Kayak the Most Popular Whitewater in the Southeast on Tennessee’s Ocoee River

ocoee river kayaking
Whitewater kayaking Tennessee's Ocoee River.

The Ocoee is arguably the most popular whitewater run in the Southeast. Its rollicking style and nonstop action have proven to be irresistible. When it’s running, some boaters simply lose the will to go anywhere else. Ocoee River kayaking is divided into three sections by dams controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority, who tightly control water releases in the interest of reserving flow for power generation. When the water is flowing, both upper sections of the Ocoee described here are solid Class III and IV difficulty; with flow rates of 1,200+ cfs, the river should not be taken lightly. Do not attempt Ocoee River kayaking in craft not specifically designed for whitewater, or without Class III technical skills. You will need both. Many of the rapids are closely spaced, and some are long and continuous, with rescue being difficult. Swims can be long and unpleasant. On the other hand, US 64 is right next to the river, making it somewhat easier to get off the river if you find yourself in trouble.

Get an Overview of the Tennessee River Watershed where the Ocoee River is located

USGS and County Maps for Ocoee River Kayaking Guide

Ducktown, Caney Creek (USGS); Polk TN (County)

Ocoee #3 Dam to Ocoee #2 Dam (Upper or Olympic Section)

TRIP SUMMARY

Class: III-IV; Length: 5.0 miles; Time: 2-3 hours; Gauge: Web, phone; Level: 1,400 + cubic feet per second; Gradient: 50 feet per mile; Scenery: B+

DESCRIPTION

This section of Ocoee River kayaking begins just below Ocoee Number 3 dam with a couple of miles of playful Class II rapids on which to warm up and get ready for the bigger stuff to follow. The first major rapid, the Gauntlet or Mikey’s Ledge, is marked by the main flow starting to move to river right just above a large rock ledge outcropping right of center. This is a pretty solid Class III + run. Scouting can be done from the rock ledge, or by pulling out on river right above the approach and walking down the old road bed. If you get out on river right to scout, you may want to continue on down the roadbed to scout the next drop as well. Like most rapids on the Ocoee, the Gauntlet has more than one line. On the right side of the outcropping, there is a chute on river right close to the bank. There is also a “jump” off the nose of the main ledge over the hole in the center of the run. And there is a line over a 4-foot drop on the left side of the outcropping. The water is fast and pretty technical below the first drop.

Not far below, you’ll see the first signs of the Olympic course and the Whitewater Center. Just above the Olympic course is a river-wide broken ledge with several chutes leading into a series of serious holes and strong crosscurrents. This rapid is called either Blue Hole or Box Car. It can be very wet in an open canoe. Several of the chutes are runnable, with the better run being on the far right.

The Olympic Ocoee River kayaking course is a fast, constricted section of water with several drops, lots of eddies, and water that is pushier than it looks. You can take-out on either side at the top and walk the entire run on either side or both sides to scout it. Virtually every drop here has been named. In order, they are: Best Ledge, Smiley Face, Slam Dunk, a wave train called Conveyor Belt, Callihan Ledge, and last, but certainly not least, is Humongous. This area of Ocoee River kayaking is a great park-and-play section, with several good surfing holes and the ability to take-out at the bottom and carry back up and run again as many times as you want, using the deluxe, paved foot trails along the course.

Near the end of the Ocoee River kayaking course, there is a large man-made rock outcropping in the middle with a lot of water going to either side. This is Humongous, an aptly named Class IV rapid that is particularly unpleasant to swim, and can result in a swim of more than a quarter mile if you aren’t a very aggressive swimmer. The right side of Humongous features a nearly channel-wide retentive hole that can routinely flip large commercial rafts and recirculate boats and boaters. If you run that side, skirt the hole on the far right. The left side features a series of very large wave-holes that will fill up an open canoe in a heartbeat. Eddy-hop far left to skirt the holes. The last eddy on the left (under the footbridge) is the takeout to carry back up and do it again. All these eddies have very strong eddy lines that require a good punch to get across.

A few hundred yards below the Olympic course is a rapid whose common name isn’t printable, but also goes by Trash Can and Roach Motel. The main flow of Ocoee River kayaking moves toward river left, and the river narrows dramatically and goes through three very large holes, each one bigger than the one before. Again, a very wet run for an open canoe. Skirt the holes down the far right, dodging the rocks and smaller holes. Alternatively, skirt the first two holes on the right and do a quick ferry across to the left to skirt the last hole on the left. There is an easy run-out at the bottom with a good recovery area if you swim or swamp out. This is the biggest water on the entire Ocoee River kayaking section, possibly the entire river.

Next, there is a section of easy Class II water until you get to the bridge going to Power House Number 3. The channel then splits, and if you follow the main current to the left, you’ll quickly reach a man-made drop sometimes called Edge of the World, where the river channel drops into a canal carrying the outflow of Power House Number 3. If there is water coming down the canal from the powerhouse, this can be a very tricky 3-4-foot drop into a strong crosscurrent, which forms a dangerous hydraulic. There are also serious pinning spots in the drop if you are not on the right line. You can avoid this drop by staying to the right where the current splits and picking your way down a rocky channel to the right of an island until you rejoin the main flow coming out of the canal. Ocoee River kayaking becomes flat at this point, and runs into the pond above Ocoee Number 2 Dam, which feeds the flume to Power House Number 2. Take-out on river right just above the dam.

SHUTTLE

The take-out for the Upper Ocoee River kayaking run is Rogers Branch Access Area on US 64, about a mile west of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which is west of Ducktown, Tennessee. There is a large parking area, a staging area for the commercial outfitters, and a boat loading/unloading area. Tennessee Parks and Recreation assesses a fee for parking at this access point. To get to the put-in, go east on US 64, past the Whitewater Center about a half mile, to a paved, gated road to the right that goes to Ocoee Number 3 Dam. Follow the road to the put-in area, which is well marked by signs. The gate to the road is closed and locked unless there is an official recreational release from Ocoee Number 3 Dam.

GAUGE

The TVA Web site at www.tva.gov has information on recreational and event releases. Typical release flows are in the 1,400-2,500 cfs range. River characteristics do not change a lot within this flow range, but the rapids become much more pushy, and the moves are more difficult to make at the higher end of the flow range.

Ocoee #2 Dam to Parksville Lake (Middle Ocoee)

TRIP SUMMARY

Class: III-IV; Length: 5.0 miles; Time: 2-3 hours; Gauge: Web, visual, phone; Level:  4.5 or 1,250 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 57 feet per mile; Scenery: B

DESCRIPTION

The powers-that-be strongly prefer that Ocoee River kayaking boaters use the facilities provided by those agencies for put-ins and takeouts on this section of the river. Use the boat loading/unloading area at Rogers Branch only for its intended purpose, and park in the designated parking area. There is a large concrete ramp leading from the unloading area to the put-in. If you want to put-in below the first rapid (a common desire for first-timers), a footpath has been constructed from the unloading area to the alternate put-in (called the Old Raft Put-in), just below Grumpy’s Ledge. The path has traffic barriers separating pedestrians from the heavy motor traffic on US 64, a much safer alternative than trying to unload on the roadside with vehicles zooming by and the exhaust fumes choking your lungs.

Once in the water, you will find Ocoee River kayaking to be synonymous with continuous action. The pace is intense and the eddies are not always where you would like them to be. Below the put-in, Class II and III rapids follow one after the other and consist primarily of big waves and some respectable holes. These rapids are agreeably straightforward for the most part and have recognizable routes.

The first rapid, Bulldozer, begins right at the put-in. There’s absolutely no warm-up. You come out of the eddy at the bottom of the ramp and you’re in the middle of it. Bulldozer is punctuated in the middle by a nearly river-wide ledge hole called Grumpy’s Ledge, that has frequently been known to retain both boats and paddlers. Consequently, most boaters prefer a far-left line, eddy-hopping down past the hole, or a far-right “sneak” that has some respectable holes and some pinning spots of its own. There is a bit of a tongue through Grumpy just left of center, but the drop is pretty blind from above, and if you’re off-line, you can get munched badly. Scout carefully or follow someone who knows the lines well.

Following Bulldozer is a really nice play wave above Staging Eddy, a drop feeding into a large eddy on river right where people regroup and warm up for the rest of the run, taking advantage of some nice surf spots without unpleasant consequences. After this stretch of warm-up rapids, the river broadens and runs over a long series of wide, shallow ledges known as Gonzo Shoals. Route selection is anything but obvious, and the going, particularly at minimal flow, is extremely technical.

Below the wide, shallow stretch, the river begins to narrow slightly and bend to the right. This is the approach to Broken Nose, a.k.a. Veg-O-Matic, a series of three drops in rapid succession. The drops are near the right bank. Powerful crosscurrents surge between each of the drops, and a keeper hydraulic lurks at the base of the final drop. There is a cheat route to the left for those who prefer not to encounter the main activity in Broken Nose Rapid. It is separated from the main channel by a large rock outcropping and consists of three quick ledge drops as well, but not quite as tricky or potentially retentive as the holes on the right.

Ocoee River kayaking action continues and bears back to the left through a Class II-III series that includes Second Helping, a.k.a. Slice-Dice, and Moon Chute. When the river begins to turn back toward the right, prepare for Double Suck. Double Suck gets its name from two closely spaced souse holes. You will recognize the rapid by the large granite boulders thrusting upwards and blocking the center one-third of the stream. Go just to the right of these boulders and over a 4-foot drop into the first hole. Don’t relax after this one, however, because the second hole follows immediately, and it will eat the unwary. Staying to the far left side of the chute, you can skirt these holes, but a little too far left can pin you in a dent in the rocks that’s not particularly dangerous but is hard to get out of. Eddy out behind the large boulders in the center if you need time to recover your composure or bail the water from your boat.

Continuing downstream, Ocoee River kayaking swings away from paralleling US 64. This is the approach for Double Trouble, a double set of holes and waves. These can be run down the middle for a big ride, or you can sneak left or right to skirt the holes. Below Double Trouble, a number of smaller rapids, including Flipper, lead into a long pool known as the Doldrums, at the head of which is a good play hole named Hollywood. Hollywood is very forgiving to certain boat designs and very unkind to others. Its characteristics change with the water level.

The Doldrums is the longest pool on the river, and signals the presence of Class IV Table Saw about three-fourths of a mile ahead. At the end of the Doldrums the stream broadens conspicuously and laps playfully over the shallows with little riffles and waves. Protruding from the right bank above Table Saw, a large rock shelf or boulder beach funnels the water to the left. The river narrows and the current deepens and picks up speed as it enters what was once the most formidable rapid on the Ocoee. Table Saw is named for a feature that has disappeared from the river, but the name has remained. A large, sharp rock that was once situated in the middle of the main chute split the current and sent up an impressive rooster tail, giving the appearance of the blade of a table saw when viewed from the shore. Before the rock fell over and ceased to be a problem, it was known to damage or destroy boats that got too close. It could smash in a bow, or split the bottom of a boat very easily, and would have made a nasty pinning rock. Below the old location of the “saw” is a violent diagonal hole that, fortunately, is not a keeper. The current then tends to push toward the right, piling up on a large boulder called Pilgrim Rock. This rock is partially undercut and should be avoided. There are eddies on the left (preferred) and right at the bottom.

Table Saw can be scouted from the boulder beach on the right or from eddies on the left. The best straightforward run is right of center, down a tongue of relatively smooth but fast-moving water, bracing hard as you hit the diagonal hole at the bottom, and going hard left to avoid the large boulder. Rescue can be set on river right just below the hole where there is a nice, if not overly spacious, eddy, or on the rocks on the left at the bottom. Speedy rescue of people and equipment is important here, due to the proximity of Diamond Splitter, just downstream.

Consisting of yet another river-dividing boulder, Diamond Splitter rises ponderously out of the water, presenting a potential for broaching or entrapment. The generally preferred route is to the right of the boulder. The line left of the boulder leads into Witch’s Hole, a fairly popular play spot.

From here, Class II and III rapids rampage more or less continuously, with only one significant intervening pool as the Ocoee approaches the powerhouse. These are all pretty straightforward and many have some decent play spots. Slingshot, also called Accelerator, has some very fast water and some nice standing waves at the bottom. A quarter of a mile upstream of the powerhouse is Torpedo, a.k.a. Cat’s Pajamas, a long, confusing, technical rapid with several powerful holes. Frequently omitted in descriptions of Ocoee River kayaking, this rapid can be very rough on a boater who chooses the wrong route. Most easily scouted from the road while running the shuttle, Torpedo should be of particular interest to first-timers. The big hole at the bottom can be a keeper.

Torpedo is separated from Hell Hole, an enormous, deep, aerated, river-dominating hole, by a pool just upstream of the powerhouse and bridge. Situated toward the right bank of the river on the upstream side of the new bridge, Hell Hole can be played, surfed, or punched with the happy prospect of being flushed out in case of an upset.

Note; This is a major park-and-play spot on the river, and if there are no rafts coming down the approach, there will be boaters in the hole, whether you can see them or not. (Yes, it’s a deep hole!) If you plan to run the middle and punch the hole, it’s best to follow a raft trip through or signal your intentions to be sure there are no boats surfing when you hit the hole. A collision here can be a nasty event. While Hell Hole monopolizes the channel, a technical run skirting the hole on the left is possible (and generally advisable).

It is hard to consider Hell Hole, however, without mentioning that it is only the first part of a double rapid with an obstacle course inserted neatly in the middle. Not 20 yards beyond the fearsome hole itself is the drop known as Power House Rapid. Power House consists of a 4-foot vertical ledge and nasty hydraulic spanning the left two-thirds of the stream, with a more manageable tongue spilling down on the right. Arriving safely at the bottom of all this requires making it through or around Hell Hole, fighting the current at the bottom of the hole (which tries to carry you left), and working hard to the right to avoid the ledge and to line up for the tongue through Power House. Have a good roll if you try to play Hell Hole, and anticipate the current kicking you left as you wash out. When the water is high (1,800+ cfs), Hell Hole tends to wash out a little, while the Power House hydraulic becomes worse. Scout this complex stretch of Ocoee River kayaking either while running the shuttle or from the TVA plant bridge.

If you make it this far, you can drift the next 0.75 mile downstream to the take-out facility constructed for the exclusive use of the boating public on the right shore of Parksville Lake. Do not use the commercial take-out located just below the powerhouse to load your boat on your vehicle, unless you want a confrontation with the rangers. Even when there is no commercial traffic at the commercial take-out, you are likely to be hassled by the authorities if you try to load your boat there. Possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs is also prohibited at all access areas, and authorities are always looking for an excuse to check for these prohibited items.

Hazards for this section include hydraulics at Grumpy’s Ledge, Broken Nose, Double Suck, and Torpedo; heavy raft traffic; and occasionally obnoxious raft guides.

Note; The Ocoee River is subject to major flooding events, some in recent history exceeding 100,000 cfs. These flows can cause significant changes in the riverbed and the characteristics of the rapids. The descriptions here contain the latest information available at the time of publication, but major changes can and do occur fairly regularly.

SHUTTLE

The take-out for Ocoee River kayaking is on US 64 west of Cleveland, Tennessee, and east of Ducktown, Tennessee. Parking and boat loading are on the shore of Parksville Lake, about 0.75 miles below Ocoee Power House Number 2. To get to the put-in, go east on US 64 about 5 miles to Ocoee Number 2 Dam, then turn right into Rogers Branch Access Area, just above the dam. Self-service parking fees apply at both locations.

GAUGE

Release schedules are available on the Internet at the TVA Web site (www.tva.org) and are updated annually. Check the schedule for Ocoee River kayaking before you go! There is a gauge located on river left about 150 yards downstream of the Number 2 Power House. Normal release levels start at 4.5 on the gauge (about 1,250 cfs). Unfortunately, to check this gauge, you will need to be on the river, or have a good set of binoculars. A new gauge has been added in an eddy on river right about 0.25 miles below the put in. Releases are generally a bit higher if the Upper Ocoee is running. River and rapid characteristics change very little with higher flows, except that everything gets a good bit pushier, and the action happens a bit faster. Above 3,000 cfs (about 5.8 on the gauge), the river does start to change character, with many eddies disappearing, and preferred routes changing. The maximum level is around 4,000 cfs, but some crazies have made runs as high as 12,000 cfs. At flows above 3,500 cfs (about 6.2 on the gauge), the river is a big flush; there are few eddies, and swims will be long, possibly all the way to the lake.

See more Georgia Rivers

This Ocoee River kayaking guide is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.

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Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. BG selects guides and outfitters located in or in close proximity to the Natural Areas they provide activities in. These outfitters know the areas and care about protecting and preserving them in a way that outfitters based in other states never can. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and over 100 other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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