The Ocoee River is the most commercially rafted river in the United States. The Ocoee River was also home to the 1996 canoe and kayak Olympic events. Located 100 miles west of Atlanta, the upper and middle sections of the river contain some the best back-to-back rapids you’ll find anywhere.
Even though it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of lodging choices. We love staying at Whitewater Express (read about the cabins here). People come from near and far, not only for the fantastic whitewater rafting, but also for the hiking and mountain bike riding (read Why You Should Ride the Tanasi Mountain Trails).
The river’s flow is controlled by three dams as part of the Tennessee River Authority. It remains dry until water is released from Ocoee Dam #3. The Ocoee Whitewater Center along with several staging and parking areas were built and is staffed by the US Forest Service. The river runs rafting trips on the weekends starting in the spring through mid-fall. The most popular section is the middle Ocoee which is a 4.5 mile stretch of 20 back to back category III-IV rapids.
Although most people raft as a group with commercial companies, the river is also open to individual kayakers, rafters or canoers. Going down the river on your own is not recommended unless you are experienced. There have been deaths on the river, the majority to heart attacks and drowning.
What to Expect on a Commercial River Raft Ride
To raft on the Ocoee River, you must be at least 12 years old. It is recommended that you are in good health. You don’t need to have any previous experience. Total ride time from check-in to departure (if just riding the Middle Ocoee) is 3 1/2 – 4 hours with 1 1/2 – 2 hours water time.
When you arrive at your rafting company they will provide all the equipment that you will need, paddles, helmets, life preservers, and even jackets and paddle pants if you so desire (the water is COLD). Our rafting company even had some helmets with Go-Pro mounts. You should wear old sneakers or river shoes. Don’t bring anything that could fly off (sunglasses should have straps) or can’t get wet.
You will be given safety instructions then driven down as a group to the staging area.
Once you’re at the staging area, you’ll meet your river guide. These guys and girls are a fun, tough bunch. If you listen to their safety and rafting instructions, you’ll have an exhilarating, safe trip (see beginning of video below). Our guide told us that the only time she has a bad ride is when rafters have been drinking and/or clown around too much to follow her instructions.
It is imperative to listen to your river guide. Your safety is in their hands, but they can’t do it on their own. Plus, the river guide can make your ride more exhilarating if they know they can count on the riders to follow their instructions swiftly and with 100% effort.
One of the biggest causes of injuries comes from being hit by end of a paddle. When coming upon the dangerous rapid, the guide will yell, “Down!” At that moment, you should quickly squat down in the bottom of the raft and stick the paddle end up while your guide does their thing (see minute 6 of the video at the bottom).
Surfing a Rapid
One of the most fun parts of the ride is to surf a rapid (see 1 minute into the video below). The guide will get the raft down the rapid, then pull the nose of the raft 180 degree to face directly into the rapid. A good guide can keep the raft facing right into the rapid until another raft bumps the raft back down the river. Imagine the front of the raft dipping down while the rapid is pouring down onto the rafters. It is scary (don’t want to drown), but a super rush!
Riding the Bull
If surfing the rapids isn’t enough excitement for you, then you can do what’s called “riding the bull” (see minute 4:30 of the video below). You pretty much sit on the the front of the raft and hold on for dear life. I was content to let the others experience it. The rapids provided me with plenty of excitement on their own!
Have you ever tried whitewater rafting or ever wanted to try? Please share by commenting below!
Keep up with all of our travel, camping, and cycling tips by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat (@packyourbaguios). Leave us your email (blue box at the bottom of the post) to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss a post!