Route 66 Cities Beaches



Big South Fork

The Ocoee is a great, great white water rafting experience. It has the steepest continuous gradient of any raftable river in the Southeast. They call it "Rapid Transit," or "The Chute." The other rivers are drop - and - pool routes. That is, they may have exciting rapids, but in between there are long peaceful pools. Not the Ocoee. From the time it starts until the pull out at Lake Ocoee, it only levels out twice. One is a small pool, pictured far below, where the guides stop their rafts and let people go swimming. The other is a dam, where rafting trips stop for lunch while they carry the rafts around. Otherwise, the Ocoee is continuous whitewater, with barely enough time between rapids to catch your breath and scramble back to your assigned position in the raft in time to get your paddle in the water for the next challenge.

This is also a historic run. It was the U.S. Olympic whitewater route in 1996 when the Olympics were held in Atlanta. Many improvements were made to the put in, take out, road, and Whitewater Center at that time which are still in use by rafting parties. In the years since, numerous Olympic paddlers have reminisced about the Ocoee, calling it the most incredible course any Olympics has ever had. The Olympic Whitewater Committee consulted every expert they could find, then moved boulders and rock slabs until they had as close to a perfect course as could be created without just pouring concrete and building one from scratch. The river itself has done some rearranging since, until the Ocoee is a whitewater rafter's fantasy.

The Upper Ocoee is the steepest and meanest. It is mostly Class V and IV. These are bigger rafts, carrying 7-8 (compared to the 5 man rafts on the Nantahala), and the guides have begun on smaller rivers and worked their way up to the Ocoee. The minimum age here is higher than for rivers like the Nantahala or Cumberland and in addition to life vests the rafting companies issue and require helmets. You could bring kids rafting here on their first trip, but they'll have a lot better experience if they start somewhere else and build skills and instincts.

You could come here and only raft the Middle section. That would make it a half day trip at $47 a person. But if you're only coming here once a year, we really urge you to do the full day Combination at $90 a person. It's expensive, but it's worth it. You'll talk about it, and your kids will talk about it, for years.

A dozen rafting companies operate on the Ocoee. Having tried them all, we recommend Sunburst Adventures, 1-800-247-8388 (www.sunburst They were the first company to raft the Ocoee, back in 1976, and for several years they were all alone. When they started, there was only the Middle Section. The Upper didn't open until 1996. Truth is, today all the companies have about the same equipment. We like Sunburst because of their facilities and professionalism, especially on the part of their guides. We've brought a lot of youth groups down here over a 30 year period and we've observed guides dealing with them. We think the Sunburst guides are just better with kids, whether junior high or high school.

The Ocoee descends through a forested canyon with a road on river right, high up except when it drops down to water level at the dam. There are no buildings on either side. The river is dam controlled, so it flows all year, but in late Summer during droughts they may hold the water above the dam during the week and release it on weekends. This creates the unique opportunity of walking the dry riverbed one day, inspecting all the drops ands holes with no water, then rafting it the next day with rapids foaming and roaring. No other river offers this surreal contrast.

The Ocoee is an exciting river, but it's certainly not relaxing. Except for here. Guides pull the rafts over at this pool and let everyone go swimming. It's a lot of fun after two hours of breathtaking maneuvers. The older rafts needed to be pulled over more often and flipped over to bail out the water after each set of rapids. As you can imagine, those are heavy and awkward rafts and the ritual got old. Now, the rafts are high tech self bailing models. The bottoms include valves which, as they flex up and down, push water out but do not let it in. The bottoms thus stay fairly dry.


Our first lodging recommendation is the Whitewater Inn, 1-888-716-2633 or www.ocoee It's a new lodge with very nice double rooms at $90 a night, only a few miles from the takeout at the bottom of the river.

However, if you prefer to be right on the water where the river empties into the lake, there's the Ocoee Inn, 1-800-272-7238. You can rent either motel rooms or cabins. A four person cabin rents for $105 to $125 a night. The larger cabins hold 8-12 and would be suitable for a youth group. You might rent two adjacent larger cabins for a large group, or just rent a block of rooms at the motel. In addition to the rafting, you can bring or rent canoes and fish on the lake. The Ocoee Inn is 1940s rustic, but the lake is beautiful.

Your first dinner option is The Gondolier, which serves Italian and Greek.

Or there's the Wildwater Steak House which has a good selection of steaks, chicken and fish.

If you only do the half day trip, The Vine serves country fresh farm food at lunch only. It's delicious and prices are reasonable but they close at 2 pm.

All three restaurants are on the main highway only a few miles from the rafting takeout.

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