The Oconee River is born south of Lake Lanier in Hall County, where several small feeder streams supply the North and Middle Forks of the Oconee. Flowing southeastward and draining Jackson County, the forks join to form the Oconee River south of Athens. From Athens to Lake Oconee, Oconee River kayaking has been smoothed by a series of dams, and now contains very little in the way of whitewater save for an occasional riffle. The current is lively between the dam pools and the wooded and well-vegetated 4-to-7-foot clay banks. Below Lake Sinclair, the river essentially enters the Coastal Plain, where it winds past occasional sandbars to its meeting with the Ocmulgee, forming the Altamaha River.
Get an Overview of the Altamaha River Watershed where the Oconee River is located.
USGS and County Maps for Oconee River Kayaking
Barnett Shoals East, Greshamville, Buckhead, Harmony, Liberty, Rockville, Lake Sinclair West, Lake Sinclair East, Milledgeville, Irwinton 15′, Gumm Pond, Toomsboro, Oconee, Cowhell Swamp, Dublin, Rentz, Minter, Rockledge, Lothair, Glennwood, Mt. Vernon, Uvalda, Hazelhurst North (USGS); Clark, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Greene, Putnam, Baldwin, Wilkinson, Washington, Johnson, Laurens, Treutlen, Wheeler, Montgomery (County); Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Oconee National Forest (USFS)
Oconee River Kayaking from Watkinsvile to Lake Oconee
Class: I+; Length: 19.7 miles; Time: Up to 2.5 days; Gauge: Web; Level: 580 cubic feet per second; Gradient: Less than 4 feet per mile; Scenery: B-
As with most streams draining the Piedmont, the Oconee carries a large amount of sediment that adversely affects the aesthetic appearance of the water, causing it to vary in color from a greenish-brown to a pale, mustard yellow. Oconee River kayaking between Athens and Lake Sinclair signs of habitation are rare and the river setting is generally secluded. The Oconee National Forest borders the stream on the east starting at the Big Creek confluence and on both sides of the river downstream of the Rose Creek confluence until the vicinity of the 1-20 bridge near the south end of Lake Oconee.
The surrounding terrain rises quickly from the Oconee’s narrow floodplain to a gently dipping plateau and valley topography. Wildlife is plentiful and stream flora diverse, with river birch, sycamore, sugarberry, and green ash interspersed with several varieties of bottomland oak and stands of sweetgum and box elder.
Other than the pool behind Barnett Shoals Dam south of Athens, moving current in the Piedmont section of Oconee River paddling terminates in the National Forest below the GA 15 bridge, where the river encounters the backwaters of Lake Oconee. Below Wallace Dam the waters of the Oconee are simply transferred from Lake Oconee to Lake Sinclair.
The level of difficulty for Oconee River kayaking from its inception below Athens to Lake Oconee is Class 1, with dams and occasional deadfalls being the primary hazards to navigation. The river averages 70-110 feet wide where moving current exists; channel configuration usually tends toward a moderate to long, straight or gently turning section followed by a sharp bend. The upper Oconee is runnabIe all year providing the Barnett Shoals Dam and Powerhouse are releasing.
A campground with boat ramp access is located on GA 15 north of Greensboro in the National Forest; other ramps are located on Lake Oconee. The highest put-in below the confluence of the forks is east of Watkinsville on Barnett Shoals Road.
The USGS Web site provides levels at Penfield, near the end of this section. The minimum is 580 cfs; maximum up to flood stage. Additional information, including a map of access points, can be provided by the Game and Fish Division’s Fishery Management section, East Central Regional Office, at (770) 918-6418.
Oconee River Kayaking from Sinclair Dam to the Altamaha River
Class: I+; Length: 143.2 miles; Time: Up to 4 weeks; Gauge: Web, phone; Level: N/A; Gradient: Less than feet per mile; Scenery: B
Technically still a Piedmont stream below Lake Sinclair, below the dam the Oconee slips sluggishly through what is left of Furman Shoals (Class 1+) before being impounded once again, this time by a 7-foot dam in Milledgeville that reaches out from both sides of an island in midstream. Land on the island to carry around.
Departing the populated and developed environs of Milledgeville, Oconee River kayaking slips into a wooded lowland corridor and runs unobstructed in broad bends and long straightaways for 6 miles before assuming the looping serpentine course that will typify its path the remainder of the way to the Altamaha. A large river in the Coastal Plain, the Oconee broadens from 110 feet below Milledgeville to 250 to 280 feet at Dublin to almost 320 feet as it approaches its mouth at the Altamaha south of Charlottesville.
Throughout the Coastal Plain, sandbars suitable for camping become common on the insides of the bends, and some oxbow lakes and meandering bypass islands appear. Surrounding the river is an often-flooded bottomland forest. In sections where the forest is flooded more than six months of the year, bald cypress, tupelo gum, and swamp blackgum predominate. In areas inundated less than half the year, overcup oak and various water hickories combine with laurel, willow, oak, red maple, American elm, and green ash to form the lowland forest. On the bank, willow, cottonwood, river birch, some silver maple, sycamore, and bald cypress are common. Extremely remote, the forested bottomland swamp that surrounds the Oconee is more than 2 miles wide above Dublin, and expands below Dublin to a breadth approaching 4 miles. In Cow Hell Swamp north of Dublin, bald cypress grace the river in ever-increasing numbers and algae-covered backwater sloughs and oxbow lakes teem with wildlife.
As the Oconee enters Dublin, it flows through a well-defined channel below 15-foot banks before slipping back into the lowlands and swamp on the southeast side of the town. Oconee River kayaking from here to the Altamaha the scenery remains similarly beautiful, with little change other than the appearance of pine on the natural levee and on the perimeter of the swamp. The level of difficulty throughout is Class I, with floating and stationary deadfalls being the only hazards to navigation. The current is slow and the water generally murky brown with sediment. The Oconee below Lake Sinclair is runnable all year.
From US 221 south of Uvalda, turn right at Bells Ferry Road for the last boat ramp on the Oconee, or continue straight ahead to the first ramp on the Altamaha at the bridge. See the map for the location of upper access points.
Runnable up to flood stage. Levels are posted on the USGS Web site for Milledge. For additional information, call the DNR Fisheries office in LaGrange at (706) 845-4180.
This Oconee 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.