Road Trip: Exploring the Ocoee Scenic Byway Through East Tennessee

This 30-mile road trip is a short, exciting journey through the Ocoee Scenic Byway to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

October 24, 2019

When the Ocoee Scenic Byway was designated in 1988 it became the first National Forest Scenic Byway in the country. Following the path of an old wagon road through the Ocoee River Gorge the scenic byway connects Western North Carolina to East Tennessee. The scenic byway’s biggest attraction is the Ocoee Whitewater Center, but that is far from the only attraction on this beautiful stretch of road.

My first journey along the Ocoee Scenic Byway was in 2016 with some rather wonderful tour guides from the tourism offices at Visit Cleveland, TN. Since that first introduction I have not been able to stop thinking about the Ocoee River Gorge, whitewater rafting, or the scenic overlooks. I returned again in 2017 during the summer and 2018 during the autumn. I have quite an itinerary for you to follow on this road trip adventure!

Autumn is a great time to drive this road trip to enjoy the gorgeous fall foliage along the Ocoee River.

A Brief History

In the 1830s a wagon trail was carved through the Ocoee River Gorge. The trail was used to transport copper from mines in nearby Copperhill (south of Ducktown) to the railroad station in Cleveland. During the Civil War this was the primary source of copper for the Confederate government.

In 1911 the Tennessee Rural Electric Company, today known as the Tennessee Valley Authority, built three dams along the Ocoee River. Parksville Lake (originally called Lake Ocoee) was created just above Ocoee Dam #1. The 1,950-acre lake is the oldest lake in the Cherokee National Forest.

In the 1920s U.S. Highways 64 and 74 were built through the Ocoee River Gorge along the Old Copper Road. The freeways are four-lane divided highways at either end of the Ocoee River Gorge; the road through the gorge is still mostly a two-lane winding road (and I hope it always stay that way).

In 1988 the 19-mile stretch of US 64/74 between Ocoee and Ducktown was designated the Ocoee Scenic Byway. It was the first National Scenic Byway designated in a national forest in the country.

Click to enlarge

1. Ocoee Dam Overlook

This is the first official scenic overlook on the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The pull-off area beside the lake features a pretty nice view of the Ocoee Dam. Just beyond the damn is the rising summit of Sugarloaf Mountain (1,282’).

The pull-off is plenty big enough for large RVs and travel trailers. There is no time limit in how long you can stay here, but there is literally nothing other than the overlook to enjoy.

Boats gather at a small island in the middle of the lake.

2. Parksville Lake Scenic Overlook

This large pull-off is the first of many gorgeous scenic overlooks along Parksville Lake. Many of the pull-offs have plenty of room for RVs and travel trailers as you head toward your campground or next destination. Almost all the pull-offs are lakeside so it is easier to explore the Ocoee Scenic Byway heading from Ocoee to Ducktown.

This pull-off has loads of information in a permanent display at the edge of the parking lot. The information covers Cherokee National Forest, Ocoee Scenic Byway, and Parksville Lake.

Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina

The Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina offers the only marina and lakeside lodging on Parksville Lake. The motel and marina are located just minutes from the beginning of the Ocoee Scenic Byway and offers pretty amazing views of the lake and nearby Sugarloaf Mountain.

Although the 1950’s-era building is somewhat dated the rooms have been somewhat upgraded. Wall-mounted air conditioning and heating units, flat screen televisions, and updated furnishings offer everything you need to call this home during your Ocoee adventures. They also have five cabins nearby offering more amenities and seclusion.

At the marina visitors can rent paddleboards or boats for fun on the lake, take advantage of the full-service marina retail store, or rent a slip for extended stays. Visitors can also book whitewater rafting adventures and enjoy rafting all day while lounging on the property all night.

3. Parksville Beach

Parksville Beach is one of two areas for public swimming on Parksville Lake. The small recreation area features a changing facility and restrooms with pit toilets, picnic tables with grills, benches, and a wooden dock for getting to the water.

Parking at Parksville Beach is one-way beginning at the end closest to Ocoee. If you are coming from that direction it is easy to turn into the parking area. However, if you are traveling from Ducktown it will require a left turn; left turns on this highway can be tricky and somewhat dangerous on busy days.  

Ocoee Ranger District Office

The Ocoee Ranger District Office, part of the Cherokee National Forest, is located across the Ocoee Scenic Byway from the lake. The ranger station is not exactly a visitor center, but they can most certainly help you find your way along the scenic byway, make reservations at the three national forest campgrounds in the area, and provide directions to nearby attractions.

3171 Highway 64, Benton, TN | (423) 338-3300

4. Oswald Road / Forest Service Road 77

Oswald Road / Forest Service Road 77 leads to three of the most breathtaking scenic overlooks along the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The road also leads to the Chilhowee Recreation Area, Chilhowee Campground, and Benton Falls Trail. The winding two lane paved road is somewhat steep but entirely drivable, leading to the overlooks in about two miles and the recreation area in seven miles.

The Lakeview Overlook is exactly that: a pretty awesome view of Parksville Lake about 600’ below. From this point you can also see the Lake Ocoee Marina on the water and Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.

View of the lake and mountains from the Sugarloaf Mountain Overlook on Chilhowee Mountain.

Just a bit further up the road is the Sugarloaf Mountain Overlook. This is one of my favorite overlooks in Tennessee with a clear view of Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance with a small piece of the lake. This is one of my favorite overlooks because of the large boulders to sit on beneath the shade of a massive tree.

View from the Ocoee Overlook on Chilhowee Mountain.

About another mile up the road is the Ocoee Overlook (I’ve also heard it called the Chilhowee Overlook), one of the most breathtaking overlooks in all of Tennessee. The overlook provides a nearly 180-degree panorama view of Parksville Lake, Sugarloaf Mountain, and nearby mountain ranges. It’s incredibly peaceful at this overlook far from main traffic routes and I’ve never had more than a few other visitors up there at a time.

Note: A frequent complaint from first-time visitors (myself included) is that there is no highway sign pointing toward Oswald Road or Forest Service Road 77. Instead, look for a large brown sign pointing toward Scenic Overlooks, Chilhowee Recreation Area, and Benton Falls Trailhead.

5. Chilhowee Recreation Area

The Chilhowee Recreation Area is one of the greatest hidden gems of the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The recreation area features a very nice campground, lake for swimming and fishing, a beautiful waterfall, and about 25 miles of hiking and biking trails.

The 70-site campground includes 29 sites with electrical hookup but no water or sewer hookups. There are several bathhouses with hot water showers and flush toilets scattered throughout the various loops of the campground. Each campsite includes a picnic table, grill, and lantern post. Sites are reservable through Recreation.gov up to four days in advance and on a first-come, first-served basis within four days.

The 7-acre McKamy Lake features a sandy beach for swimming and fishing from the banks of the lake. Visitors are allowed to put boats, kayaks, and canoes on the lake but gasoline motors are not allowed.

Fees for the campground are $12/day for tent site without hookups, $15/day for tent site with electrical hookup, and $20/day for RV site with electrical hookup. There is a $3 Day Use Area Fee for each vehicle.

Benton Falls Trail

Benton Falls is a towering, gorgeous waterfall located at the end of a 3-mile out-and-back hiking trail in the recreation area. With only a 300’ change in elevation along the trail it’s a pretty easy hike to see this waterfall, although it does get a bit rough near the end.

Note: Only use Oswald Road / Forest Service Road 77 from US 64/74 to access Chilhowee Recreation Area. Oswald Road into Delano is closed and Benton Springs Road is somewhat impassable and very rough.

Parksville Boat Ramp

The Parksville Boat Ramp is the only public boat ramp along the Ocoee Scenic Byway. The first boat ramp (coming from Ocoee) is meant more for kayaks, canoes, and jet skis. The second boat ramp is meant for larger watercraft and includes restrooms and a wooden dock.

6. Mac Point Beach

Mac Point Beach is my favorite place to spend a lazy afternoon near the lake. A peninsula juts out into the lake and offers a breathtaking panorama view from the water. I also think the small cove is the perfect place to go for a swim in the lake.

The popular swimming area includes changing facilities, restrooms with pit toilets, picnic tables with grills, an outdoor shower, and a large covered shelter.

Mac Point Beach is easier to access with turn lanes in either direction. However, there are only about two dozen parking spaces with no time limit. It tends to fill up fast on warm summer days and weekends.

Parksville Lake RV Campground

This small campground is located just off the Ocoee Scenic Byway on Tennessee Highway 30. The campground features 17 RV sites with electric hookup and 24 tent sites with no hookups.

The campground includes bathhouses with hot water showers and flush toilets, pit toilets in other areas, and a dump station. Each campsite includes a picnic table and fire ring.

Campsites are reservable through Recreation.gov ranging from $20-$40 per night for each site.

View from the eastern end of Parksville Lake.

Lake’s End Overlook

This is one of my favorite scenic overlooks along Parksville Lake (and I gave this scenic overlook the name). At the very end of the lake just before reaching the Ocoee River Gorge the scenic byway crosses a bridge. At this point there is room on either side of the road to pull off.

I have seen several kayakers put in at this location but my favorite thing to do is admire the beauty of the lake. From this vantage point the lake stretches far into the distance with a ridge of mountains surrounding it on all sides. The first time I saw Parksville Lake coming from Ducktown I had to turn around to come back to this spot and park for awhile.

Ocoee River Gorge

From this point the Ocoee Scenic Byway enters the narrow Ocoee River Gorge. For the most part the two-lane road winds alongside the Ocoee River. The drive is beautiful almost any day of the year and one of my favorite 10-mile drives in the country.

The biggest thing to note about driving the Ocoee River Gorge is there are very few places to safely pull off the road. There are quite a few narrow pull-offs akin to parallel parking along the road, but these spots are dangerously narrow and depending on traffic might be difficult to pull into.

My recommendation, especially if you are not intimately familiar with the road or if there is lots of traffic, is to drive the entire 10-mile route to the Ocoee Whitewater Center without using any of the pull-offs on the road. There are a couple of places with parking lots off the road that will be a much safer place to stop

Ocoee River Take-Out

The Ocoee River Take-Out can be a very busy place during the summer months and weekends. This is where the whitewater rafting companies collect their passengers and boats, load them onto buses, and take them back to the home office. It can be a very busy place and not somewhere you want to get trapped during busy days.

However, if you are visiting in the off-season or on a weekday this can be a nice place to pull off the Ocoee Scenic Byway and enjoy some time alongside the Ocoee River. Traffic flows one-way through the parking area (from Ocoee to Ducktown) and there are several parking spaces and restrooms with pit toilets.

Rafter and kayakers paddle past the historic TVA #2 Powerhouse along the Ocoee River.

TVA #2 Powerhouse and Hell Hole Rapids

This is another place I cannot recommend you stopping to visit because there is no official parking area. There are some very narrow spaces along the riverside of the scenic byway to pull off but please do so with caution.

As you drive past take note of the large brick building across the Ocoee River. This is the TVA #2 Powerhouse used for generating hydroelectricity. Just above the building on the mountainside are two large pipes. This is the Ocoee Flume, a long tube that carries water nearly five miles across the mountain ridge to the powerhouse.

A kayaker tumbles through Hell Hole Rapids on the Ocoee River.

Just beneath the bridge crossing the Ocoee River (the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic) is a spot called Hell Hole Rapids. A combination of factors makes this one of the most turbulent spots on the Lower Ocoee River. If you decide to park somewhere and walk back be sure to stand on the bridge and watch whitewater rafters and kayakers pass directly beneath you!

Top: Whitewater rafters and kayakers head bout onto the Ocoee River from the base of the dam. Left: A group of rafters drift town the river in a heavy fog. Right: A service train car rides along the water pipes to TVA #2 Powerhouse.

7. Middle Ocoee Put-In

Almost exactly five miles further along the Ocoee Scenic Byway is a fascinating place to visit. The Middle Ocoee Put-In is used by all the whitewater rafting companies for putting boats and passengers into the Lower Ocoee River.

The fascinating part of this stop is the how the companies get around the towering dam. Ocoee Dam #2 backs up the water from the Upper Ocoee River and then shunts it through the Ocoee Flume to the TVA #2 Powerhouse. The flume can be seen on the opposite side of the dam.

Because the dam was a necessary engineering feature it divides to Ocoee River into two sections. Companies offering a half day rafting adventure will put in at this spot. But companies offering a full day adventure put in much further upstream; when the rafters and kayakers reach this dam, they must get their boats and passengers out of the water, travel down a long concrete ramp beside the dam, and put back in at the bottom.

Parking

After passing the dam and coming into a curve you’ll see an entrance to Ocoee Dam 2; don’t turn here! This is the entrance/exit all the whitewater rafting company buses use. Instead keep going just a bit more to a second entrance.

This is the largest parking area along the Ocoee Scenic Byway and I have never seen it fill up (though I’m sure it happens from time to time). There are restrooms facilities, views of the Ocoee River, and you’re just a short walk back to the put-in area above the dam.

The first few minutes of rafting the Lower Ocoee River are pretty exciting! I could have sat here all day watching rafters paddle the rapids.

Most Awesome Place to Watch Rafters

Are you ready for the most awesome place on the Ocoee Scenic Byway to watch whitewater rafters and kayakers? Park at the Middle Ocoee Put-In. Walk back to the dam and look for a staircase leading back up to the road. Follow the narrow walking path along the scenic byway with a concrete barrier safely protecting pedestrians.

At the end of the path is a staircase leading down to the Lower Ocoee River below the dam. Find a boulder and take a seat. From here you can watch all the rafters and kayakers just getting started on the Lower Ocoee River. It’s a stunning place to watch them paddling past while remaining quite dry at the river’s edge.

Thunder Rock Campground

The Thunder Rock Campground is the only campground that sits at the edge of the Ocoee River. However, this small campground comes with restrictions. It is actually so small with a very tight loop at the end that RV’s, campervans, and trailers longer than 20’ are prohibited. Please don’t try; I watched a huge 38’ RV get stuck in there once.

The campground features 37 sites but no hookups. There are two restroom facilities with pit toilets but no showers. Each campsite includes a picnic table and fire ring.

Reservations can be made through Recreation.gov up until four days until check-in. Fees for the campground range from $12-$20 per night depending on type of site and season of the year.

Benton MacKaye Trail

The Benton MacKaye Trail is a nearly 300-mile trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Big Creek Campground at the northern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The somewhat popular trail is similar in style to the nearby Appalachian Trail.

The trail crosses the bridge over the Ocoee River and crosses US 64/74 near TVA #3 Powerhouse in front of the Thunder Rock Campground. Visitors can park at the entrance to the campground to hike sections of the trail, beginning at Mile 91.3.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center sits on the bank above the Ocoee River.

8. Ocoee Whitewater Center

The 1996 Summer Olympics, hosted in nearby Atlanta, needed a place for the Olympic Slalom Course. Engineers spent months reconfiguring a 2,000’ section the Upper Ocoee River, narrowing it from 200’ wide to just 70’, building levees of concrete mixed with stones from the riverbed, and building the VIP and Media Building. 

Today that building is the home of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, a visitor center and gift shop operated by the U.S. Forest Service. From about April – October each year rangers are on hand to direct visitors to attractions along the Ocoee Scenic Byway, answer questions about recreational opportunities, and help visitors book campsites at the three nearby national forest campgrounds.

Did You Know?

The Tennessee Valley Authority has complete control over the waterflow on the Ocoee River. Ocoee Dam #3 is the first of three dams on the Ocoee River and provides water to TVA #3 Powerhouse; similarly, Ocoee Dam #2 provides water to TVA #2 Powerhouse.

The water is kept flowing on the Lower Ocoee River between Dam #2 and Parksville Lake throughout the year. However, the water is only released on the Upper Ocoee River between Dam #3 and Dam #2 a few times each year.

Under a special agreement the TVA releases water from Dam #3 a total of 34 days each year. During those 34 days exactly 24 companies under a special contract with the TVA takes almost 1,000 passengers a day on exciting whitewater rafting and kayaking adventures on the Upper Ocoee River.

Rafting the entire Ocoee River is not only a thrilling and beautiful experience, it is also rather exclusive.

Parking

There are a few parking spaces directly in front of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, but these spaces are time limited. A larger parking area extends from the Ocoee Whitewater Center along the riverside and includes dozens of parking spaces for spending more time. At the end of the parking area toward Ocoee are a few larger parking spaces for RVs and travel trailers.

Top: The footbridge crossing the Ocoee River is a great short hike from the Whitewater Center. Left: During “low tide” visitors can walk the sidewalk alongside the river. Right: A bridge crossing the river offers a pretty good view of rafters.

Things to Do at the Ocoee Whitewater Center

Visiting the Ocoee Whitewater Center is the pinnacle of exploring the Ocoee Scenic Byway. But what do you do when you actually get there? Here are a few of my favorite things to do at the Ocoee Whitewater Center:

  • Take a walk through the Visitor Center and Gift Shop; there are benches and tables on the ground floor beside the river
  • Go on a short walk across the gorgeous steel pedestrian bridge crossing the Ocoee River and meander along the concrete path on the side of the river
  • Park near the lower bridge and walk across it; this is an excellent place to watch whitewater rafters and kayakers make their way through the turbulent water
  • Cross the bridge to find about a dozen picnic tables and a covered shelter with a view of the river; enjoy lunch here while watching the rafters and kayakers
  • On non-rafting days when the water level is low go for a walk on the concrete path between the Ocoee River and the scenic byway, crossing a small footbridge and leading to an short, old fire tower beside the river
View of the fog and fall foliage from the Boyd Gap Overlook.

9. Boyd Gap Overlook

The final stop on the road trip on the Ocoee Scenic Byway is a hidden surprise I almost didn’t catch the first time. The Boyd Gap Overlook is located on a short spur road a few minutes east of the Ocoee Whitewater Center (not to be confused with Number 3 Dam Road that is gated and locked).

The overlook provides a view of the landscape over the Ocoee River, but you can’t actually see the river or Ocoee Dam #3 far below. It’s a nice, peaceful view and a hidden spot not many people visit.

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