Cherokee National Forest Paddling Overview

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

  • The Ocoee and Hiawassee Rivers are the primary rafting venues in the Cherokee National Forest, located in southeastern Tennessee near the Georgia and North Carolina border.
  • The Ocoee is one of the busiest rivers in the Southeast and is serviced by numerous outfitters. The upper section of the river was the whitewater site of the 1996 Olympic Games. Campground and mountain biking trails add to the greater Ocoee outdoor experience.
  • Twenty-four outfitters serve the area. Popular guided runs travel over 20 Class II-IV rapids through the Ocoee Gorge and the Middle Ocoee.
  • The Upper Ocoee River is available only 34 summer days per year, due to dam controlled water releases, so plan ahead and contact an outfitter if you wish to run this section.
  • The Hiawassee River, north of the Ocoee, is a scenic destination with Class I-II rapids. The primary run lasts for 5.5 miles.

Don't Miss
Entrance Rapid on the Ocoee River
From A Playboater's Guide to the Ocoee River by Kelly Fischer

Several whitewater rivers flow through the Cherokee National Forest: the Nolichucky, the French Broad, the Tellico, the Conasauga, the Hiwassee, and the famous Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom Competition.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center, built for the '96 Olympics, is open to the public and receives more than 120,000 tourists and outdoor recreationists annually. What you see as a visitor resembles a public recreation area that blends in with the surrounding rocky river gorge. But underneath the surface lie thousands of tons of concrete, boulders, steel reinforcements, and artificial rock. When the dam-controlled water is flowing, visitors can canoe, kayak, or raft the river. A large number of paddling outfitters and guides serve the Ocoee. Contact the Center for more information.

In addition to the world-class whitewater course, the Ocoee Whitewater Center includes a 7,600-square foot administration building that serves as the gateway to the Ocoee Region. Inside, visitors can see legacy exhibits to the sport of paddling and the Olympic competition, learn the history in the Ocoee Region, and get information on the region including area restaurants and accommodations, rafting, and fishing outfitters.

The Center warns that when the Tennessee Valley Authority releases water through the Center Olympic course, the water flows extremely fast. Water play at the site is not always advisable. Lifeguards are not on duty. Paddlers are advised to check water flow scheduling with the Center before arriving.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center is open seven days a week from April through October, and on weekends only from November through March. Please call for opening hours and to ask about special events.

In addition to offering paddlers access to the river, the Center also has an easy one-mile hiking trail and access to a ten-mile system of hiking and biking trails. A Wildlife Viewing Area at the Center is a hands-on outdoor laboratory teaching visitors about diverse ecosystems and wildlife habitats.

There are picnic areas, and light lunches and soft drinks are available from the Center food cart. The Center building, restrooms, walkways, Native Garden, paved river walk, and picnic sites are wheelchair accessible. Get there by taking Ocoee Scenic Byway (Highway 64) or the Cherohala Skyway (U.S. Highway 165). There is a small fee for all-day parking.

The Nolichucky roars to life in North Carolina at the confluence of the Toe and Cane Rivers on the side of Mount Mitchell and plunges through the Nolichucky Gorge, which cuts through the Bald and Unaka Mountains. Gorge paddlers can put in at Poplar, North Carolina and take out at Erwin, Tennessee. The Tennessee Valley Authority-monitored gauge at Embreeville, downstream from the gorge, gives accurate information for those paddling the gorge. Difficulty levels for this section are Class III and IV. Paddlers with open canoes should use extra flotation. Check with rangers or local canoe clubs for advice on safe water levels for paddling.

After the gorge, the Nolichucky is a typical Smoky Mountain valley stream. Beautiful scenery and Class II and III rapids make the section from the gorge to Embreeville fun and easy, with just enough challenge to keep paddlers on their toes.

The paddling gets even easier downstream from Embreeville, where the waters are Class I-plus and the scenery is still postcard-pretty.

The French Broad flows from North Carolina, where it growls and roars, into Tennessee, where it mostly chuckles and hums. From the U.S. 25-70 bridge in Tennessee the river broadens and settles into Class II and III rapids. At normal water levels there are several standing rapids, and there's a four-foot ledge to contend with.

The Tellico River's four sections offer easy Class II rapids, very demanding Class IV rapids, and everything in between. The Tellico River Road follows the river from Tellico Plains, so scouting is easy as you drive to a put-in. The Tellico is also well known for its fine trout fishing.

The Conasauga River originates in the Cohutta Wilderness Area and meanders north and west, back and forth across the Georgia/Tennessee border, eventually merging with the Coosawattee River to become the Oostanaula River in Georgia. This river provides spectacular scenery and Class I and Class II rapids.

The Hiawassee State Scenic River winds through scenic gorges and rural communities. You'll see canoes, kayaks, rafts, and tubes floating on the river. Its rapids are primarily Class I and Class II, with a few Class IIIs. Some of the drops on the river can be intimidating and there are occasional challenging cross currents.

Several ponds and lakes on the Cherokee National Forest await paddlers who prefer still waters. There are lake boating access points on Parksville, Indian Boundary, Watauga, and South Holston Lakes.

Special thanks to the Buzzard Flapper Canoe Club and to the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association for some of this information.


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