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Carrying rafts down ramp to water.

Running the Line

Ocoee River Delivers Whitewater Thrills

On U.S. Highway 64, just east of Chattanooga, there’s a 26-mile stretch known as Ocoee Scenic Byway. It winds peacefully through the Appalachian foothills, entering the southern tip of Cherokee National Forest before trailing along the Ocoee River.

Here, on a sunny Saturday morning, a man carefully pulls his vehicle toward an overlook that offers sweeping views of the mountaintops and TVA’s Ocoee Dam No. 1.

As he gets out and soaks in the scene, he’s followed by his daughter, who blows into a wand, sending glossy bubbles out across the dam.

They soon hop back in the car and head east, toward even greater thrills.

About a mile up the road, they’ll find Ocoee Inn Rafting, where caffeinated and doughnut-fueled raft guides are working steadily to the gentle plucking of a banjo.

The inn is one of two dozen outfitters that welcome upwards of 160,000 visitors to this area each year.

And for a successful summer season, these businesses rely on TVA’s careful management of the river for all things recreation and power generation.

The Ocoee River features Class III and IV rapids that promise heart-pumping rides to those who venture in from locations far and near. It’s consistently ranked among the top whitewater destinations in the nation.

“By managing the Ocoee, TVA provides world-class whitewater recreation,” said Clay Guerry, TVA’s senior recreation strategy specialist.

Person watches rafters enter a rapid.

The Ocoee River features Class III and IV rapids that promise heart-pumping rides.

‘The River Gets Inside Your Soul’

At about 9:45 a.m., Ocoee Inn Rafting manager Jim Kibler – a seasoned instructor affectionately dubbed Jimbo by coworkers – assembles his team for a prelaunch brief.

He issues safety reminders and encourages the team to stay smart, then advises them to stay on their preferred path down the Ocoee River – what raft guides refer to as “running the line.”

After logging countless trips, these guides have earned a reputation as experts in delivering memorable adventures to eager thrill-seekers.

“We’re blessed to have a senior staff,” Kibler said. “We frequently recruit teachers and firefighters with over 20 years of experience on the river. Experience makes us safer.”

Among the more experienced staff is commercial whitewater guide Mike Tyndall. After 30 years in the business, he can forecast just about every nook, cranny and swirl along the Ocoee.

“The river gets inside your soul,” Tyndall said. “It’s your home away from home.”

A few other guides, like Annika Kilbo-Parker, are still in training. A teacher from nearby Cleveland, Tennessee, Kilbo-Parker joined the Ocoee Inn team along with her husband – and they immediately found a deep sense of community.

“The people of this area are relaxed, self-reliant people,” she said. “We look out for each other, especially on the river. If you fall, we’re here to help you.”

“We’re like family here,” Tyndall said.

Paddler sitting on rock at edge of river.

Experienced guides help ensure rafters stay on their preferred path along the Ocoee River, or what guides refer to as "running the line."

Go With the Flow

At this time of morning, their family is growing.

Eager high school seniors laugh and chatter as they board yellow buses that line the parking lot like little ducklings. Large green rafts are stacked high atop the vehicles.

It’s a short drive from Ocoee Inn to the Upper Ocoee launch point, where the high schoolers quickly peel off into groups – six to a raft, plus a guide.

The first miles of the Upper Ocoee offer a relatively tranquil experience, ensuring raft guides have ample opportunity to provide instructions and learn the personalities of their group members.

Feeding this section of the river is Ocoee Dam No. 3, built by TVA in 1942. The hydroelectric facility diverts water from generation, sluicing it through the dam on Saturdays and Sundays during peak recreation times.

The consistent release schedule is important for flood damage mitigation and soil preservation, but it also gives outfitters like Ocoee Inn Rafting a competitive edge.

“We’re not dependent on snow melt or rainfall like other rivers,” Ryan Cooke, owner of Ocoee Inn Rafting, said. “Having that release schedule means consistency for our business. It’s easy to train guides because we can anticipate where our flows are going to be.”

Rafters in a rapid.

The Ocoee River's Olympic course is an exhilarating third of a mile where spectators often flank the riverbanks to bear witness to the raw power of the rapids. 

The Global Stage

The first leg of the journey, about 3 river miles, is relatively calm. It stretches from Ocoee Dam No. 3 to the former site of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which then signals the start of the Olympic Course.

In 1989, the city of Atlanta initiated a series of events that brought the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to the Upper Ocoee.

It introduced this region to the world.

“Historically, TVA has been a partner in improving quality of life, whether it’s with local and state governments, universities or Olympic committees,” TVA historian Pat Ezzell said. “We’ve never done it alone.”

From the Ocoee Whitewater site, rafters journey along the Olympic Course, an exhilarating third of a mile where spectators often flank the riverbanks to bear witness to the raw power of the rapids.

Dozens of vibrant rafts bob along to cheering crowds and joyous hollers.

It wasn’t always like this.

For much of its history, the Upper Ocoee riverbed was dry.

In the mid-1800s, a 32,000-acre patch known as the Copper Basin had supported one of America’s largest copper mines. That work rendered the area largely barren, which left a scar on the Appalachian landscape.

When TVA acquired Ocoee Dam No. 1 and No. 2 in 1939, it began rehabilitating the land.

By 1977, reconstruction of a flume on Ocoee No. 2 gave rise to the area’s whitewater industry.

And today, the Ocoee whitewater experience is the stuff of legends.

Rafts on edge of river

Rafters pause shoreside along a portion of the Olympic course on the Ocoee River.

Ripple Effect

As the sun passed its zenith, the boaters paused shoreside for lunch.

Beyond the obvious recreational benefits, the Ocoee nurtures an entrepreneurial ecosystem where small businesses can thrive.

Catering services collaborate with outfitters to offer lunch in rafting packages. Photographers often position themselves along the river to capture photos, which they later sell to rafters.

Local coffee shops and artisanal stores dot the area, selling handmade trinkets and jewelry.

Collectively, these types of businesses contribute more than $43 million to the area’s economy.

Throughout the seven-state region, recreation on TVA reservoirs generates nearly $12 billion in economic activity, supporting more than 130,000 jobs.

But the benefits extend well beyond dollars.

At places like the Ocoee River, it’s about making life better for all people.

“We’re talking about increased quality of life, increased health benefits and deferred health costs in an area that has some of the most challenging outcomes,” Guerry said.

Guide takes raft through rapid.

Thousands of visitors flock to the Ocoee River each summer to experience unforgettable whitewater rafting. 

‘Let’s Go Again’

The benefits were evident in the beaming smiles of the high schoolers as they finished up their lunches and continued their adventure.

They descended a ramp at Ocoee No.2, launching above a rapid dubbed Grumpy’s.

A colorful procession of helmets and paddles bobbed in rhythm as crews approached the home stretch.

Here, the river seems to erode any lingering anxieties among paddlers, imbuing them only with joy and exhilaration.

As they pass Ocoee No. 2’s powerhouse, the final rapid, a few daring riders perch on the bows of the boats like aqua-rodeo stars.

“The first time going down the river can be nerve-wracking,” Cooke said. “Your adrenaline is pumping as you run that first rapid. But after that, it’s all smiles.

“When the last rapid is over, everyone says, ‘Let’s go again.’”

From beginning to end, including lunch and shopping, the Ocoee experience can last anywhere from a few hours to half a day or more. There are also shorter journeys, from Ocoee No. 2 to the final marker, that take just a few hours.  

In its commitment to managing more than 40,000 miles of rivers, streams and tributaries, TVA works to ensure places like the Ocoee continue to serve people through navigation, flood prevention, power production, water quality and water supply.

And recreation.

“It’s a challenge to balance all those competing demands, but each one of them is important,” Darrell Guinn, senior manager at TVA’s River Forecast Center said. “This is what TVA was created for – to make this a better place for people to live, work and play.”

Photo Gallery

Kayaker on river

TVA manages the region’s rivers to create optimal conditions for biodiversity, but also to ensure ample opportunities for recreation and navigation. 

Team carries raft

A team carries their raft downriver to relaunch.

Ocoee Inn Rafting guides

From left, Ocoee Inn Rafting guides Annika Kilbo-Parker, Jim Kibler and Mike Tyndall, and owner Ryan Cooke.  

Person playing banjo.

An Ocoee Inn Rafting guide plucks a banjo as rafters load onto buses headed for their launch point.  

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: After completing the Olympic course on the Ocoee River, rafters and kayakers transport their vessels to a section of rapids known as Grumpy's.

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Explore

Visit the River Management page to learn how TVA helps balance the Tennessee River system, and visit the Recreation Release Schedules page to plan for your next tailwater adventure. 

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People sitting in raft.

A River Reception

TVA and its partners recently hosted the annual Ocoee Whitewater Rafting and Fly-Fishing Experience, kicking off the summer rafting season.

A reception at Tooneys Music Venue, near the Georgia-Tennessee border, began the two-day event, which celebrated the 1996 Olympics that brought the world’s best slalom canoers to the Upper Ocoee River.

TVA’s event partners included the Polk County Chamber of Commerce, Fannin County Chamber of Commerce, Ocoee River Outfitters Association, Trout Unlimited and Tennessee State Parks. 

Ocoee River Outfitters

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  • Ace Kayaking
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  • Cherokee Rafting Service
  • Endless River Adventures
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  • NOC Adventures
  • The Ocoee Adventure Co.
  • Ocoee Inn Rafting
  • Ocoee Outdoors
  • Ocoee Paddleboarding & Watersports
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  • Ocoee River Rats
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  • Outland Expeditions
  • Quest Expeditions
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  • Rolling Thunder River Co.
  • TN Whitewater
  • Wildwater Rafting