The word "Ocoee" has become synonymous with whitewater. But opportunities for adventure in the small mountain town run beyond the banks of its world-famous river.
Located at the southern edge of Cherokee National Forest, 45 minutes from Chattanooga, the Ocoee area is a mecca for outdoor recreationalists of all kinds. Throughout the year, hundreds of thousands of people travel to the region for hiking, biking, paddling and camping, with the busy season typically beginning each March with the start of whitewater rafting.
The industry is vital to the small communities that edge the river. So this spring, when the coronavirus caused a two-month delay to the start of commercial rafting, outfitters weren't the only small businesses that suffered. Locally owed shops, restaurants and breweries did, too.
Indeed, all of our summers began with uncertainty this year — but the sun is still high.
Whether you're looking for a day trip or a weekend rendezvous, here is your guide on where to eat, sleep, shop and adventure in the Ocoee region, all while supporting small businesses.
River safety in the time of coronavirus
This year, rafting companies are taking extra precautionary measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Though the state did not mandate a single set of rules for rafting amid the pandemic, it did require each outfitter to submit a prevention plan, which then had to be approved.
Specific guidelines among companies may vary, but many include sanitizing gear between uses, limiting passengers and contact during transport and enforcing social distancing in gift shops.
Since social distancing in the six-person rafts is not possible, Dakota Vanoslen, manager of Outland Expeditions, says many are trying to work it so that their group are the only ones in the raft.
“A lot of people are doing it in groups of six — they’re calling in and figuring out how many are in the raft,” Vanoslen says. “You can bring five and buy another spot at a discount.”
WHERE TO ADVENTURE ON THE WATER
Ocoee whitewater is world-famous, featuring 10 action-packed miles churning through the Cherokee National Forest. The river is divided into two sections: the Class III "middle," and the Class III/IV "upper" which includes the challenging 500-meter course used during the 1996 Olympic whitewater competition.
Raft trips are available for either section or for both, and with 23 outfitters located along the Ocoee, finding an available guide is no sweat.
> Start here: To find an outfitter, do a quick internet search and read some reviews. Though outfitters prefer you book your trip in advance, many welcome walk-ins.
> Cost: Price per person varies and may range from $27-$120, depending on type of trip, time of year and the number in your party. And don't forget to tip your guide!
*** Pro tip ***After your trip, be sure to check out ocoeephotos.com where you can purchase action shots of yourself on the water — emphasis on the word purchase. Screenshotting your pics and sharing them on social media is a no-no. Not only are you interfering with the photographer's livelihood, but if locals catch you doing it, they'll take you to task.
SUP and Kayak Rental
Below the tumultuous waters of the middle and upper Ocoee, the river flattens, spilling into Lake Ocoee — the perfect spot for a peaceful float. If don't have your own craft, or are looking to test the waters of the sport, so to speak, gear rentals are available.
> Start here: Ocoee Paddleboarding and Watersports; 423-650-6116; ocoeewatersports.com
> Cost: $30 for 2-hour SUP or kayak rental, $50 for 4-hour rental or $60 all-day (12-hour) rental
*** Bonus: Ocoee Paddleboarding and Watersports offers gear pickup and drop-off for no additional charge.
For an even more relaxing way to get on the water, you can rent inner tubes and float the Class I lower Ocoee River.
> Start here: Outdoor Adventure Rafting (OAR); 423-338-5746; ocoee.com
> Cost: $16 per person for 1.5-hour float
ON THE TRAILS
Cherokee National Forest is a mecca of multi-use trails. Whether you're looking to stretch your legs, feel the burn or something in between, here's how to hike or bike the Ocoee.
> Easy : Take a 1-mile stroll around Ocoee Whitewater Center. A paved path edges the 500-meter-long Olympic course, providing a panorama of the whitewater playground. And be sure to stop by the visitor center to learn about the center's history or browse the nature-oriented gift shop. Parking is ample, and daily parking passes cost $3 per vehicle.
> Moderate: Explore Goforth Creek, a tributary of the Ocoee River. The 3.1-mile out-and-back trail follows the clear and splashy creek up the mountain, passing a number of small pools and waterfalls along the way. Free parking is available in a gravel lot alongside Highway 64, but the area is small and can become congested on nice weekends.
> Hard: Test your stamina on Clear Creek Trail, a 9-mile out-and-back with 1,843 feet of elevation gain. Considered one of the most challenging within the Chilhowee Trail System, it rewards ambitious hikers with more than bragging rights. There's an abundance of wildflowers in the spring and wild berries in the summer. The trailhead can be accessed at Chilhowee Recreation Area.
Two mountain bike trail systems are located within Cherokee National Forest, encompassing more than 40 miles of trails, steep elevation gains and options that range from novice to expert.
> Chilhowee Trail System. Trails are accessed at Chilhowee Recreation Area. Parking is available at the day use area at the lake for $3 per vehicle.
> Tanasi Trail System. Many trailheads begin at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, with parking available in the lower lot for $3 per vehicle per day.
Don't have a bike?
> Start here: Raft One offers full-day mountain bike rentals for $35 per person, or guided trips for $45 per person with a minimum of four people. Bikes may be used on any number of trails within Cherokee National Forest, and helmets are included in the rental price. Call 888-RAFT-ONE (888-723-8663) or visit raft1.com to learn more.
Whitewater Express also rents mountain bikes for $24.95 per hour, however bikes must be used on the outfitter's trail system.
IN THE AIR
In addition to rafting, tubing and mountain biking opportunities, two outfitters offer ziplining and canopy tours, with over a mile of heart-pumping, breathtaking views through the lush, deciduous treetops.
> Raft One's canopy zipline features over a mile of sky towers, ziplines and a suspension bridge; 888-723-8663; raft1.com
> Wildwater's canopy tour sails over 14 wooded acres with nine ziplines and three swinging sky bridges; 866-3198870; wildwaterrafting.com
> Cost: Price per person varies and may range from $47-$77, depending on the number in your party.
Doggone Adventure Town
If you're planning an all-day or overnight adventure, consider booking your pup a stay at Ocoee River Dog Daycare. Offering day care and overnight boarding, the 3-acre puppy resort offers multiple sections for dogs of all sizes, including options for those that prefer not to socialize with others.
The day care is open seasonally from March to October in conjunction with the commercial river release schedule. Boarding is available year-round.
Day care pricing is $20 for up to 6 hours, $25 for 10 hours and $30 for 12 hours. Boarding begins at $30 for 24 hours. Call 423-299-9256 to learn more.
WHERE TO EAT
Ocoee Dam Deli and Diner is a must-stop, featuring country-style meals and "dam" puns galore. Open for lunch and dinner throughout the week, Dam Deli serves breakfast only on the weekends. Coming from Chattanooga, it is conveniently located roadside on the way into Cherokee National Forest.
Address: 1223 Highway 64, Ocoee, Tennessee
Hours: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (Closed Wednesday.)
Mountain Surf Coffee Shop — serving up espressos, lattes, frappes, cappuccinos and smoothies, plus bagels and muffins — has helped fill a much-needed niche for gourmet coffee in the area. Operated out of a roadside coffee truck and owned by a 20-year veteran raft guide, it's a quick and local way to get your pep on en route to the trailhead or put-in.
Address: Outland Expeditions, 6501 Waterlevel Highway, Cleveland, Tennessee
Hours: 7 a.m. to noon
Best Afternoon Snack
Tacoee food truck, opened last season, has become a fast favorite for paddlers looking for that post-river recharge. (Perhaps that's because it's owned by two local paddlers: my partner and me, just to be transparent.) Specializing in street tacos and scratch-made salsa, the truck is located at Ace Ocoee Adventures and directly across from Rock/Creek — two easy spots to pass time while you wait for your food.
Address: 1697 Highway 64, Ocoee, Tennessee
Hours: Saturday-Sunday from 2-8 p.m.
The Gondolier, located in between Dam Deli and Tacoee, is a hotspot for pizza, sandwiches, salads and cold pints of beer. The menu is big and so are the portions, making it a favorite for locals, out-of-towners and raft guides alike.
Address: 1603 Highway 64, Ocoee, Tennessee
Hours: Sunday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
WHERE TO DRINK
> Buck Bald Brewing, 160 Ocoee St., Copperhill, Tennessee; 706-431-7141
Why we love it: Family-owned, its lineup of locally crafted beers is ever-rotating through new IPAs, sours, stouts, porters and more. Beer garden seating is spacious and leashed pets are welcome, so bring the whole family. And don't forget your growler for brews to-go.
Hours: Thursday-Saturday from noon to 8 p.m., Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. and Monday from 2-8 p.m.
> The Bus Bar and Grill, 522 Highway 64, Ocoee, Tennessee; 423-338-4325
Why we love it: Featuring a permanently parked bus transformed into a bar, this open-air venue hosts table foosball, live music and an on-site restaurant. Located at Adventures Unlimited, a 30-acre campground lies conveniently just beyond the bar's entrance for those who plan to kick back a few.
Hours: Friday-Saturday from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
WHERE TO SHOP
For gifts or gear, check out these three locally owned small businesses.
> Ms. Be's Purple Bus, 636 Highway 64, Ocoee, Tennessee; 423-338-7822
Sells: Handmade jewelry, clothing, bags, decals, dream catchers and other unique gifts
Hours: Thursday-Monday from 12:15-5:30 p.m.
> Rock/Creek at the Ocoee River, 1690 Highway 64, Benton, Tennessee; 423-338-1075
Sells: Whitewater paddling gear, including helmets, paddles, life jackets, clothing and even boats
Hours: Thursday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., though before making the drive, call to verify hours.
> Scenic City Hemp Co., 4744 Highway 64, Copperhill, Tennessee; 423-548-4367
Sells: CBD products, including tinctures, salves, coffee, pet products and more
Hours: Thursday-Monday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Tuesday-Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Whether you're searching for backcountry solace or just a convenient place to crash, Cherokee National Forest boasts more than 30 campgrounds, with countless places for primitive camping as well.
> Start here: To check out all the options, visit fs.usda.gov/recreation/camping-cabins.
Our pick: Thunder Rock Campground, 35.076036, -84.485127
Why we love it: Blending outdoor adventure with modern convenience, Thunder Rock is located on the Ocoee River, offering access to the nearby Tanasi Trail System and the popular Benton MacKaye Trail, as well as flush toilets and hot showers.
Cost: Tent or RV sites range from $12-$20 a night
For those looking for a more comfy place to crash, many of Ocoee's rafting companies offer sweet rental bungalows. Though headquartered at the outpost, accommodations are open to anyone, not just raft guests. Options range from simple bunkhouses to luxury cabins complete with private bathrooms, kitchens and more.
Our pick: Ocoee River Rats, 414 Parksville Road, Benton, Tennessee
Why we love it: Family-owned and operated since 1998, River Rats' campground includes a cozy bunkhouse perfect for large groups (20 or more) as well as luxury rooms at the Sugarloaf Inn featuring A/C, cable TV and a covered balcony.
Cost: Bunkhouse rate is $15 per person per night; room rates range from $65-$75 per night
Throughout the cities of Ocoee and Benton, there are several Airbnb rentals, from private rooms to waterfront suites to cozy cabins.
Our pick: "Convenient, cozy cabin in the heart of Ocoee, TN," 1697 Highway 64, Benton, Tennessee
Why we love it: Located on top of Ace Ocoee Adventures rafting company, along a happening stretch of the river, this rustic two-story log cabin offers guests privacy while keeping them in the mix of things. The space includes three bedrooms, three baths, free laundry, a spacious balcony, and just a few hundred feet from the front door there is a gear shop, taco truck and gas station stocked with cold beer.
Cost: $200 per night
Before turning in for the night, check out the sunset from Chilhowee Mountain. On the drive up the mountain, there are several spots to pull off and watch the sun set over Parksville Lake. To get there, take Forest Service Road 77 off Highway 64, which is the byway that winds alongside the river.
Ocoee whitewater rafting by the numbers
> 1, ranking among most-visited rivers in U.S.
> 168,213, number of commerical raft customers in 2019
> 244,331, number of commercial raft customers in 2010, the busiest year on record
> 622, number of full-time jobs supported by the rafting industry
> 43 million, dollars brought into surrounding counties by rafting customers annually
> 26 million, dollars spent directly on rafting annually
> 3.57 million, dollars worth of tax revenues for the river’s tri-state area thanks to rafting
Source: 2013 study by Steve Morse, University of Tennessee