Whitewater fun on the Hiwassee & Ocoee Rivers
The Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers are very popular whitewater recreation destinations in Southeast Tennessee.
The flow of the rivers is regulated by the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dual purposes of hydroelectric power generation and river recreation. The land through which the rivers flow is part of the Cherokee National Forest, 650,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching along the entire eastern boundary of Tennessee, divided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Hunting and fishing within the national forest is primarily managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
The Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park manages river recreation access points on both rivers, freeing up the Forest Service to focus on other tasks. The park office and visitor center is located on the north side of the Hiwassee River, next door to the park’s Gee Creek Campground. The campground features 47 primitive tent sites, group sites, river access, and a 1-mile hiking trail. Forest Service trails for hiking and horseback riding can be accessed across the road from the visitor center.
A 23-mile section of the Hiwassee River was the first river managed as a State Scenic River. Downstream from the Appalachia Powerhouse, 55 miles of the river are now designated as the Hiwassee River Blueway. With gentler rapids than the Ocoee, primarily Class I and Class II, with an occasional Class III, the Hiwassee is a popular beginner-level stream for paddling and tubing. Rental funyaks and tubes are available from a couple of local outfitters.
The Hiwassee’s upper section is considered one of the country’s premier trout fishing streams and is stocked with brown and rainbow trout by TWRA.
For hikers, the John Muir National Recreation Trail begins near Reliance and follows alongside the Hiwassee River upstream for over 20 miles.
In addition to the Gee Creek Campground area, the state park manages the river access site just upstream from the Webb Brothers’ Store at Reliance. This is a take out point for paddlers who put in at the Appalachia Powerhouse 5.4 miles upstream. The Gee Creek Campground is 4.9 miles downstream from Reliance.
Besides river oriented recreation, the Hiwassee/Ocoee State Park is home to the nearby Nancy Ward gravesite, and in the yard of the park office, the Fort Marr Blockhouse. It was originally built at another location in 1814 as part of the War of 1812, then used in the Cherokee Removal of 1838.
A few miles to the south lies the Ocoee River, probably the Southeast’s most popular whitewater destination, hosting over 250,000 paddlers a year. A study a few years ago determined that recreation on the Ocoee contributes $43 million annually to the economy within 60 miles of the river.
With Class III and Class IV rapids, the Ocoee features a 4.5-mile stretch of whitewater downstream from Ocoee Dam #2. Another attraction is a section upstream at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, where the riverbed was redesigned for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whitewater event.
U.S. Highway 64 follows the shoreline of the Ocoee River for 15 miles from Parksville Lake’s Ocoee Dam #1 to the Whitewater Center and provides easy access.
The scenic 1,900-acre Parksville Lake, also known as Lake Ocoee, offers a variety of recreational opportunities, including water skiing, jet skiing, pontoon boating, fishing, two public swimming areas, and more. Just upstream from the lake, a 2-mile section of the river before reaching rapids provides good flatwater paddling.
The Ocoee Whitewater Center, operated by the Forest Service, is also the trailhead for over 30 miles of hiking and mountain bike trails known as the Tanasi Trail system.
Recreation areas along the Ocoee managed by the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park include the Sugarloaf Mountain Park, a day use area just below Ocoee Dam #1, the Big Creek and Caney Creek access points (public and commercial take out sites respectively), Rogers Branch Access at Ocoee Dam #2, and the Upper Ocoee Access just below Ocoee Dam #3.
The upper section of the Ocoee is usually open for paddling more than 50 days each year, with the middle section being open more than 100 days.
When water isn’t being released into the river for recreational use, much of it gets diverted for power generation. A large pipe carries water from Dam #3 to the Ocoee Powerhouse #3 just upstream from Dam #2. From Dam #2, a flume carries water along the mountainside above the river for nearly 5 miles to Powerhouse #2.
Click here for TVA’s recreation release schedules for all three Ocoee dams as well as the Hiwassee’s Appalachia Dam.
Find a list of companies offering guided rafting trips on the Ocoee, local outdoor stores, and businesses that offer kayak instruction or rent funyaks, tubes, standup paddleboards and more here.
Find fishing services here.
For directions, maps, contact information and more, visit the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park website.
Article by Bob Butters