One of the legacies of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Ocoee Whitewater Center near Copperhill, Tennessee, serves as a regional visitors center and day-use recreation area within the Cherokee National Forest and Ocoee River watershed.
The 4-acre recreation area features scenic views of the Ocoee River; two commemorative Olympic bridges; miles of hiking, biking and easy walking trails; and a porch full of rocking chairs perfect for relaxing along this historic riverside.
Mountain biking and hiking enthusiasts can depart from the Ocoee Whitewater Center on the Tanasi Trail System, which offers more than 30 miles of trails. The International Mountain Bike Association designated the Tanasi Trail as an “Epic Ride,” a distinction given to a select few trail systems across the globe.
A 2.3-mile hiking and biking trail departs from the center along a portion of the historic Old Copper Road, which was originally used by the Cherokee and then by 19th-century miners to transport copper ore by mules and wagons from Ducktown to Cleveland before the development of the railroad.
Located within the upper section of the Ocoee River, the Ocoee Whitewater Center is a great place for water play during the week. Water is not released in the Upper Ocoee during the week (Monday through Friday), which turns the former Olympic course into the perfect location for rock hopping, exploring and cooling off from the summer heat.
“The center is a big water playground during the week when the upper section of the river is not running,” said Mike Wright, Ocoee Whitewater Center director and Cherokee National Forest ranger. “There are some great blue holes just outside of the whitewater center’s administrative boundary.”
Of course, when the Ocoee River is running at commercial flow levels on Saturdays and Sundays, visitors are not allowed to be in the water without a boat. Many visitors gather weekend mornings to watch the water be released from the dam.
The Ocoee River has its beginnings in Georgia, where it is called the Toccoa River, and the waterway changes to the Ocoee upon entering Tennessee. The river runs through Copperhill, flows past the Ocoee Whitewater Center and eventually empties into the Hiwassee River.
In the past, the Ocoee’s water quality was significantly impacted by mining activity in Copperhill in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fortunately, the river’s water quality has improved in recent years.
“Water quality in the Ocoee River has improved dramatically because of cleanup efforts by Glenn Springs Holdings in Copperhill,” Wright said. “We have seen some indicator species in recent years that we haven’t seen in the past.”
The Ocoee Whitewater Center is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the recreation area is open from dusk to dawn seven days a week. A $3 day-use fee is required for parking. The center’s gift shop is open seven days a week, offering trail guides, local art, nature-oriented souvenirs and outdoor clothing.
The center also offers educational programming throughout the year, including snorkeling trips on the Conasauga River and Citico Creek.
To get to the Ocoee Whitewater Center, take I-75 to exit 20 in Cleveland, Tennessee, and head northeast on APD 40 for about 6 miles to U.S. Highway 64/74 East. Travel east 26 miles on Highway 64. Pass Lake Ocoee, travel through the Ocoee River Gorge, and the center is located on the right.
Fuel, food, shopping and sleeping accommodations are available nearby in Ducktown, Copperhill, Benton and Cleveland; and camping options are located at Thunder Rock, Parksville and Chilhowee campgrounds.
To learn more, visit www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cherokee/recarea/?recid=35096.