By Sam Boykin
As the Toccoa River flows down from the north Georgia mountains and into Tennessee, it becomes the Ocoee, and the serene waters give way to roaring Class III-IV rapids. The site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe/Kayak Competition, the Ocoee offers some of the best whitewater in the country, with legendary rapids such as Broken Nose, Table Saw and Hell Hole. Over the years a growing number of attractions have opened along the river that showcase this beautiful part of the Smokies, especially around Blue Ridge, Ga., making it the ideal home base for a paddling trip.
Situated in the Chattahoochee National Forest, Blue Ridge has a bustling little downtown, with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and brewpubs. There's also the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, which offers visitors a scenic four-hour round trip along the Toccoa River. The town is only about a 30-minute drive from the Ocoee put-in, which is at the base of the iconic Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) No. 2 Dam off Highway 64. It's baptism by fire here, as only about 100 yards from the put-in is Grumpy, a pushy and expansive Class III-IV rapid with eddies on both sides of the river. "It's a big hole that almost stretches river-wide and can really catch you unaware if you're not ready," says Chris Hipgrave, a general manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center whose been paddling the Ocoee since 1995.
This is just a primer for what's to come. The Ocoee is divided into a middle and upper section, both of which are about five miles long. The Middle Ocoee, with about 115 annual releases from March through October, is one of the most popular paddling destinations in the country. It's easy to see the appeal. The Middle Ocoee has a flowing, continuous rhythm, punctuated by roller coaster rapids. Just past Grumpy is Broken Nose, which features a swirling S-shape wave and a series of ledges. A little farther downriver is Table Saw, which Hipgrave calls a "big wave train" where paddlers can really test their skills. The river culminates at Hell Hole, one of the biggest waves on the river and a popular spot among playboaters.
The Upper Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic Canoe/Kayak Competitions, is more tightly regulated by the TVA and has 34 annual release dates, including weekends in August and the first three Saturdays in September. Here you can paddle in the footsteps of legends, with lots of robust whitewater and playboat features. Lance Luke, operations manager at Wildwater Ocoee, says that while the Middle Ocoee has a continuous flow from start to finish, the upper section is more like a bell curve. "It's a little more precarious in terms of its technicality and presents more potential risks," says Luke. Also, the Upper Ocoee put-in, which is just below TVA's No. 3 Dam, is situated next to the Frog Wilderness Area, which boasts thousands of acres and miles of hiking and biking trails.
For details, go to the Ocoee Release Schedule
What to do in Blue Ridge
Ride the Rails
Founded in 1887, Blue Ridge rose to prominence after the Marietta and North Georgia Railroad built a line along the Toccoa River to transport crops. Today, the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway runs on the tracks--the 1905 depot is in downtown Blue Ridge--and offers visitors a 26-mile roundtrip, with layovers at McCaysville, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn.
Southern Comfort Cabin Rentals offers more than 90 cabin rentals throughout the Blue Ridge area. These include several luxury one- and two-bedroom suites in the downtown area, as well as many remote cabins that offer views of Blue Ridge Lake or the mountains. Multiple cabins are also available that are just minutes from the Ocoee and Toccoa rivers.
240 W. Main St.
Since Blue Ridge passed an ordinance in 2009 allowing downtown establishments to sell beer and wine, a number of new restaurants and breweries have opened, including Blue Ridge Brewery. Owner Patrick Walker and his wife bought a house in downtown Blue Ridge in 2007 and two years later opened Blue Ridge Brewery, located just five blocks from their home. The popular brew pub has about 12 house beers, munchies like burgers, pizzas and salads, along with an outdoor patio and live music.
187 Depot St.
Not long after Blue Ridge Brewery opened, Tom Fennell, a local wine connoisseur and beer aficionado, partnered with Walker at Blue Ridge Brewing and opened Fannin Brewing Companyin 2012. The brewery uses local ingredients, like honey, pecans and strawberries, to make about a dozen German-style beers, all named after local people and places. The brewery also has a new tasting room and live music.
3758 E. 1st St.
After years of brewing five-gallon buckets of beer in the backyard, a couple of buddies and fellow retirees got together and opened Grumpy Old Men Brewing in 2013. The "nano brewery" is open Thursday-Saturday and brews about seven beers, including a pale ale, IPA and porter.
1315 East Main St.
Harvest on Main, located inside a gorgeous stone building with cedar roof shingles, has a hunting-lodge vibe and an international, Southern-inspired menu. Nationally recognized chef Danny Mellman prepares such noted dishes as pecan-encrusted trout, shrimp and grits, seared pork loin and meatloaf.
576 East Main St.
Christy Lee's Courtyard Grille has a variety of mouth-watering selections, including hand-cut steaks, seafood pasta, and veal ptarmigan. Be sure to grab a seat outside where there's a shady bar and patio with live music on the weekends.
588 East Main St.
For fine dining, there's Black Sheep, located inside a beautifully restored 1914 house. In addition to Southern favorites like shrimp and grits, BBQ pulled pork and meatloaf, the restaurant offers its own brand of moonshine, including apple pie, peach and chocolate cherry flavors.
480 West Main St.
At Oyster Fine Bamboo Fly Rods, the husband-and-wife team of Bill and Shannen Oyster make handcrafted bamboo fly rods. Blue Ridge is known as the Trout Fishing Capital of Georgia, with popular spots along the Toccoa River, as well as Rock Creek, Cooper Creek and Noontootla Creek.
494 East Main St.
For a little bit of everything, grab a bucket at the old-fashioned Huck's General Store and fill it with such varied goodies as candy, clothes, toys, books, soaps and other gifts.
500 E. Main St., Ste. 201
Mercier Orchards is a fourth-generation orchard where visitors can pick their own strawberries, blueberries and apples. Guests can also take a tractor tour of the 300-acre property and peruse the gift shops, gourmet pantry, winery and tasting room.
8660 Blue Ridge Drive
Just a few miles outside of downtown Blue Ridge is the 867,000-acre Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. Here you can explore hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails that wind through rugged woodlands and past scenic rivers and streams, as well as traverse longest swinging bridge east of the Mississippi River.
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