Rankin Bottoms

and Nearby Areas on Douglas Lake


Rankin Bottoms is a large floodplain area at the junction of the French Broad and Nolichucky Rivers about 40 miles east of Knoxville.  It is best known for outstanding numbers of migratory shorebirds and long-legged waders during the late summer and early fall.  Most of the area is within the pool of Douglas Reservoir, and habitat conditions, the numbers and variety of birds present, and the area’s accessibility by birders are greatly dependent on the reservoir’s water level.

Regularly occurring, common to abundant birds found at Rankin Bottoms during the late summer and early fall include Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret (often 200 or more), Black-crowned Night-Heron, Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers, Least, Semipalmated, Western, Pectoral, Spotted, Solitary, and Stilt Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, and several species of swallows.  Regularly occurring but less numerous species include Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, White Ibis, Peregrine Falcon, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, American Avocet, Willet, Spotted, Solitary, Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Caspian Tern. Rarer species seen include American White Pelican, Reddish Egret, Wood Stork, Glossy Ibis, Piping Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Marbled Godwit and Ruff. 

American Avocet and Willet White Ibis
American Avocet and WIllet (left) and juvenile White Ibises (right) at Rankin Bottoms. Photos by Michael Sledjeski unless stated otherwise.

Birding at Rankin Bottoms is very good at other times of the year.  Much of the area is part of 1,255-acre Rankin Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for waterfowl.  The majority of Tennessee’s ducks and geese have been found here in winter, along with Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swan, and a variety of sparrows.  Gulls and terns can be also numerous on upper Douglas Lake.

Nesting species include Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Red-headed Woodpecker, and abundant Wood Ducks, Green Herons, and Prothonotary Warblers.  An immense nesting colony of cliff swallows can be seen under Rankin Bridge.  Osprey nests are located on bridges, silos, towers and dead cottonwoods in the area. Large numbers of migrant songbirds are also present in spring and fall.


From the west on I-40, take I-81 north at the I-40/I-81 junction. Exit I-81 at Exit 4 and head east on TN 341.  This exit is 4 miles north of the intersection of I-40 and I-81, about 35 miles east of Knoxville.  After following TN 341 for 3.6 miles, turn south (right) onto US 25E.  Turn east (left) in 4.5 miles onto Rankin Hill Road.  This intersection is after you cross the US 25E bridge over Dutch Bottoms; see below for instructions on birding this area.  After 3.8 miles, you will reach the intersection of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road (coordinates 36.05303 N, -83.21597 W).  Turn left to enter the main Rankin Bottoms area or right to approach Rankin Bridge. Alternatively, to avoid the narrow and curvey Rankin Hill Road, continue on US 25E for 5.3 miles, turn left onto Industrial Road, and follow the directions in the next paragraph.

An alternate route to Rankin Bottoms is through Newport.  Take I-40 Exit 432B – US 25E/70 towards Newport.  After 2.6 miles, turn left (north) at a stoplight onto US 25E-N.  After 0.8 miles, turn right (east) onto Industrial Road.  Drive 5.4 miles to the intersection with Rankin Hill Road.  Rankin Bridge (see below) is immediately to your right, and the intersection of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road is about 0.3 miles to your left.

If approaching from the northeast on I-81, take Exit 8 and head south on US 25E for 6.5 miles to the bridge over Dutch Bottoms. Then follow the directions in the first paragraph of this section.

For a Google map and directions to the junction of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road, enter either your full starting address including town and state OR your zip code:

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Aerial view of Rankin Bottoms

Aerial view of Rankin Bottoms from the west at a lake elevation of about 982 feet. The active railroad (labeled A) is at the bottom of the photo and the area access road (labeled B) runs parallel to it until branching off towards the northeast in the lower left corner. The old, partially submerged railroad bed (labeled C) is above (east of) the active railroad bed and passes under the old tipple (labeled D). The junction of the French Broad and Nolichucky Rivers (labeled E) is at the top center of the photo.


The availability of good shorebird habitat, and birders’ access to this habitat, depends on the water level of Douglas Reservoir.  TVA’s goal is to maintain a summer water level of about 992 feet in elevation until Labor Day.  After Labor Day, the lake is drained to a target winter elevation of about 955 feet in early December.  The actual water levels, however, are dependent on rainfall and other factors and may differ greatly from these goals. Current and predicted elevations are available here

Because viewing distances are frequently long, a spotting scope is essential for identifying shorebirds at Rankin Bottoms and nearby areas.

Consider the time of day when planning a birding trip to the area. During shorebird season, Rankin Bottoms is best birded on foot late in the day, as the viewing area is frontlit then; morning birding is more difficult due to backlighting from the east. Dutch Bottoms is best birded for shorebirds on foot early in the day, as the area is backlit in the afternoon and evening. Time of day makes little difference when birding from a boat.

At full summer pool elevations, land access is very limited; birding from a small boat (canoe or jon boat) is highly recommended.  Shore habitat improves as the water level drops below 990 feet and shorebird viewing from the shore greatly improves when the lake drops below 985 feet.  Below 975 feet, Rankin Bottoms is completely exposed, and waterbirds tend to concentrate in locations downriver. 

To get to the main part of the bottoms, turn left (north) from Rankin Hill Road onto Hill Road.  If approaching from Newport on Industrial Road and Rankin Hill Road, bear to the right at the intersection of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road.  At 1.7 miles on Hill Road, cross the railroad tracks and pass the Rankin WMA entrance sign.  One of the first views of the bottoms is on your right at the RR crossing; do not block the tracks if you stop here.  Note that this RR crossing is occasionally blocked by a train.  If you are caught by a stopped train, call 800-946-4744, give them crossing number 730 385H, and be patient.

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrine Falcon, a regularly occurring bird at Rankin Bottoms.

Continue past the RR along the gravel road paralleling the tracks. When the lake is down, birds may be seen in the slough below the road. At 0.9 miles past the RR crossing are open views (coordinates 36.07784 N, -83.23888 W).  To the left is a pond that usually contains herons; to the right is either the lake, mudflats and shallows, or meadow, depending on water levels. Shorebird viewing can be excellent at this point, although walking in any direction, if it is not too muddy, can provide better viewing. At lower water levels, you can walk or continuing driving straight ahead under and past a large abandoned concrete coal tipple to more openings with views of mudflats and the end of the road.

Old RR bed and mud flats Old tipple and pond
The old railroad bed and adjacent mud flats (left) and the old railroad tipple and nearby ponded area (right). Photos by Charles P. Nicholson.

Alternatively, you can double back to the right (southeast) on an abandoned railroad bed.  This road is at a lower elevation than Hill Road; be extremely cautious when it first emerges as it can be very muddy.  It is easily passable at elevations below 980 ft. After about 0.7 miles is a road to the left where you can drive toward the river, and park at a small grove of willows.  The slough ahead on the right, if flooded, is good for ducks in the winter, and a path leads to the river.  Backtrack to the old railroad bead and continue to your left (southeast) to the closed gate.  Park and continue on foot to a wooded wetland on the right and a sometimes-flooded meadow on the left.

NOTE: Some of the area is posted because of littering problems, and if you do not have written permission from the caretaker (Christopher John Holt: (423) 623-3479), you will be asked to leave if you encounter a game warden. 


DUTCH BOTTOMS:  Dutch Bottoms is an area of Douglas Lake near and downstream of the US 25E Walters Bridge.  When approaching this area from I-81 on US 25E, pull off of the left side of the highway at the north end of the bridge and walk the old road towards the water.  At proper water levels, there may be herons, egrets, and shorebirds in the slough and mudflats immediately upstream of the bridge.

After crossing the bridge, watch for pulloffs on the right; two productive ones are 0.3 and 3.0 miles south of the bridge.  An old concrete highway across mud flats can be negotiated for some distance; mud here can be perilous, so exercise caution.  These areas become most productive when the lake level drops below 972 feet.  The species present are similar to those at Rankin Bottoms; rare species seen in Dutch Bottoms include Roseate Spoonbill, Franklin’s Gull, and Mottled Duck.

RANKIN BRIDGE:  Rankin Bridge, which crosses the French Broad River, is 0.3 miles south of the junction of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road.  Park at the east end of the bridge and walk back to the middle of the bridge to scan the river.  As the lake level drops, many shoals become exposed in this area.  Scan for cormorants, herons, egrets, and Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers.  Large numbers of Cliff Swallows nest under the bridge and Ospreys nest on the old railroad bridge a short distance downstream.  Fisherman’s paths run along the east bank of river through mature hardwoods. 

TEN ISLANDS:  From the intersection of Rankin Hill Road and Hill Road, take Hill Road 1.4 miles north (towards Rankin Bottoms) to the intersection with Brown Hollow Road.  Turn left (west) onto Brown Hollow Road, which will dead end along the shoreline.  Park along the road, or at the end, for distant views into the Ten Islands area.  Most waterbird species seen at Rankin Bottoms begin to relocate here after Douglas recedes below 975 ft.  Ask the lakefront residents for permission before walking across their property to scan the lake.

Reddish Egret Buff-breasted Sandpiper
A rare Reddish Egret (left) at Rankin Bottoms in July and August, 2008, and a more frequently occurring Buff-breasted Sandpiper (right). Photos by Michael Sledjeski (left) and Charles P. Nicholson (right).


NO FACILITIES: There are no restroom facilities, vending machines, or stores in the birding areas (other than a couple biker bars near the US 25E Walters Bridge). Birders are advised to pack appropriate drinks and snacks. During shorebird season, there also is minimal shade, so sunburn and heat exhaustion are problems to be reckoned with.

BOAT LAUNCH LOCATIONS: TWRA boat ramps are located at Rankin Bridge (see above directions), Leadvale (on Leadvale Rd, east of 25E, 2.4 miles north of Walters Bridge), and at Walters Bridge (see above directions).  

Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency Rankin WMA website.

Tennessee Watchable Wildlife account.

Important Bird Area account .

Tennessee Valley Authority Douglas Reservoir Information.  Note that the pool elevation is the “Upstream” Elevation in the “Observed” table.

Tennessee’s Wild Side Video on Rankin Bottoms.

DeLorme Tennessee Atlas & Gazetteer page 53, Grid D-4.

Wildlife Viewing AreaFishingHuntingBoating

Contributed by Michael Sledjeski, September 2009

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