Discover the Resources of the Ocmulgee Watershed, One of GA’s 14 Major Watersheds

ocmulgee watershed
The Ocmulgee River. Photo by the Georgia Canoeing Association

The Ocmulgee watershed is one of Georgia’s 14 major watersheds. The South and Yellow rivers join to form the Ocmulgee within Jackson Lake in Butts County, Georgia. Below the tailrace of the lake’s Lloyd Shoals Dam, the Ocmulgee flows south to join the Oconee River near Lumber City to form the Altamaha River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Altamaha Sound near Darien. Read an Ocmulgee River Paddling Guide

See all of Georgia’s 14 Major Watersheds

Altamaha, Chattahoochee, Coosa, Flint, Ochlockonee, Ocmulgee, Oconee, Ogeechee, Satilla, Savannah, St Marys, Suwannee, Tallapoosa, Tennessee

The Ocmulgee Watershed System

The South and Yellow rivers join to form the Ocmulgee at a location within Jackson Lake. (The Alcovy River also flows into Jackson Lake and becomes part of the Ocmulgee.) From the tailrace of the lake’s Lloyd Shoals Dam, the Ocmulgee flows in a generally narrow valley over rocky shoals for about 43 miles before falling steeply to Macon, Georgia, where the river enters the Coastal Plain and the slope becomes gentle. The river continues south to a location known as “The Forks,” near Lumber City, where it joins the Oconee River and forms the Altamaha River. From the junction of the Ocmulgee and Oconee, the Altamaha flows 137 miles to join the Atlantic Ocean at Altamaha Sound near Darien. More water flows into the Atlantic from the Altamaha Basin (including the Ocmulgee and Oconee basins) than from any other river in the Southeast.

How the Ocmulgee Got Its Name

Ocmulgee is a Creek word freely translated to mean boiling or bubbling water. It is a combination of the prefix ak, which has location and directional connotations, and mulgis, which means bubbling or boiling. From the Hitchiti tongue, a dialect spoken among the Lower Creeks, it is pronounced as though spelled oak-mull-ghee (the g hard), with the stress on the second syllable. An early name for the Ocmulgee River was Ocheese Creek. The English called inhabitants living along that stream “Ocheese Creek Indians.” Later this was shortened to simply Creek Indians, and many believe that this is the origin of the name “Creek Indians.” Ocheese signifies “bubbling up of water from a spring” and could have originated from Indian Springs at Jackson.

Experiences in the Ocmulgee Watershed

Listed below are locations where you can see or experience the Ocmulgee watershed.

High Falls State Park

Illustrating how rivers were the birthplace of Georgia’s towns and industries, this site was a prosperous industrial town with several stores, a gristmill, cotton gin, blacksmith shop, shoe factory, and hotel. High Falls became a ghost town in the 1880s when a major railroad bypassed it. Today, park visitors can enjoy the scenic waterfall on the Towaliga River and hike to the remaining grist mill foundation.

The Ocmulgee Watershed Connection: The Towaliga River flows into the Ocmulgee, which joins the Oconee to become the Altamaha.

Indian Springs State Park

The Creek Indians used these springs for centuries to heal the sick and impart extra vigor to the well. During the 1800s, this area was a bustling resort town. Today, visitors can still sample the spring water while enjoying the park’s cottages, camping, swimming, fishing, and boating. Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many structures within the park during the Great Depression.

The Ocmulgee Watershed Connection: Indian Springs is on Big Sandy Creek, which flows into the Ocmulgee River just north of the Towaliga River (see High Falls State Park). The Ocmulgee merges with the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site

This middle Georgia plantation, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, consists of 20 buildings dating between 1847 and 1945. It has one of the largest and most complete collections of original family artifacts from this time period in Georgia. In the 1840s, John Fitz Jarrell built the plantation’s first dwelling. Despite wars (including a raid by Gen. William Sherman’s army), economic depression, soil erosion and cotton boll weevils, the family has remained on the land of “red hills and stones” for more than 140 years. Distinctively colored with age, the original dwelling and other structures still stand. Among the buildings, machines and tools once used by the Jarrells are a three-story barn, smokehouses, wheat houses, a cane press, 1895 dwelling, steam-powered cotton gin, gristmill, sawmill, shingle mill, syrup mill and planer. Visitors can tour the 1847 plantation house, carpenter shop, blacksmith shop and other buildings. Inside the 1847 house, visitors will see original furnishings, including looms, spinning wheels, a baby cradle and a cobbler’s bench – many of which were built by family members. During seasonal programs, spinning, weaving, woodstove cooking, blacksmithing and other skills are demonstrated.

The Ocmulgee Watershed Connection: The original plantation land, at one time 1,000 acres, bordered the Ocmulgee River, which joins the Oconee near Hazlehurst to form the Altamaha. The Jarrell Plantation is located above the Fall Line shoals at Macon, making it difficult, if not impossible, to use the river to transport harvested crops downriver, an advantage the farm would have enjoyed had it been located below the Fall Line. The Jarrells used small flat-bottomed batteaux for fishing and light transportation. Combine a visit to this site with a trip to Indian Springs and High Falls, other nearby state parks with important watershed connections.

Little Ocmulgee State Park and Lodge

Landowners along the Little Ocmulgee River began donating land for this state park in 1935. With the help of residents, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Park Service, roads, buildings and a dam were built and opened to the public in 1940.

The Ocmulgee Watershed Connection: The Little Ocmulgee River joins the Ocmulgee River just upstream of where the Ocmulgee joins the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows 137 miles to the Atlantic.

Panola Mountain State Conservation Park

This state park was created to protect a 100-acre granite monadnock (mountain) often compared to Stone Mountain near Atlanta. Unlike its northern neighbor, Panola Mountain still shelters rare plants and animals of the Piedmont region. Visitors may explore nature on their own, or they may join park staff for nature programs and guided hikes into the conservation area. Due to its delicate ecological features, Panola Mountain was designated a National Natural Landmark.

The Ocmulgee Watershed Connection: Rainfall on Panola Mountain flows into the South River, which joins the Ocmulgee River at Lake Jackson and, eventually, combines with the Oconee to form the Altamaha, which flows to the Atlantic.

Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is located along the Ocmulgee River in Bibb and Twiggs Counties approximately six miles south of the city of Macon. The Refuge was established in 1989 to protect, maintain, and enhance the ecosystem of the Ocmulgee River floodplain. The Refuge currently consists of 6,500 acres situated along the Fall Line separating the Piedmont from the Coastal Plain, and contains wetlands associated with the Ocmulgee River floodplain and some adjoining uplands. Approximately 200 bird species are believed live in or visit the Refuge. Many species of waterbirds, shorebirds, and neotropical songbirds pass through or nest in Bond Swamp as they follow their seasonal migration routes. Numerous species of ducks and geese arrive in late fall and remain in the area until early spring. Bond Swamp supports one of the three black bear populations in Georgia, lying between the population in the Appalachian Mountains to the north and the Okefenokee Swamp to the south. A wide variety of other mammals also inhabit Bond Swamp, including white-tailed deer, bobcats, raccoons, rabbits, beaver, mink, muskrat, otter and squirrels. Alligators up to ten feet in length have been documented in the Refuge.

Newman Wetlands Center

Visitors learn about the characteristics, wildlife and plants of wetlands and how to preserve these environments. The natural areas around the wetlands trails are home to 130 species of birds, as well as beaver, river otter, fox, raccoon, muskrat, deer, wild turkey, opossum, mink and many other species of reptiles, insects, and amphibians. Staff members give guided tours of the wetlands to groups of 10 or more as well as to school groups. The Newman Wetland Center sits on a ridge dividing the Ocmulgee and Flint tributaries and illustrates how a change in elevation of only a few feet can divide one watershed from another. It’s also one of the best river and wetlands educational experiences in the state and demonstrates common characteristics of all watersheds and wetlands. Directions: From Jonesboro, take US 19/41 south about 5 miles to McDonough Road. Turn left and to go Freeman Road. Follow Freeman Road about 1 mile. The Wetlands Center is on the left.

Ocmulgee National Monument

The Ocmulgee National Monument preserves a continuous record of human life in the Southeast from the earliest times to the present. From Ice Age hunters to the Creek people of historic times, there is evidence here of 12,000 years of human habitation. The monument consists of two units separated by two miles of riverine wetlands along the Ocmulgee. L-Mounds and Village Unit can be visited by special permit.

Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge

Created by an executive order from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, the 35,000 acre Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge serves as a model of forest ecosystem management. The rich diversity of habitats provides a haven for nearly 200 species of birds. Among those commonly seen are woodpeckers, warblers, flycatchers, brown-headed nuthatches, and chickadees. In the open areas are hawks, bluebirds, and wild turkey. Numerous clear-flowing creeks and beaver ponds provide wetlands that are used by waterfowl and other wildlife. Wood ducks, great blue herons, and belted kingfishers may be found near the wetlands. In addition, eleven ponds are managed for wildlife and fish. A 1.5-mile loop trail leaves the visitor center and passes through rich pineland, bottomland and hardwood forests to connect with the Allison Lake Trail. The 1-mile Allison Lake Trail provides viewing opportunities for wintering waterfowl along the lake and an interpretive leaflet is available. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker Trail is 2.5 miles and passes through a colony site. The Little Rock Wildlife Drive provides an overview of refuge history, habitats, and management programs. A self-guiding brochure is available to interpret highlights along the 6-mile gravel road.

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