The Ocoee was once a sleepy river. It trailed through the forest, between mountains, surrounded by breathtaking nature. That nature is still there, and as breathtaking as ever, but no one in their right mind would describe the river as “sleepy” anymore.
In order to create a challenging, thrilling course for the 1996 Summer Olympic slalom competition, the Upper Ocoee’s riverbed was narrowed by two-thirds for a 500-meter stretch. By carefully controlling the flow of water, the Ocoee Whitewater Center was able to transform the riverbed into a series of obstacles to be outmaneuvered. After the success of the Olympics, rafting companies quickly began springing up to give people the opportunity to undergo the exhilarating experience themselves!
Today, the rapids are rarely allowed to reach the Level Five intensity they did during the Olympics, but that does not make them any less fun. The Ocoee River is open throughout the summer, with more than 750 passengers embarking on their own river adventures every day throughout the season. In 2012, it was named the No. 1 whitewater destination in America.
However, with more than a dozen rafting companies to choose from, it can be intimidating to know which one to choose. Each and every company has a well-established reputation, so it is hard to go wrong whatever you choose, but here we have compiled a list of some of the top options. Whether they have exemplary ratings or unique attractions you will not want to miss, you are sure to find the right fit for you! The Upper Ocoee is the most intense section of the Ocoee, while the Middle Ocoee is more friendly to beginners. For that reason, the Middle Ocoee is the most popular and budget-friendly option. Some companies allow you to raft only the Upper Ocoee, and most companies offer a full-day trip that includes both.
Cherokee Rafting is first on our list for good reason: It has been awarded recommendations that are hard to beat! It is number one on TripAdvisor, and National Geographic highlighted it as an official geo-tourism destination. It was founded in 1978, two years after the renovation of a dam allowed water to flow through the Ocoee (which had been dry for 63 years previously). At the time, whitewater rafting was only just beginning as a competitive sport, and very few ran the Ocoee. Owners John and Judy Thomason, who had a history with the river that reached back to childhood, started out with flimsy equipment and a vision. As it turns out, that was enough. The 1996 construction of the OWC only caused business to boom further, and today Cherokee Rafting has a reputation as one of the safest and most respected rafting companies in the country, with friendly, experienced guides to make each experience one of a kind. They offer experiences on the Upper and Middle Ocoee, as well as a full-day option that includes lunch. Their very reasonable rates are based on day of the week and time of year, which you can find on their website in a helpful chart.
With 50 years of experience and five locations throughout the Southeast, Wildwater has a lot to bring to the table. On top of offering a choice between the Middle, Upper, or Middle and Upper Ocoee (the last of which provides lunch and a snack), the thing that makes it stand out the most is that it gives you the chance to spend half your day in the water and the other half in the sky! Each location offers Zipline Canopy Tours, including the Ocoee location. You have the option of booking either option on its own, but it also offers Raft & Zip packages that allow you to do both in one day at the same rate as its full-day rafting excursions, including lunch. After getting a bit more than your toes wet in the waters of the Ocoee, soaring through the trees of the Cherokee National Forest is a great way to dry off while keeping the thrills going. You will love the views of Big Frog Mountain! Just be mindful that the zip lining excursions have an upper weight limit of 250 lbs. They are currently offering 50% off all Rafting and Zipping tours on Labor Day Monday! Wildwater also has lower rates available for groups, making it a perfect team building retreat for small businesses who want their camaraderie to skyrocket.
Speaking of the skies, another company that offers excitement out of the water is High Country Adventures. Founded in 1975 by four friends who wanted a place for people to be able to gear up and then learn to paddle, climb, and hike with ease, two of the original founders still manage the companies. They have highly rated rafting options at very affordable prices, especially when you book weekdays or large groups. You have the choice of a three-hour excursion on the Middle Ocoee or a six-hour trip that spans both the Upper and Middle Ocoee. What sets them apart is that they also offer rock climbing at beautiful Starr Mountain! They teach you basic techniques in a way that is both safe and challenging, providing equipment for you and your group of four or more. If you are interested in participating in both of their main offerings, they also have cabins and a campground available while you take advantage of their other attractions, such as ropes courses and caving. They also offer a 15% discount to members of the military, police, and fire department throughout the season as thanks for their service.
Diving back into the water, Ace Ocoee Adventures is a standout as the only licensed Funyak outfitter on the Ocoee. If you are unfamiliar, Funyaks are kayaks designed to be more stable in order to allow novice paddlers to brave whitewater. AOA was founded by local paddlers who love not only paddling, but the Ocoee region itself, having grown up kayaking and rafting on it. Their mission is to share their passion with as many people as possible! They offer an Upper/Middle Ocoee trip with lunch included as well as the option to raft either section separately, but they also offer private rafting trips for those looking for a more personalized or intimate experience with a knowledgeable guide at the ready. If you’re looking for something a bit more thrilling, though, Ace offers both solo and duo Funyaking experiences, which are among the most intense you can get on the whitewater. Before embarking, you are given training in safety and techniques on flat water, after which you get to take on five miles of the country’s most popular whitewater up close and personal. Ace’s Duo Funyaks put you with one of their hand-selected experts, who will keep you company and tell you more about the rapids as you experience them.
Last but not least is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which offers a unique variety of rafting experiences at an affordable price point. Their Ocoee location offers the choice between the Middle Ocoee, Upper and Middle Ocoee, and a special experience known as “Middle High Adventure,” which spans the Middle Ocoee but employs more advanced and thrilling techniques that really make a splash. With four staff members who participated in the 1996 Olympics, NOC is a great option for thrill-seekers who don’t want the solitude of a kayak. Plus, guests who book before July 31 with code OCOFUN will save $5/person!
Before you go and book your trip, here are 10 things to keep in mind:
- For safety reasons, most rafting companies require guests to weigh between 90-275 pounds. If you are in doubt, it is a good idea to check beforehand!
- Be mindful that any electronics/cards/valuables should be sealed in tested watertight containers in places that they will not come loose, fall out, or otherwise be lost. If you plan to bring things with you on the raft, it is a good idea to have them in a container that is both waterproof and buoyant.
- Make a note not to leave anything that could melt or be damaged in the car, such as food, electronics, and cosmetics; many of these experiences take place around midday, and it is hot out!
- There is almost no cell reception near the Ocoee, so be sure to load your maps on your phone before getting there. Once you are there, enjoy the chance to disconnect!
- For the best possible experience, we recommend wearing 100% UV polarized sunglasses with a strap of some kind to keep them in place. They will keep both water and sunlight out of your eyes. Plus, polarized lenses make a huge difference when you want a clear view of nature.
- Even though the water is cold enough to make the sun feel bearable, high-SPF sunscreen is strongly recommended. The trees do not usually provide shade. If you plan on booking a full-day trip, consider bringing along a portable tube to reapply.
- Most rafting experiences require children to be at least 12. If you have children under 12, plan accordingly.
- In April of 2022, there was a fire that impacted the visitor center of the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Although it did not make the dam itself any less safe, it did damage to the emergency warning systems, so be mindful of the distant possibility of suddenly rising water.
- Although rafting companies monitor the OWC’s water release schedule, if you are interested in ensuring the day you go is more or less intense, the schedule is readily available on the OWC’s website.
- Have fun!