Places to sail on
inland rivers in the USA

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This page updated: October 2004
(but I last cruised this
area in 2003, so most of
the info dates from then)

Great Loop (Great Circle)
Small Loop
Tenn-Tom (Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway)
Tennessee River Side-Trip
Cumberland River Side-Trip
Mississippi River
Gulf Coast

Note: I don't repeat information you can find on charts or in guidebooks. And I do focus on things that fit my cruising style: I anchor out, use libraries for internet, don't go to restaurants and bars.


Recommended guidebooks:
"Quimby's Cruising Guide" edited by Nelson Spencer (lists locks and dams, marinas, a very few local events and attractions in various towns)
Haueisen's Great Circle Adventure: Guides and Charts

The only paper chartbooks available are Waterway Guides from the Corp of Engineers.

McDonough Marine's "Mileage Charts and Waterway Maps"

Rainy season, and thus high water levels, occurs in the spring. Generally, high water ends beginning of May. But there can be high water from summer thunderstorms, too.

During the rainy season, can be lots of logs and debris in the water, even inside the locks.

From Richard Armstrong on Great-loop mailing list:
I have both Maptech and CAPN charting packages. Both use Maptech raster charts which are excellent for coastal navigation. The interface between GPS and autopilot works well in both. Sofchart makes electronic charts for all the inland rivers. They are really helpful to locate your position so you can let tow boats know where you are in blind turns etc. Don't use them for other uses such as following a course. Maptech doesn't read those charts so that is why I used the CAPN.
From Brian Strong on Great-loop mailing list:
... I second the warning about Softcharts. The loop package is a bargain but many of the charts do not line up lat/lon properly ...
I found the latitude was wrong on the 1/2003 Corps of Engineers paper chart for Old Hickory Lock on the Cumberland River.
From Larry Zeitlin on Great-loop mailing list:
For doing the loop, you may find Street Atlas more useful than charts. The bulk of the trip is in canalized waterways bordered by roads and towns. Buy a navigation program that lets you use street maps as well as navigation charts. Fugawi for the PC and GPSy for the Mac can be used for land as well as water navigation. Both cost in the $100 range. The full Street Atlas program is even cheaper.

From Skip Mulder on Great-loop mailing list:
We have been using Cap'n with MapTech charts. Having done the Great Loop twice, we have used the MapTech charts for both trips. We have experienced no difficulties anywhere along the route. Along with the MapTech regional CD's, we purchased two floppies that interface beautifully with the MapTech's. One is the Northbound ICW from Fla to Norfolk and the other is the Southbound. We got them for $35 from Captain Jacks catalog. They were developed by a gentleman who did an inordinate amount of research as the blue line co-incides exactly on the chart and the route north or south is laid out in 35-mile days. Each anchorage with 9' of depth at low tide is noted as well as notes at every turn in the routing. It was a great deal at a very reasonable price.

We keep hearing about people who experience strange GPS signals, as well as folks who say that the boats plotting on the waterway is not accurate. We have not experienced this phenomena, nor have we run aground.

We will never travel without having the paper charts for the entire route. ...

Great Loop (Great Circle)

The "Great Loop" is going up USA east coast, across and down through midwest, then around Florida back to the east coast.

From Skipper Bob on Great-loop mailing list:
The Great Loop Cruise, also referred to as the Great Circle Route, is an exciting journey that takes a boater up the East Coast of the United States from Florida to the Hudson River. 155 miles up the Hudson River the boater either chooses to go west on the Erie Canal or north on the Champlain Canal. By either route, the boater eventually ends up on the Great Lakes. The boater has several options available to explore places like the Richelieu Canal, Rideau Canal, Montreal, Quebec, Lake Ontario, the Thousand Islands, Lake Erie, but after much soul-searching usually ends up at Trenton, Ontario on the north shore of Lake Ontario on the Bay of Quinte.

From Trenton, the boater goes west through the Trent-Severn Waterway to the Georgian Bay, and then continues northwest up the Georgian Bay and North Channel to end up at the top of Lake Huron near Mackinac Island. Next comes the journey down Lake Michigan to Chicago. From Chicago the boater heads down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers to the junction of the Ohio River. Up the Ohio about 50 miles and join the Cumberland River. Follow the Cumberland and then Tennessee Rivers upstream (headed south) and join the Tenn-Tom Canal leading to Mobile, AL.

From Mobile the boater heads east to the Florida Big Bend, circles down around Florida and either crosses the Okeechobee Waterway or goes around the tip of Florida in the Bay of Florida and joins the East Coast Intracoastal Waterway, completing this exciting circle or loop. The journey has many variations depending on the cruisers time and vessel and is often completed in one year, but also may be broken up into two or three years. Boaters have completed the Great Circle Route on a Waverunner, canoe, houseboat, powerboat, trawler and sailboat. However, the most popular choice seems to be either a power boat or a trawler. The journey is about 6,000 miles (depending on which alternative routes you take) and can take you through between 17 and 20 states and two or three countries.

Vessel height and depth restrictions do apply. For complete details on the Great Circle Route read my book by the same name. Skipper Bob Publications

Raven Cove Publishing
America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association FAQ Page
The Haueisen's Great Circle Adventure
Great-loop mailing list

Cheap fuel on NE segment: Winter Harbor in Brewerton NY, the last marina on the right after reentering the Erie to the west after crossing Oneida Lake.

From Jack TTBG on Great-loop mailing list:
Chicago bridge clearances:

For information on current bridge clearances in Chicago you may call (312) 744-4200, which is the Chicago Bridge Office located at Randolph Street Bridge in downtown on the main branch of the river. If you are in the area you can also call them on channel 16, "Chicago Bridge Office" or "Randolph Street Bridge Tender."

Generally you can count on clearance minimum of 17.5 feet which is lowest at Michigan Avenue in the downtown main branch. On the South branch there is an Amtrak bridge with only 10 feet, but it is manned 24 hours for lifts, but you will have long waits for trains during morning and evening rush hours. You can arrange for "bridge trips" where the bridges will raise for you, but you must make arrangements at least 24 hours in advance, more time is better, use the above phone 2number. In spring and fall, Crowley's Yacht Yard, which has many sailboat customers is the unofficial clearing house for times/dates for bridge trips, you can call them at (312) 225-2170, they also specialize in service to traveling yachts, and will send service personnel to the harbors.

On the Calumet River just out of the lake you will have 21 feet, but these bridges will open 24 hours.

Remember that inside the main river locks by Navy Pier, and inside the O'Brien Locks on the Calumet, the water levels are controlled and during flood/drought conditions clearances may vary widely.

If you are a high vessel and are going south via Chicago, the Calumet River on the South side of the city is the way to go for most expeditious passage, there is a lot of commercial traffic so the bridges are manned 24 hours all the way to the O'Brien Locks, after which you have plenty of clearance because of the commercial towboat traffic in that area. Not as much nice scenery as downtown, but you will get there with a minimum of fuss.

One very important caution: Do NOT enter Lake Calumet unless you have extensive local knowledge, it takes large ships, but in places the water goes from deep draft ocean vessel clearance to nothing, in like nothing flat. Then we will meet in person, when I salvage your vessel (there has never been a "soft grounding" in Lake Calumet). Lake Calumet is just to your right as you approach the O'Brien Locks, and if you are waiting for the locks, it is tempting to decide to explore the area, especially if you see the large oceangoing ships in there. On the North end of the lake lies the most harsh grounding conditions on the entire loop, old concrete blocks, rebar, scrap iron, and other metal and concrete junk, just under the surface, waiting for you. If you get caught in there, the only way out is commercial salvage by way of raising your vessel on air bags with a slipway between your boat and the bags, no fun, and very expensive.

One other anomaly: the "little Calumet River" is the big one, the "Grand Calumet River" is a shallow branch, in which you will get acquainted with the term "soft grounding" in a hard way. The bottom is mud/muck which creates a suction that not only is very hard to break but gets into your cooling system and hardens like cement when it dries.

From Al Binnington on Great-loop mailing list:
The limiting factor as to air draft on the Great Circle Route (loop) is a fixed bridge at Lamont, Illinois (mile 300.5 on the Illinois River) which has a clearance of 19 feet. Through Chicago the bridge clearance is 17' but going via Calument you can access the Illinois River easily and now are limited by the 19' bridge.
From Alan Lloyd on Great-loop mailing list:
The lowest bridge on the Great Circle is 17 feet on the Chicago River but you can bypass that bridge by taking the Calumet River. Then the lowest bridge would be 19 ft 1 inch. The Erie Canal Bridges are 20 feet assuming you follow the traditional route to Canada. If you stay on the Erie Canal to Buffalo then the bridges are only 15 ft 6 inches. Trent Severn bridges are 22 feet. There is a 25 footer on the New Jersey ICW. There are a number of bridges that will require opening. The taller your boat the more waiting for bridges to open.
From Robert Reib on Great-loop mailing list:
For the entire loop the limit is 19' 1" at Chicago.
The western Erie Canal is 15 1/2' feet.
The Trent Severn, Oswego, eastern Erie Canal, Richelieu and Rideau all are greater than the 19' 1 " in Chicago so are not a problem anyway.
The Champlain Canal is 17'.

Small Loop

I define the "Small Loop" as: from Mobile, up the Tenn-Tom, 50 miles down the Ohio, down 850 miles of the Mississippi, to New Orleans. Looks like about 1500 miles total. Upstream against small current from Mobile to the Tenn-Tom / Tennessee River junction, and downstream from there.

I did it in 2003: my trip log

The Tenn-Tom and Mississippi parts of the route will be discussed in the next two sections of this web page.

The connector:
  1. Start at Kentucky Lock/Dam and Barkley Canal junction (in Kentucky Lake; north end of Tennessee River),
  2. Two ways of getting across to the Mississippi River:
    • Through Kentucky Dam lock, west down Tennessee River (22 miles), to Ohio River, or
    • Through Barkley canal (2 miles), west down the Cumberland River (32 miles), to Ohio River at Smithland KY, down the Ohio River (13 miles).
      [Possible side-trip: southeast up the Cumberland River about 100 miles to Nashville TN; see Cumberland River Side-Trip.]
  3. To Paducah KY.
    [Possible side trip: northeast up the Ohio River about 200 miles to Louisville KY and another 100 miles to Foster KY.]
  4. West down the Ohio River (45 miles),
  5. To Cairo IL.

From help desk at Bluewater Books:
> I am confused about the
> Ohio / Cumberland / Tennessee rivers connection.

Most boaters use the Barkley Canal in Kentucky Lake to move over to the Cumberland River and then head north on the Cumberland to Smithland and the Ohio River. Then you would go west to the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Bluewater has put together a photocopied chartkit of this area which takes the place of the Cumberland River and Ohio Foster to Cairo Corps of Engineers Charts (you can find it on our website under Corp of Engineers under Paper Charts). With this photocopied chartkit, you can't go up to Nashville and you can't go up the Ohio past Smithland. But it is just what you need if you are doing your loop. The reason for using the Cumberland is that the lock at the Tennessee River / Ohio River junction is very busy with commercial tows, and pleasure craft must wait until all the commercial traffic has been locked through.

Current down the Ohio River from Smithland to Cairo was 2 to 3 knots in 9/2003.

Tenn-Tom (Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway)

The route (pic):
  1. Start from Mobile AL (mile 0),
  2. Up the Mobile River (about 65 miles),
    [Possible side-trip here: northeast up the Alabama River, about 205 miles to Selma AL, another 85 miles to Montgomery AL],
  3. Up the Tombigbee River (about 152 miles; 4 bridges with 52 feet clearance),
  4. To Demopolis AL (mile 217),
  5. Past junction with Black Warrior - Tombigbee Waterway,
    [Possible side-trip here: northeast up the Black Warrior River about 120 miles to Tuscaloosa AL, and another 60 miles to Birmingham AL],
  6. Into Tennessee - Tombigbee Waterway,
  7. Up the Tenn-Tom waterway / Tombigbee River section (about 149 miles; 3 bridges with 52-53 feet clearance; MS/AL border at mile 314),
  8. To near Amory MS (mile 368),
  9. Up the Tenn-Tom waterway / canal section (about 46 miles; 5 bridges with 52-53 feet clearance),
  10. To Bay Springs Lake (mile 412),
  11. Up the Tenn-Tom waterway / Divide Cut section (about 39 miles; 5 bridges with 52-53 feet clearance),
  12. To Pickwick Lake (mile 450; MS/AL/TN borders),
  13. [Possible side-trip here: southeast up the Tennessee River about 250 miles to Chattanooga, and then northeast another 190 miles to Knoxville TN; see Tennessee River Side-Trip],
  14. North down the Tennessee River,
  15. To Kentucky Lake (TN/KY border at river mile 49 / total mile 608),
  16. To Kentucky Lock/Dam and Barkley Canal junction (about river mile 24 / total mile 633),

Recommended guidebooks:
"Quimby's Cruising Guide" edited by Nelson Spencer (just lists marinas and locks, nothing else)
Fred Myers' "The Tenn-Tom Nitty-Gritty CruiseGuide" (anchorages, towns, locks, etc)

Tenn-Tom Waterway article by Diana Jessie in 3/2003 issue of Cruising World magazine

From Tenn-Tom Waterway article by Diana Jessie in 3/2003 issue of Cruising World magazine:
  • Lots of big, fast traffic and big wakes on the Mississippi River.
  • Tennessee River flows northward, Ohio River flows westward.
  • Traffic on the Tenn-Tom Waterway is light.
  • Few opportunities to provision: Paducah KY, Iuka MS, Columbus MS, Demopolis AL, Mobile AL.

Lots of fixed bridges that are 52 feet above "normal pool" or "ordinary high water" water level.

Twelve locks to go through, one with an 84-foot lift.

By beginning of May, end of flood conditions and strong currents in Tenn-Tom basin.

From Army Corps of Engineers:
> river currents on Mobile River and up Tenn-Tom from there ?

We do not have that information on the web site, but under normal conditions the flow is about 3 fps [2.4 knots], on high river conditions it is about 5 to 6 fps [4.7 knots].

From Fred Myers, author of "The Tenn-Tom Nitty-Gritty CruiseGuide":
> currents on Black Warrior, Tenn-Tom and Tennessee rivers ?

The short version is: Current will be minimal on all three of these waterways.

To be more specific, between early May and December, expect no more than a current of 1 to 2 mph. Even then, that higher figure will apply as you approach the dams from downstream. Current on both the Tennessee and Black Warrior will tend to be even slightly less except for a few miles below the dams.

These are under normal conditions. Excessive widespread rain, highly unlikely during summer and fall unless the region gets the remnants of a gulf coast hurricane, will increase water flow which, in turn, will increase current. Even that effect will generally be of no real consequence except on the Tenn-Tom.

That's about as definitive as I can be. But I will say that during the 13 years I have been publishing the CruiseGuides, I have never had a boater tell me they had trouble with current unless they tried to run these waterways during times of high water.
I went up 6/2003, in a period of intermittent rain. Water levels weren't high, but current was 1 to 1.5 knots in the Mobile river and 1.5 to 2.3 knots in the Tombigbee river. To get out of the strongest currents, hug the riverbanks. Current almost zero north of Columbus MS.

In Mobile Bay and at Mobile, commercial traffic is on VHF 13. Up the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers, and on the Tenn-Tom, it's on VHF 16. Saw fewer tows north of Columbus MS.

Army Corps of Engineers Mobile Alabama Water Levels
Map of Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers
Map of Tenn-Tom Waterway

Anchorages scarce from Mobile to Demopolis.
Anchor in straight sections (the longer and wider the better), not at bends.
Most bayou, creek, bogue and lake entrances are smaller than they look on the chart, may be overgrown with tree branches, and may be shoaled.
Use an anchor trip line everywhere.

Almost all buoys in the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers were missing 6/2003. Most of the daymarks on shore were present. Buoys better once on the Tenn-Tom itself.

Tennessee River Side-Trip

Current down the Tennessee River near the Tenn-Tom junction was 0.3 to 0.6 knots in 7/2003. At miles 250-256, it was 1.5 to 2.5 knots. At mile 160, about 1 to 1.5 knots. At mile 70, maybe 0.5 to 0.7 knot.

Cumberland River Side-Trip

Current in 7/2003: 2-3 knots below the Barkley Lock, about 0.4 knots at mile 65, about 0.5 knots at mile 100, 1 knot at Clarksville and Ashland City, 1.5 to 2 knots at miles 170 to 190. In 8/2003 and 9/2003, 2 to 3 knots at miles 200 to 215.

Hard to anchor from about mile 70 to 150: river is narrow and shoals quickly outside the channel in wide spots.

Mississippi River

This applies to the "lower" Mississippi: below the Ohio River.

The route (very simple):
  1. Start from Cairo IL (Mississippi River mile 955),
  2. Down the Mississippi River,
  3. Through Memphis TN, Greenville MS, Vicksburg MS, Natchez MS, Baton Rouge LA,
  4. To New Orleans (Mississippi River mile 93).

No locks, and no low bridges, on the river.

Tows talk on VHF 13 down to Baton Rouge. Below there, they seem to use VHF 16, but I didn't hear much traffic there.

Typical current down the Mississippi river is 5-6 knots ?

From Army Corps of Engineers:
> river currents on Mississippi River near St Louis ?

Around this time of year [May], the river current between St. Louis and Cairo is about 6 fps (feet/second). Throughout the year it ranges from 3 fps [2.4 knots] to about 6 fps [4.7 knots].

In Sept/Oct 2003, I generally saw 2-4 knots of current from Cairo to Baton Rouge, and about 1 knot from there to New Orleans. (There were low-water conditions on the river at the time.)

Ohio and Mississippi rivers are very polluted, from industrial and farm sources.

Stretch from above Baton Rouge LA to below New Orleans is "chemical corridor", loaded with chemical factories and refineries. Water, air, land are polluted.

Soon after going down the lower Mississippi, I had to rebuild my engine raw water pump, and rebuild my outboard's water pump and gearbox upper seals. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe it was all the silt/sand in the river water. Check for water leaking from engine raw water pump shaft, and seawater contamination in outboard's gear oil.

Stay at Vicksburg MS or north during hurricane season.

The route (more detailed):
  1. Start from Cairo IL (mile 955),
  2. Down the Mississippi River (about 79 miles),
  3. To Hickman KY,
  4. Down the Mississippi River (about 32 miles),
  5. To New Madrid MO,
  6. Down the Mississippi River (about 42 miles),
  7. To Caruthersville MO,
  8. Down the Mississippi River (about 110 miles),
  9. To Memphis TN,
  10. Down the Mississippi River (about 74 miles),
  11. To Helena AR,
  12. Down the Mississippi River (about 126 miles),
  13. To Greenville MS,
  14. Down the Mississippi River (about 100 miles),
  15. To Vicksburg MS,
  16. Down the Mississippi River (about 73 miles),
  17. To Natchez MS,
  18. Down the Mississippi River (about 135 miles),
  19. To Baton Rouge LA,
  20. Down the Mississippi River (about 136 miles),
  21. To New Orleans (mile 93),
  22. Through the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (about 5 miles; 3 opening bridges),
  23. To Lake Pontchartrain (north side of downtown New Orleans).

From a guidebook author:
Quimby's has little information regarding the lower Mississippi. Even worse, they do very little on-water checking. So you would be wise to check in advance to verify any information it provides.


I'm not aware of any published information on the lower Mississippi other than Quimby's which, as I have already indicated, offers precious little for that stretch of water.

An alternative, and probably the best in the long run, is to try to locate someone who has made that trip who is willing to give you first-hand knowledge about what you will encounter. In that regard, a call to one of the few existing marinas on the river that do service pleasure boats might be a start.

To stress the point again, cruising the lower Mississippi isn't an easy task. That applies to planning as well as execution.
The 2003 edition of Quimby's has 2 pages of text on the Lower Mississippi; just lists some marinas and fuel docks.

From Charles Culotta on Great-loop mailing list:
The Mississippi, from Vicksburg south to New Orleans: It is not a nice place for pleasure boats unless you have no alternative. Not only no services but no good places to stop overnight. Not to say that there are none just not good ones. There is no gasoline and hard to find diesel. Tows are very large, 36 or more barges in one tow. And lots of them.

From Bill Cook on Great-loop mailing list:
On the Lower Mississippi the tows are 32 barges long and there are very few marinas (not a fun trip).

From David Magill on Great-loop mailing list:
I have bought fuel in Vicksburg, but I know of no other place below there on the Mississippi River.

From Richard Armstrong on Great-loop mailing list:
... The Lower Mississippi is not all that boater-friendly, but cruising downstream is not too bad, just plan ahead for fuel and stops. ...

Someone who made the trip a few times told me that not only are many small towns cut off from the river, and not river-oriented any more, but even the locals are not very boating-oriented any more. Some teenagers stole their big boat and joy-rided a mile down the river before leaving it aground, and they had a hard time finding anyone with a boat, to get a lift to it. Few people had boats any more.

Guy at Big E Marina in Paducah KY told me: may see whirlpools up to 80 feet across; may see silt so fine that anchor slowly pulls right through it; may see sandbars near Memphis where water goes from 200 feet to too-shallow very quickly. [Now that I've done it, I think he was greatly exaggerating, at least for Sept/Nov conditions. I didn't see anything nearly that bad.]

My experiences in 9/2003-11/2003:
  • [In Sept/Nov,] The current was no problem, except you have to find an anchorage shielded from it. The current does cause "swirls" in the water, so hand-steering is tiring at times.
  • The tows were no problem. Yes, they're big, but the river is bigger.
  • Often, the best or only good anchorage near a town is full of barges or transited by tows.
  • Generally, there is no problem finding a decent anchorage not near a town. You can pull in downstream of a dike, or into a cut-off old river loop. Just watch out for anywhere the tows might want to nose ashore, or tie off barges.
  • Most towns have no dock for pleasure boats or dinghies, and the riverfront is usually completely concrete and rip-rap. Difficult to get ashore at most towns; look for a boat-ramp with muddy bank near it, and pull the dinghy ashore at the mud. May be no mud except at low-water times (fall). Mud may be soft enough to sink in a foot deep, and sticky enough to suck shoes off; go barefoot, but watch out for nasty stuff on the shore. Often need a bicycle to get to town.
  • The route definitely is "riskier" than the Tenn-Tom in that far fewer pleasure boats take it, there are fewer fishermen around, fewer marinas, and the current makes it a "one-way route" (if something goes wrong, it's impractical to go upstream much to get help).
  • Very good to have a powerful dinghy, especially one that planes, for situations where you're crossing the river or going upstream against strong current.
  • The towns on the Mississippi route (Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and several others) are much more interesting than those on the Tenn-Tom route (Columbus, Demopolis, Mobile, period). [But you'll need to stay in a marina to see New Orleans; I gave up on anchoring there.]
  • A lot of these towns have a crime problem, especially after dark. I went ashore only in daylight.

From Cappy and Judy Stahlman on Great-loop mailing list 8/2004:
... We found cruising the Lower Mississippi some of the best we have had with a few caveats:

1) Your boat must have long legs. Fuel basically is available only at Memphis, Greenville, (maybe Vicksburg), Natchez (by stopping at Vidalia Dock and Storage and making truck fuel delivery by Kaiser Petroleum in Natchez).

2) Wait until late mid-summer or later in order to catch the river in a slight fall. (Trash drops radically fast during a fall of the river, but it also picks it up quickly on a serious rise.)

3) Have good ground tackle because you may have to anchor behind the rock weirs put in by the COE. If you are not in a hurry, there are several islands to sneak behind.

4) Baton Rouge to New Orleans don't seem to mind if you pass through, they just don't know what to do with you if you want to stop in the main river.

5) Tunica, Ms south of Memphis has a floating dock and would not allow us to spend the night even after showing them an article from Heartland Boating, but since have called and said they changed their policy and would welcome pleasure boaters.

On the plus side, even though much has been said about the large number of very large tows (true), the Mississippi is so large that this is not a problem at all. We were much more concerned with the effects of much smaller tows on the Tenn/Tom and Tennessee.

Gulf Coast