On the far eastern fringes of Nantahala National Forest, just southwest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, lies a rolling river plain between the Southern Appalachians and the Cumberland Plateau. It’s been worn away over millennia by the Ocoee River, one of the most popular stretches of whitewater and swimming holes in the southeast.
When whitewater rafting was included in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, interest in the sport exploded; that’s when river rats took notice of this 93-mile stretch of rapids in southern Appalachia. In fact, the Ocoee was the venue for the whitewater canoe and kayak slalom event during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
PLANNING YOUR OCOEE RIVER RAFTING ADVENTURE
Convenient to Chattanooga, Knoxville, Asheville, and Atlanta, the Ocoee River is easy to reach. There are plenty of rafting companies that will take you down the stunning Class III and IV rapids in the middle section of the Ocoee River—but you can choose your own adventure by bringing a kayak, packraft, or a good old-fashioned picnic to enjoy while swimming near the shore.
The Ocoee is close to other southern Appalachian outdoor destinations, so you can fit your river runs into a longer road trip. For example, a trip to Amicalola Falls to see the start of the Appalachian Trail, or a rock climbing getaway in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And because this is the south, you know that there are great options for food and beer all along the Ocoee River.
WHAT TO PACK FOR CAMPING AND OCOEE RIVER RAFTING
- Sun sleeves: Life is short, and you don’t want to spend your whole trip slapping on sunscreen after the river has washed it off. Slip on some sun sleeves with a UPF rating of 50+ to keep the rays off your skin. They’re also quick-drying and breathable, so you don’t have to sweat sun protection (pun intended).
- Kayak rack: Did you know that freestyle kayaking was invented on the Ocoee River? In the 1980s River Rodeos were a huge publicity boost for whitewater sports, and in 1983 this new style of kayaking was born out of the River Rodeo scene. Bring your own ‘yak down to the Ocoee River with a kayak rack and get to paddling.
- Kokopeli Packraft: You can, of course, just enjoy the rafts provided by your local outfitters. But if you want to blend your time on the river with local hikes and bikepacking, or if you’re flying to your destination, it’s hard to beat this handy packraft that deflates to a size of a roll of paper towels.
- Dry bag cooler: A cooler that doubles as a dry bag and/or comes equipped with a dry pack is perfect for camping that might get wet and sloppy. Pick one that stays cold for over twenty-four hours and can float, just in case things get rough in an Ocoee River rafting eddy like Broken Nose, Double Trouble, or the aptly-named Flipper.
WHERE TO CAMP ALONG THE OCOEE RIVER
Here are a few of the best campgrounds for Ocoee paddlers, rafters, and hikers, along with our tips on what to do while you’re there.
Cleveland, Tennessee is a great base for Ocoee river rafting, just fifteen minutes from many raft guides and outfitters, along with the annual Ocoee River Jam music festival. This small college town is also home to Lee University, a beautiful campus full of shops and eateries where you can stock up on supplies or grab a bite to eat. Get one of the best sandwiches in town at Gardner’s Market, enjoy some cold ones at Cleveland Billiard Club, or go down the road to Ocoee, Tennessee for another local favorite, the Dam Deli.
There’s solid camping in Cleveland at the Chattanooga North/ Cleveland KOA. You’ll find tent sites, RV sites, and cabins, along with a dog park, playground, laundry room, and swimming pool. They’re happy to host RV and motorcycle clubs, so if you’re looking for a place for your next gathering, this is a great bet—especially with the opportunity to organize group paddling trips.
“Nice clean place and pool. Ample camp store if you forgot something. close to many amenities.”— The Dyrt camper Barbara C.
If you want a one-stop-shop for Ocoee River rafting, it’s hard to beat the setup at Adventures Unlimited, just an hour from Chattanooga. This rafting company offers guided trips of the middle and rull Ocoee River runs, including deluxe options like catered lunches midway. They also have on-site lodging, ranging from cabins (including one pet-friendly bungalow) to RV and tent sites. The latter are primitive, but the whole campground has 24-hour bathhouses.
Other amenities include on-site paintball, where several acres of Tennessee woodlands make for great cover as you take aim at your besties. Best of all is the on-site Bus Bar, offering cold beer, pub food, and live music from March to October. And if you take a shine to the Ocoee river rat community, you can get season passes and come back for more.
“Adventures Unlimited is certainly one of a kind! Plenty of campsites to choose from, some more private than others. You can raft, SUP board, or just hang out at the BUS bar and listen to live music. Whatever you do here, it will be a good time.”— The Dyrt camper Elizabeth A.
Of all the mountains between Murphy, North Carolina, and Cleveland, Tennessee, Chilhowee offers some of the most winsome views of the surrounding Cherokee National Forest. From the overlook atop Chilhowee Mountain, peer down at the knob-shaped mountains emerging between curves of the Ocoee River and the broad expanse of Parksville Lake—also known as Lake Ocoee.
Even closer is 7-acre McKamy Lake, with a sandy beach for swimmers and non-motorized canoes just a short hike from Chilhowee Campground. Chilhowee Campground is a chill spot close to attractions like Benton Falls and 25 miles of hiking and biking trails within the Chilowee network. The campground itself has fire pits, picnic tables, and a place to hang your lantern, as well as niceties like flush toilets, hot showers, and RV dump points.
“I believe this place is the best campground I’ve stayed! They have tons of sites, and all are spacious and secluded. They do have some with electric hookups, but we didn’t have that, as we were in the rooftop tent. You can hardly see your neighbor with all the trees.”— The Dyrt camper Lori H.
If you like playing on land as much as on water, head to Thunder Rock, where you have almost direct access to the Tanasi Trail System via two different trailheads. To say mountain biking is big here is a bit of an understatement, considering the Tanasi network earned an Epic designation from the International Mountain Biking Association. That means you’ll find “a true backcountry riding experience” on the Tanasi, with gorgeous views of the Ocoee River valley.
Thunder Rock Campground is also convenient to the Appalachian Trail’s little sibling, the Benton-McKaye Trail. The BMT winds for 300 miles through Southern Appalachia, from the AT’s start at Springer Mountain to Davenport Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
You can put your raft in from this campground to run the Upper Ocoee River rafting section between Dams #3 to #2. While the middle section is the most popular, with its brilliant Class III and IV rapids, the Upper Ocoee is the one modified for the 1996 summer Olympics, giving you five miles of Class III and IV to play with.
“This is a smaller tent only campground located along the Ocoee River. The campground was very clean and well maintained. There is a bathhouse with showers and an area to hose off bikes as well. The campground backs up to the river and a really great hiking trail. There’s no ranger station or check in, it’s self filled envelopes or registering online.”— The Dyrt camper Britteny W.
Speaking of Parksville Lake, there’s a convenient campground where you can park your rig. There are nice extras like flush toilets and warm showers, along with water hydrants where you can fill up. Just call ahead if you have a larger RV to make sure it can handle the turns coming in, true of many campgrounds in the Ocoee River rafting area.
You’ll be close to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, where you can learn more about the 1996 Olympics and even check out a scale model of the Olympic canoe and kayak course. Whether you’re new to whitewater rafting or an old pro, it’s a fun way to learn more about the sport. This is also a popular spot for boaters, as you’re allowed to take motorized watercraft on Parksville Lake, unlike neighboring McKamey.
“Great site. Easy to navigate around sites. Lots of shade. Plan your visit around the water release. Their schedule is online. Pretty cool to see the water trickle and then a mass of water come at you.”— The Dyrt camper Linda B.
The Ocoee River has different names depending on the state—in Georgia, it’s called the Toccoa. Experience this stretch of river by camping at the aptly-named Your Toccoa River Cove Campground.
Set on 12 acres of prime north Georgia woodlands, campers are free to set up tents, hammocks, or bivvy bags anywhere on the property. That means you can really roll your own, whether you prefer car camping or a backcountry experience. Fires and pets are allowed, and you’ll have access to an outhouse, firepit, picnic table, and drinking water, courtesy of two spring-fed ponds.
“‘Is there water to play in?’ This is a question my kids ask about almost every campground we go to. Before this trip, I told them, ‘Yes!’ But once we got to the Toccoa River Cove, all of us realized that ‘Yes’ really meant, ‘This is a phenomenal wonderland we will never want to leave.’”— The Dyrt camper Stephanie J.
The Ocoee/Toccoa River begins high in the mountains of north Georgia, near Blood Mountain and the start of the Appalachian Trail. While the Tennessee portion is best known for Ocoee River rafting and whitewater, the mellower Georgia portion has something to offer paddlers in the form of the Toccoa River Canoe Trail. This starts near Deep Hole Recreation Area, close to the town of Suches, Georgia, and flows for 13 miles north to Sandy Bottoms.
Camping at Deep Hole consists of eight no-frills Forest Service-run sites, with a vault toilet and canoe launch — perfect for a quick stop on your Ocoee river rafting excursion. Each site has the usual grill, picnic table, and lantern post. There are also four picnic sites and a small fishing pier where you can angle for rock and smallmouth bass, as well as rainbow and brown trout. A short drive in either direction will lead you to the Appalachian and Benton-McKaye Trails for day hikes or the start of a longer backpacking route.
At the end of the Toccoa River Canoe Trail, roughly 30 miles upriver from where the Toccoa becomes the Ocoee, is Sandy Bottoms. This small Forest Service campground is comprised of 4 campsites, a vault toilet, and canoe take-out, similar to the setup at Deep Hole Recreation Area. Also like Deep Hole, Sandy Bottoms is close to the Benton-McKaye Trail, if you’re interested in hiking.
While the put-in and take-out are on Forest Service Land, quite a bit of the Toccoa River Canoe Trail passes through privately-owned properties. That limits your ability to fish for the 13-mile span of the trail, as well as hop out for camping, hiking, or otherwise going ashore. That said, as long as you follow a few basic guidelines, it’s easy enough to enjoy Ocoee river rafting and camping on either end.
“Great area to explore – very cool swinging bridge, good access to the river, fun watching kayaks, great picnic area, access to Benton McKay trail.”— The Dyrt camper Kevin H.
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