Skip to main content


Underwater snorkel mask.

Dive Into Snorkel Trails

Underwater Adventure Awaits in North Carolina Rivers

Above the Tuckasegee River on a warm day, crows caw, cicadas whine and a train clacks nearby on its tracks.

But slip on a snorkel and dip your head below the waterline, and you’re soon immersed in the clear, blissfully muffled world of the river. Fish flash in filtered sunlight, then dart into the shadows of rocks furred with living algae and the slowly creeping creatures that feast upon it.

It’s a world only the snorkeler can explore.

“You’re seeing things that you’ve never seen before,” Shannon O’Quinn, Tennessee Valley Authority senior water resource specialist, said.

O’Quinn and a small crowd of enthusiastic snorkelers attended an unveiling of one of 10 new TVA-funded snorkeling sites in western North Carolina’s rivers.

“You see fish that are green and orange ... beautiful fish,” O’Quinn said. “People think of snorkeling as something they do only on vacation in the tropics, or in salt water. Yet these things are right here in your backyard.”

Tennessee dace swimming in the Tuckasegee River.

Tennessee dace live in the Tuckasegee but they’ve lost habitat in the Southeast. This photo by Evan Poellinger, of Conservation Fisheries Incorporated, shows them clustering together to spawn.

Underwater Education

Snorkelers can explore this biodiverse world thanks to the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail initiative, born from TVA’s partnership with the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, Mainspring Conservation Trust, and MountainTrue.

It’s a huge educational and outreach effort, and the first of its kind in this region, O’Quinn said.

The project aims to reveal the wonders of the region’s rivers to anyone who wants to get wet. This can usher in a new generation of public partners who care about these unique aquatic ecosystems.

“When people see all the life below the surface … it enhances their desire to protect water quality,” Callie Moore, MountainTrue’s western regional director, said.

TVA-funded signs at each site educate snorkelers about the animals, plants and habitats they'll encounter underwater.

“Experiential education is a crucial part of helping folks understand the dynamics of watershed science,” Ken Brown, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, said.

And this outreach works.

After a single season, local officials asked for more trails in their communities. The Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail partners are now planning additional Snorkel Trail sites.

“It will be a much larger project and an ongoing endeavor,” Jason Meador, fish biologist at Mainspring Conservation Trust, said.

The Snorkel Trails project won a TVA-sponsored Communication and Outreach award at a recent Tennessee River Basin Network meeting. The award will help add more snorkel sites and bring people face to face with the area’s exceptional aquatic biodiversity.

“There’s so much … we couldn't do without the support of TVA,” Meador said. “We’re super thankful to have TVA as a partner.”

Woman stands in river with snorkel gear.

Adventurers enjoy an afternoon of snorkeling in the Tuckasegee River at Bryson City Island Park in western North Carolina. 

Partnerships for Biodiversity

The Snorkel Trails program is part of the multi-state picture of how TVA supports regional river health.

In North Carolina, TVA is part of the Little Tennessee Native Fish Conservation Partnership. Its projects—such as Snorkel Trails—help protect waters that feed the larger Tennessee River, Jessica Wykoff-Carpenter, TVA watershed representative, said.

“TVA has been a significant partner for responsible stewardship work in the Little Tennessee River basin and other watersheds for decades,” Moore said. “The Tuckasegee River joins with the Little Tennessee and Nantahala rivers downstream to create Fontana Reservoir. From there the waters flow into Tennessee.”

Just as the waters are connected, TVA’s work is coordinated, too.

TVA supports wetland creation, streambank stabilization, reintroduction of endangered species such as lake sturgeon and mussels, and rare fish such as sicklefin redhorse, removal of stream barriers, and the Shade Your Stream program to fund riparian buffers.

Across TVA’s seven-state region, TVA scientists are on boats in all seasons, conducting regular research on the water and the animal communities that live within it. They sample the river bottom, monitor fish and keep tabs on water quality, among other research projects.

“TVA monitors a little over 500 sites throughout the Tennessee Valley,” O’Quinn said.

Biologists share the water health data they collect with their partners. This includes specialists in other TVA divisions as well as nonprofit organizations and federal, state and local agencies. Their work is part of TVA’s Natural Resources goals—to provide recreation and protect biodiversity.

river chub building a nest

Andrew Zimmerman, of Conservation Fisheries Incorporated, observed this river chub building a nest in the gravel bottom. Colorful war paint shiners, who also use the nest mounds, streak by in the background. 

Into the River

For those looking to explore this aquatic biodiversity, there’s good news: It's easy to access a Snorkel Trail.

“I think of it as a trail like any other,” Meador said. “You could hike a trail on your own. You can go snorkeling on your own. You don't need expensive equipment.”

Visitors can buy or rent a snorkel mask and breathing tube, Moore said. If it’s outside the warm-water window of late spring to summer, a wetsuit will come in handy.

In some areas, snorkelers can hire a local guide to help.

At each site, visitors will find a sign orienting them to river life, as well as offering guidelines for responsible exploration: Don’t move big rocks or stack stones. Put everything back where you found it.

Then, it’s time to grab a mask and snorkel and wade into the shin-deep river.

Under the water, watch for flashes of blue, green, silver and red on darters and shiners.

Feel the slick, algae-covered rocks and notice the stonefly larvae imperceptibly nibbling algae.

Spot any rows of tiny pebbles? Those are caddisfly houses.

On the stream bottom, look for clumps of brown leaves that have drifted down from the riverbank trees. The vegetation drives the lotic—flowing water—river food web, according to Ken Brown.

You might even spot the endangered hellbender, a native giant salamander, Meador said.

The guidebook “Snorkeling the Hidden Rivers of Southern Appalachia” offers tips and routes for snorkeling adventures regionwide.

The rewards are immense, although if you’re new to snorkeling, convincing yourself to take that first breath underwater is a learning experience, O’Quinn said.

But once you relax your breathing?

"You start enjoying the underwater world that you never got to see before ... this hotspot of aquatic biodiversity," O’Quinn said. “It’s just you and the river and the critters that live there.”

Photo Gallery

TVA biologist snorkels in river.

TVA biologists use many approaches – including snorkeling – to closely monitor and research aquatic species throughout the Valley region.

Blueside darters spawning

Derek Wheaton, of Conservation Fisheries Incorporated, captured this photo of blueside darters spawning in a clear, gravel-bottomed river.

Fish such as this tangerine darter come in tropical colors.

Fish such as this tangerine darter, photographed by Derek Wheaten of Conservation Fisheries Incorporated, come in tropical colors to attract mates.

Adventurers enjoy an afternoon of snorkeling in the Tuckasegee River.

Western North Carolina’s rivers are rich with aquatic biodiversity, making them well-suited for snorkeling and outdoor discovery. 

Electric plug icon


Explore the seven-state region’s many opportunities for outdoor adventure at TVA’s MapGuide page.

Share this story: