Kayak Almost 250 Miles on GA’s Ocmulgee from the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain

ocmulgee river kayaking
Ocmulgee River paddling. Photo by the Georgia Canoeing Association

The Ocmulgee is born at the confluence of the Alcovy and South Rivers in the backwaters of Jackson Lake in Butts and Jasper Counties. Flowing southeast below Lloyd Shoals Dam through the Piedmont, Ocmulgee River kayaking winds through steep-to-rolling hills and narrow valleys flanked by a lush, wooded corridor o/pine, sweetgum, hickory, willow, red maple, white oak, black oak, and beech. Rock outcroppings occasionally grace the riverside as the stream runs within well defined red clay banks 6-14 feet high, sharply inclined between 60 and 90 degrees. Scrub vegetation is thick with diverse flora, including ferns, vines, and shrubs. The Ocmulgee carries a high concentration of sediment and therefore appears muddy most of the year.

Get an Overview of the Altamaha River Watershed where the Ocmulgee River is located.

USGS & County Maps for Ocmulgee River Kayaking

Lloyd Shoals Dam, Berner, East Juliette, Macon East, Warner Robins Northeast, Warner Robins Southeast, Haynesville, Westlake, Klondike, Hawkinsville, Finleyson East, West of Eastman, Abbeville North, Abbeville South, Rhine, Queensland, China Hill, Jacksonville, Snipesville, Roper, Lumber City, Hazlehurst North (USGS); Jasper, Butts, Monroe, Jones, Bibb, Twiggs, Houston, Bleckley, Pulaski, Dodge, Wilcox, Telfair, Ben Hill, Coffee, Jeff Davis, Wheeler, Montgomery (County); Georgia Department of Natural Resources; Oconee National Forest (USFS).

Ocmulgee River Kayaking from Lloyd Shoals Dam to Macon

TRIP SUMMARY

Class: I-II (III); Length: 45.5 miles; Time: Up to 4.5 days; Gauge: Web; Level: 400 cubic feet per second; Gradient: 4 feet per mile; Scenery: A-C

DESCRIPTION

The initial section of Ocmulgee River kayaking below Lake Jackson runs through the historic Seven Islands area. Two of the oldest known roads in North America, the Seven Islands Stagecoach Route, and the Seven Islands Indian Trail converge in Jasper County and cross the river at Smith Mill Road. Evolving out of a major trading hub for the Native American Creek Tribe, several large mills operated in this stretch during the nineteenth century. After being demolished by one of Sherman’s armies in November 1864, some were rebuilt and operated until the cotton collapse of the 1920s and ’30s.

Forest has since reclaimed the land and left little obvious evidence of past human activity. One fascinating exception is the ruined Lamar’s Mill on the Butts County (river-right) side of Forty Acre Island. Exactly at this point, the river spills across its largest rapid, a long, tight series of ledges rated Class III. Most of the current flows left of an island and the gradient is more gradual the farther left you go. A more abrupt channel right of the island abuses boats; few would consider it worthwhile. Less advanced boaters and those more keen on experiencing history than bruising limbs and busting boats can portage the entire rapid through the mill site on the right shore.

Flows above 2,000 cfs enable you to float down the left side of Forty Acre Island. This mile-long Ocmulgee River kayaking channel is very secluded and pretty, with one significant ledge portaged on the left bank. Two other shoals of moderate difficulty are difficult to portage and pose potentially bad consequences for less-experienced boaters. This secret stream is not hospitable to less than apt paddlers.

Long stretches of smooth water deter most whitewater boaters from the Seven Islands section; the difficulty of the infrequent rapids wards off most others. The few who embrace this quintessential Piedmont conundrum of Ocmulgee River kayaking find themselves joyfully isolated. There is no modern development on the upper reaches of the river. A patchwork of private and public lands, the latter acquisitions of the Oconee National Forest, borders the river on the left from GA 16 to below GA 83. Numerous islands present good camping options.

Below Wise Creek, the Ocmulgee deepens. The corridor remains pristine as the river’s course tends towards broad gentle curves and moderate to long straightaways followed occasionally by a sharp bend. The current continues down to the backwaters of John Birch Dam in the vicinity of GA 83. At Juliette, you must make a quarter-mile portage on the left around the Birch Dam. Shoals resume at half-mile intervals below the dam, seldom exceeding easy Class II, and continue all the way to Arkwright. The large Arkwright Power Plant signals the end of the Ocmulgee River kayaking whitewater and the departure of the river from the Piedmont. The Ocmulgee rejoins civilization below Arkwright as it flows through Macon’s industrial suburbs and downtown. On the east side of Macon, the valley broadens and confining hills taper and level off, marking the Ocmulgee’s descent into the Coastal Plain.

The river’s width in the Piedmont varies from 90 to 120 feet in the upper stretches to 260 feet at some shoals and pools above the shoals. Flows are determined by frequent but irregular releases from Lloyd Shoals Dam. Unfortunately, Georgia Power does not announce its release schedule in advance.

SHUTTLE

To the Wise Creek take-out, head east on GA 16 from Jackson. After crossing the river (the put-in at the Georgia Power boat ramp is located up the paved road on the left), turn right onto Clay Road, then right at the paved Freedonia Church Road/McElheney Crossroads. At the end of the road, turn right and then take the next left, proceeding straight ahead at the next stop sign to reach the take-out at Wise Creek. Other access points include boat ramps at GA 83, Pope’s Ferry (downstream of GA 18), and in Macon at Spring Street.

GAUGE

The river is generally runnable from Lake Jackson to Macon all year, subject to regular but capricious releases at Lloyd Shoals Dam. Flow volume is reported on the USGS Web site for the river at Jackson. The minimum is 400 cfs; 800 cfs is more enjoyable. The maximum is flood stage. Water released from the dam is cold, increasing the risk of hypothermia in cooler weather.

Ocmulgee River Kayaking from Macon to the Altamaha River

TRIP SUMMARY

Class: I; Length: 198.8 miles; Time: Up to 4 weeks; Gauge: Web; Level: N/A; Gradient: Less than 2 feet per mile; Scenery: B

DESCRIPTION

As the Ocmulgee slips out of Macon, away from the Piedmont and into the Coastal Plain, Ocmulgee River kayaking assumes the characteristics of most alluvial Coastal Plain streams. Its course becomes convoluted and serpentine, with horseshoe bends, islands, and some oxbow lakes. To either side of the river, bottomland forests envelop the Ocmulgee in a pristine wilderness corridor sometimes 4 miles across. Populated by water oak, overcup oak, cypress, sweet gum, red maple, tupelo gum, and swamp blackgum, the bottomland forests are inundated with water much of the year. The river banks, composed of sandy clay and 3-6 feet in height, form a natural levee on which cypress and gum trees grow along with birch, willow, and a variety of undergrowth. The current is moderate and the setting is generally wild and remote.

Moving south through Houston and Twiggs Counties, Ocmulgee River paddling flows by Warner Robbins Air Force Base and then past the Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area on the east (and again farther downstream) and along the western boundary of the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area. In Pulaski County near Hawkinsville, a belt of fertile farmland reclaimed from the swamp replaces the wilderness corridor with immense cultivated fields. In Wilcox and Dodge Counties, swamp forest again prevails, and beige sandbars on the inside of turns and the downstream side of islands become common as Ocmulgee River paddling meanders south toward Abbeville. From Abbeville to the mouth of the Ocmulgee at its confluence with the Oconee, the riverside setting remains that of a wooded wilderness, though occasional cabins, boat landings, and powerboat traffic indicate frequent visitation by local outdoorsmen, fishers, and hunters. If you are continuing onto the Altamaha River, be prepared for turbulence at the Ocmulgee’s confluence with the Oconee, even if the water appears calm on the surface. The collision of these two Altamaha tributaries has been known to flip unwary paddlers. The Ocmulgee normally contains the higher flow volume.

River width in the Ocmulgee varies from 140 feet below Macon to about 350 feet as it approaches the mouth at the Altamaha. The level of difficulty is Class I throughout the section below Macon, with powerboat traffic being the primary hazard to navigation. The Ocmulgee is runnable below Macon all year and access is adequate. Wildlife is diverse and plentiful.

SHUTTLE

The first take-out after passing the confluence with the Oconee is the GA 135 Landing located on US 221 / GA 135 northeast of Hazlehurst. Upriver access points are numerous and well-developed.

GAUGE: The river is generally runnable all year. The maximum is flood stage. The DNR Fisheries Office at (912) 845-4180 can provide more information, including a map of the most frequently used boat ramps.

See how the Altamaha Riverkeeper preserves and protects its tributaries including the Ocmulgee.

See more Georgia Rivers

This Ocmulgee 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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