Traversing the Cherokee National Forest, the Ocoee River is considered one of the top whitewater rafting destinations in the South. It provided a setting for the Olympic canoe and kayak slalom events during the 1996 Games and takes in spectacular wilderness areas along its course.
If you’re a first-time paddler on the Ocoee River, you might be wondering whether you should tackle the Middle or Upper section first. In this guide, we’ll answer all of your questions about what makes them different and which one is right for you.
The Middle and Upper Ocoee are both around five miles in length and divided by a small dam. Their water volume is controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which releases water on certain days and at certain times of the year. On the Ocoee River, you can expect to encounter rapids from Class II to IV, which means they are both thrilling but also not too intimidating if it’s your first trip.
Upper Ocoee River
As its name suggests, the Upper Ocoee lies upstream of the Middle Ocoee and begins in a dramatic canyon. The first mile is relatively gentle, giving you time to get comfortable before a succession of Class IV rapids that include “Mikey’s” and the “Blue Hole”.
When you arrive at the large pool, it marks the start of the Olympic Course, a third-of-a-mile stretch that takes in some of the Ocoee River’s fastest water and biggest rapids. It’s worth noting that this section of the river was narrowed from 300 to 50 feet for the 1996 Summer Olympics by the placement of large rocks.
Two more challenging Class IV rapids await before you arrive at a small lake, which signals the end of the Upper Ocoee. If you’re continuing along the Middle Ocoee, it’s here that you’ll relax for lunch.
Water is released into the Upper Ocoee by the Tennessee Valley Authority on Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, as well as on the last three Saturdays in May and the first three Saturdays in September.
Middle Ocoee River
The most popular and more frequently rafted section, the Middle Ocoee begins with a challenging Class IV rapid known as “Grumpys”. While the rapids on the following stretch are fairly continuous, they aren’t as big or as fast as those on the Upper Ocoee’s Olympic Course. In the middle of the run is a short break where you can enjoy just soaking up the scenery.
As with the Upper Ocoee, the Middle Ocoee is dependent on water being released by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This takes place on weekends from mid-March until the end of October, as well as on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Which one is right for you?
Neither the Upper nor the Middle Ocoee sections are better than the other and, if possible, you should opt to raft both Ocoee sections! They both take in exhilarating Class II to IV rapids, with the main difference being that those on the Upper Ocoee are bigger. But on the other hand, you get more rapids on the Middle Ocoee, which is why it has held the title of “Most Popular River Section” for more than three decades.
If you’re after remote wilderness, then the Upper Ocoee gives that “away from civilization” feel, as well as giving you the opportunity to take on the Olympic Course. On the other hand, the Middle Ocoee is mostly roadside but gets extra points for the presence of the wooden flume that diverts water from the river on a daily basis.