, August, and September. You can’t drive your cool SUV on the roads along the Lehigh Gorge – none exist – so you have to get with Mother Nature and paddle, bike, or hike through it! The surrounding mountains and walls of the Lehigh Gorge rise up to 900 feet over your head. This provides for jaw-dropping views of nature, complete with waterfalls, hawks, great blue herons, and regular sightings of bald eagles… how cool is that?

Thanks to this landmark Lehigh River Flow Management program by the US Army Corps of Engineers, you can experience the splendor and excitement of Class 2 and 3 rapids all summer long. The Army Corps, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the PA Fish and Boat Commission, agreed to manage the resource of the river to enhance recreational opportunities as well as significantly improve the water quality of the river. The last ten years have seen a huge improvement in water quality evidenced by some really top-notch fishing going on here!
Telling the tale of how there is now whitewater in the summer on the Lehigh is a long one. In a nutshell, the Army Corps, starting about late March, lets out less water from the dam than what comes in. This results in a rising pool level behind the dam – 70 vertical feet higher than usual. This enables the “dam release” of water that enhances recreational uses such as kayaking and whitewater rafting. The extra water also holds down the temperature of the water throughout the summer, and this coupled with the higher flows really make a difference in water quality. A lot of smart people from the public and private sector contributed to the debate of how to best use the river, and the result is nothing short of amazing.

The “water releases” as they are called add to naturally occurring flows to offer higher water levels in the heat of the summer. On Water Release weekends (every two weeks from mid-May through July then every weekend until Labor Day) water is released from the dam for 12 hours starting at midnight Friday night. The same happens on Saturday night. The result is concentrated flows during the daylight hours.

Starting below the Francis E. Walter Dam in White Haven, the river enters Lehigh Gorge State Park, and continues within the boundaries of the park to just upstream of Jim Thorpe. There are two sections of river, the Upper Lehigh and the Lehigh Gorge, referred to by local paddlers as Sections 1 and 2. Downstream of Jim Thorpe to Bowmanstown is called Section 3 – this is an easier stretch of river, perfect for summertime kayaking and kayak school, family rafting fun, and learning how to paddle rivers.
Here is a description of the highlights of each section that you’ll enjoy when you paddle the Lehigh River through the Lehigh Gorge State Park!

Section 1 (BigTime Whitewater) – 8 miles long – Immediately blast through Initiation Rapid. Soon you will be floating peacefully before the next thrill. Tannery Rapid is next, followed quickly by the always-exciting Triple Drop. You’ll go through Z, then wonder where the heck to go in the famous No-Way Rapid. Soon you enter the Ledges, Larry, Curly, Moe, and Mud Run. You’ll paddle past Wilhoyt’s Rock, and quickly you arrive at Rockport and the Take-Out for the Section 1. This slightly shorter run features the easier shuttle back and forth for private paddlers and the shorter time required makes it a favorite for paddling clubs.

Section 2 (BigTime Whitewater) – 12.8 miles long – This section starts at Rockport. In one minute you’re in Entrance Rapid – you’re paddling hard and laughing your head off right away in the big waves here. Bounce around Pinball Rock, and then thread the Eye of the Needle. Shoot past Drakes Creek and Dragon Lady Rock. In a few minutes you paddle through White Falls, then Mile-Long Rapid. Hold your breath for the ride through Bridal Veil. Sneak past Flipper Rock and choose the left or right in Double Barrel. The easy way through Hurry Right is obvious, but the middle or left side is crazy fun. The well-known Pipeline Rapid starts with an up-close and personal scrape with 45-Minute Rock, then you crash through the big waves below into Boulder Garden, Sea of Rocks, and the finale – Snaggletooth. Soon you float up to the Glen Onoko Takeout, out of breath but smiling from ear to ear. This stretch is known for longer rapids and the taller walls of the Lehigh Gorge.

Intro to Whitewater Section – 10 miles long – This section is perfect for those people not quite sure if they want to attempt BigTime Whitewater. The trip starts at Glen Onoko. After a short, beautiful float through a quarter mile of smooth flowing river, you enter the rapid called Deaton’s Demise! This is a long Class 2 rapid that starts the day off with a bang. Soon your drifting lazily towards the town of Jim Thorpe, when you enter Last Chance just before zipping by the historic district of Jim Thorpe itself. In a minute you’re in Jim Thorpe Rapid, and what follows is about 8 miles of easy moving water through the lush countryside of Carbon County. The grand finale of this section is the fast and exciting Bowmanstown Rapid, then you drift your way to the Bowmanstown Takeout beach.

EasyWater Rafting Section – 8 miles long – This trip starts at the Train Station in Jim Thorpe and is the section we recommend for kids Age 4 and up, plus people of any age who might be fearful, or anyone who in their opinion isn’t is the greatest physical shape! For those starting here, the first rapid is right around the bend. Great practices sites abound making this part of the river the place where many people learn to kayak and maybe get their first taste of whitewater. This river run ends with a rapid known as Bowmanstown Rapid. Several groups have their own name for this, but the kayak schools call it Final Exam.

You’ll find Jim Thorpe River Adventures to be well-organized, well-trained, and a fun bunch with whom to spend the day. So get out of your suburban or city life and recharge this spring and summer! Get yourself up to the Lehigh River Gorge. There is a ton of things to do, all involving fresh-air, sunshine, and beautiful river scenery.