All About the Tennessee River Basin

The Tennessee River begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers near Knoxville, Tennessee. It then bends south out of the Appalachian Mountains, cuts across the northern quarter of Alabama and turns north to join the Ohio River in Kentucky.

The mainstem of the Tennessee is over 650 miles long and 17% of the river is in Alabama. The Tennessee Basin encompasses 40,900 square miles.

Map Credit: Sydney Zinner

The rivers within the Tennessee Basin flow through 123 counties of seven states, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

Rainbow in downtown Florence. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire
Paint Rock at Graham Farm. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez



At Muscle Shoals, the Tennessee River crosses the Fall Line, demarcating the coast of an ancient sea that is almost 400 miles from the present-day Gulf of Mexico. There are many legends and tales of this portion of the Tennessee River. One such is the Cherokees who once lived in northwestern Alabama called the river flowing near Muscle Shoals “the Singing River”, stemming from their belief that a muse lived in the river and sang songs to them. Another legend is of the Yuchie tribe, who also described this portion of the Tennessee as “the Singing River” because the flowing waters sounded similar to a woman singing, especially during times of low water. Prior to damming by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the waterfalls could be heard in Muscle Shoals from miles away. Historically, some portions of the river at Muscle Shoals dropped a whopping 140 feet! The Shoals area is made up of the cities of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals.


Perhaps the most famous Alabamian, Helen Keller was a resident of the town of Tuscumbia. Keller lost her sight and hearing when she was a mere 19 months old. When she was 7 years old a teacher named Anne Sullivan took her under her wing and taught her language, reading, and writing. As an adult, Keller was a prolific writer, political activist for the disabled, women’s suffrage, and labor rights, and a well-traveled lecturer visiting 35 countries.


The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Tenn-Tom) is a 234-mile, man-made waterway completed in the 1980’s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior River close to Demopolis, Alabama. The Ten-Tom consists of 10 locks and dams with a construction cost of nearly $2 billion. The two major commodities shipped along the Ten-Tom are coal and timber products. A portion called the “Divide Cut” is a 29-mile canal that makes the direct connection to the Tennessee River – connecting Pickwick Lake to Bay Springs Lake.


There are nine dams on the mainstem of the Tennessee River. The first four dams are in Tennessee. The next three in Alabama are Guntersville, Wheeler, and Wilson, which together create 150,500 acres of lakes.

Pickwick Lake is largely formed by Pickwick Dam in Tennessee which backs up into northwest Alabama. Pickwick Lake has been designated as the “Smallmouth Bass Capital of the World” and is one of the world’s most important sources of commercial mussels. Wilson Lock and Dam has a lift of 93 feet and services more than 15 million tons of barge goods per year. Its 13 generators produce more electricity than any other dam on the Tennessee River. Woods Reservoir and Tims Ford dams are located in Tennessee on the Elk River. The Elk is a major tributary to the Alabama portion of the Tennessee River. Tims Ford Lake is regarded as one of the top bass fishing and recreational lakes in the Southeast.


There are numerous caves in the Tennessee Basin. Cavers from around the globe come to explore the area located in the three corners where Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia meet, collectively referred to as the TAG corner.

Within this area, there are more than 5,500 caves in Tennessee, and over 2,000 caves in Jackson County, Alabama, which is the highest subterranean diversity in the U.S. The deepest cave east of the Mississippi River is Ellison’s Cave in Georgia. The National Speleological Society located its headquarters near this cave-rich area in Huntsville.

Cathedral Caverns in Grant holds many world records including widest entrance of any commercial cave, largest stalagmite, and the largest ‘frozen waterfall.’

Fern Cave Spring in the Paint Rock Valley of Jackson County, Alabama. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler


Located in Jackson County, Alabama, the 162-foot deep sinkhole is considered a ‘classic’ by cavers for its stunning beauty. It is home to rare and endangered ferns which thrive on the pit’s ledges in the moist micro-climate.

Neversink Preserve in Jackson County, Alabama. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler
Neversink Preserve in Jackson County, Alabama. Photo Credit: Alan Cressler


Guntersville Lake is the largest Alabama reservoir at 67,900 acres, stretching for 76 miles but with a retention time of only 12-13 days. Lake Guntersville State Park has 6,000 acres of woodlands with a growing bald eagle population that has made it a focal point of Eagle Awareness in the state.

Lake Guntersville in Scottsboro shortly after sunrise. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire

Buck’s Pocket State Park sites in a narrow gorge cut into Sand Mountain by South Sauty Creek. The park covers 2,000 acres and offers some of Alabama’s most unique views.


Huntsville, designated as the first Alabama capital in 1819, is the 4th largest Alabama city and overlooks the Tennessee River. Marshall Space Flight Center, an important research and development site for NASA, as well as the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal are located here. Huntsville is also home to Big Spring International Park built around Huntsville’s original water source – Big Spring. Big Spring is a large, underground karst spring and the largest limestone spring in North Alabama.

Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville. Photo Credit: Rachel McGuire



Alabama’s largest refuge covering 35,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, agricultural fields, and backwater embayments. Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a refuge and breeding ground for tens of thousands of migratory birds, particularly migratory waterfowl. Wheeler has become well-known for its intermittent, migratory populations of Sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes, the only two species of cranes found in North America.

Whooping Cranes soar over Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Video Credit: Mona Dominguez

Sandhill cranes make a unique sound, oftentimes referred to as “bugling” that can be heard from great distances. They are also known to be fantastic dancers.

The sandhill crane is one of Alabama’s largest birds standing at a height of up to 4 feet and a wingspan that can reach 7 feet. They sport a “red cap” on their heads and migrate in large groups. Males and females are regularly documented “dancing” many times outside of the breeding season which is quite a spectacle. The sandhill crane has a large range throughout the continental United States and can be found in most of the Southeastern states. Florida has a year-long resident population as well as a wintering population. Sandhills are often spotted migrating through the states of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. The Mississippi subspecies of the sandhill crane is federally endangered.

The Tennessee Valley is an important portion of the Mississippi Flyway. Some waterfowl species of note that can be found in the area are wood ducks, blue-winged teal, gadwall, American widgeon, northern pintail, snow goose, brant, tundra swan, and many others.

With the Tennessee River Basin’s ample cave systems, come rare, cave critters with strange attributes and adaptations. Many of these cave critters lack pigment, sight, and in some cases, may lack eyes altogether. The Alabama cavefish, which is considered one of the rarest freshwater fish in the world, is known to occur within underground pools of one cave system (Key Cave) in northwestern Alabama. Other cave dwellers include gray bats, big brown bats, tri-colored bats, Indiana bat, pseudoscorpions, Tennessee cave salamander, and the Alabama cave shrimp.

A cave crayfish in Madison County, Alabama. Photo Credit: Charles Stephen


Christina Porter and Amanda King are two 4-H AWW Educators in Muscle Shoals during high flow after Hurricane Zeta in October 2020. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

Over Alabama Water Watch’s 30 year history, the Tennessee Basin has hosted more than 70 volunteer monitoring groups – more than any other basin in Alabama! Many of these groups have included 4-H AWW teams, like 4-H AWW Colbert County, featured above.

Do you have photos or videos on the Tennessee River or any of their tributaries you would like to share with AWW? If so, upload your photo/video through this submission form.