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Adventurous Copper Basin

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    Rafters prepare to ride down the Ocoee River. The region's outfitters keep busy during the summer months.
    Photo by Tracey Trumbull.
    enlarge photo

As if the stunning river gorge views and rolling mountains weren't enough to entice visitors, the Ocoee River and Cherokee National Forest offer nearly unlimited opportunities for thrill and chill seekers.

Copperhill, Tenn., and McCaysville, Ga., are practically one town, divided by the state line, with Ducktown, Tenn., just about four miles north. The area, known as the Great Copper Basin, got its start with the mining industry after Europeans found copper in 1850 in Potato Creek. You can't miss the area's legacy of 150 years of mining.

Now, more than two decades after the last mine shut down, the Copper Basin is experiencing a revitalization in tourism. Whether it's an afternoon trip eyeing the eclectic shops or a weekend outdoors adventure, the three towns offer a little something for everyone.

-- Compiled by staff writer Kevin Hardy

BEST THING TO DO

Experience the Ocoee Adventure -- Start at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, 4400 U.S. Highway 64, the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events. From mid-May to late October, the Olympic site is open for water play on weekdays and rafting on the weekends. Another section of the dam-controlled river has rafting every day except Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrance to the U.S. National Forest Service site is $3 per carload or 50 cents per person for large groups.

• RV and tent camping is first-come, first-served inside the Cherokee National Forest's self-service campsites. Private outfitters offer a range of accommodations and adventure sports, including rafting, horseback riding, ziplining and guided mountain biking.

Before dams controlled the Ocoee, massive formations were forged by the river's raging waters, leaving many deep and shallow swimming and snorkeling holes. Visit the Blue Hole, a local favorite for years, just upstream from the whitewater center along Old Copper Road.

Sources: Ocoee Whitewater Center, Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association

A TALE OF THREE CITIES

• Population: Copperhill: 500; Ducktown: 425; McCaysville: 1,050

• Landmarks or geographic features: See the river and mountains from your car by driving the winding Ocoee Scenic Byway, the first National Forest Scenic Byway in the nation. Tucked between bluffs and the Ocoee, the road runs between Parksville and Ducktown, Tenn.

• Date founded: Copperhill: 1890; Ducktown: early 1840s; McCaysville: 1904

• History: Native Americans used the area's copper for many years before it was "rediscovered" by European settlers in the 1800s.

• Most famous resident: Country music singer Mark Wills spent part of his childhood in nearby Blue Ridge, Ga.

• Unique tradition: You usually can catch three straight nights of fireworks around Independence Day. The three towns generally hold their separate fireworks shows on different nights around the July 4 holiday, ensuring they don't compete with their neighbors' shows.

• Fun fact: You can put one foot in Tennessee and another in Georgia. Just look for the blue line that runs down McCaysville and Copperhill streets and sidewalks.

Sources: Fannin County Chamber of Commerce, individual cities, TriCities Business Association

A MINING STORY

See what 150 Years of Mining Looks Like -- The Basin is Tennessee's only copper mining district. From 1850 to 1987, more than 20 mines operated in and around Copperhill and Ducktown.

Learn about the 150-year mining history of the area at the Ducktown Basin Museum, located on the site of the historic Burra Burra Mine complex and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours generally last about an hour (April to October: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; November through December: Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; January through March: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $1 for ages 13-17, 50 cents for 12 and under).

The kids can do some mining of their own at Salty Dog Gem Mine just over the border in North Carolina in the Wagon Master Adventure Ranch. Admission is free and bags of gems start at $9 and go up to $25 for a family package (Hours: June to August, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.; September to November and March through May, Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.).

Sources: Wagon Master Adventure Ranch, Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association

BEST KEPT SECRET

Ditch the Car, Hit the Rails -- Ride a vintage climate-controlled rail car or an open-air car to the heart of Copperhill and McCaysville on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway. The four-hour, 26-mile trip begins and ends in Blue Ridge, Ga., and includes a two-hour layover in town (90 minutes on Sundays). Ticket prices vary by season and package. Call 877-413-8724 for ticket information.

Hiwassee River Rail Adventure -- Ride the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum's all-day trip from Etowah, Tenn., to Copperhill. The ride departs Etowah at 9:30 on Saturday mornings from spring to Aug. 18 and includes a 90-minute layover in Copperhill. Costs vary by season and date. Call 423-894-8028 for ticket information.

Source: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

LIST OF FESTIVALS

Down by the river

•Copper Basin River Fest — Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of competition with bike, kayak and tube races. But the real headliner is the rubber ducky race. Buy a duck from a local merchant and root for your bird as the flock makes it way down the river from McCaysville City Park (Aug. 18).

•Smoke on the River — A barbecue cookoff for backyard amateurs only. Chefs start smoking on Friday night on Bridge Street in McCaysville, with judging on Saturday (Oct. 5 and 6).

•Pickin’ in Horseshoe Bend Park — From Memorial Day to the end of September, locals gather under the trees and shelters in Ron Henry Horseshoe Bend Park for free acoustic jam sessions every Thursday evening from 6 p.m. to dusk (McCaysville).

Sources: Tri Cities Business Association, Fannin County Chamber of Commerce

BEST PLACES TO EAT

Try local south-of-the-Border fare

•El Rio — Locals have loved the Mexican food at El Rio, 113 Ocoee St., Copperhill, for more than a decade. Try one of 21 combination meals that go for less than $10 or a local favorite: a chicken breast covered with a creamy spinach sauce (Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday noon to 10 p.m.)

•Little Cuban Cafe — Locals and tourists alike are acquiring a taste for the newly opened Little Cuban Cafe, 107 Ocoee St., in Copperhill. Owner and chef Ana Conyers prepares her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes such as croquettes, fried plantains and an authentic Cuban sandwich. Sandwiches range from $4.75 to $6.25 and dinners range from $7.95 to $8.95 (Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.).

Sources: El Rio and Little Cuban Cafe