Directions to the trailhead: The Ocoee Whitewater Center is located on the south side of US 64/74 6 miles west of Ducktown. The parking around the center’s main building is 30-minute gift shop parking, so you need to park in the large day-use parking lot just downriver. Park as close as possible to the lower wooden bridge over the Ocoee River because the hike begins and ends there.
The hike: Located on the main road heading east out of Cleveland, the Ocoee Whitewater Center was built for the canoe/kayak slalom events at the 1996 Olympic Games hosted by Atlanta, GA. The Center has the distinction of being the only Olympic whitewater course to be located on a natural river, the Ocoee River. The portion of the river used for the Olympics was modified to build a suitable whitewater course, and on many summer weekends water is released from a dam upstream to create whitewater conditions.
The Ocoee Whitewater Center today serves as a Visitor Center for Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee’s only national forest, and as a trailhead for many hiking and mountain biking trails. One of the area’s most popular trails is the Old Copper Road Trail described here. Under the lead of John Caldwell, the Old Copper Road was built in 1853 to connect the copper mines of extreme southeastern Tennessee with the railroad terminus in Cleveland. Teams of oxen would take 2 days to make the journey one-way. Today modern vehicles make roughly the same journey in about 45 minutes on US 64/74.
Three other preliminary notes need to be mentioned. First, the trail distance I give here differs from the 4.6 mile distance given by the forest service. The forest service measures from the Old Copper Road Trail’s trailhead at the upper end of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, but to reach the trailhead you have to hike 0.4 miles through the Olympic whitewater area. Thus, the mileage difference is due to the distance through the Whitewater Center. Second, you could do this hike as a two-car shuttle by leaving one car at the upper end of the Old Copper Road Trail, which is located at the private boater put-in on FR 334. Third, because this trail is open to mountain bikers and because of the water release schedule, I recommend that you avoid this area on summer weekends. I came here on a Thursday in mid-June, saw two other trail users (both bikers), and had a nice hike.
Start of concrete riverside trail
With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get hiking! Start with a walk through the Olympic whitewater course, which is accessed by a concrete riverside trail that starts just below the lower bridge over the Ocoee River. A sign warns you to beware of rising water levels. Indeed, this trail stays close enough to the river to make it underwater during a sufficiently large water release. Sirens and flashing lights warn of impending water releases, so you need to get off of this trail by any means necessary if the sirens sound.
Olympic whitewater area
The concrete trail heads up the Ocoee River’s north bank. Notice the large number of small boulders along the river’s bank and the unusually-shaped rocks in the river’s channel, and file this look in your memory for later use. After crossing Rock Creek on a footbridge, the trail curves right along with the river as the Ocoee Whitewater Center’s main building comes in sight. The two-story red-roofed building contains restrooms with flush toilets, a small gift shop, and a staffed information desk with trail maps.
Ocoee Whitewater Center
Stay to the right of the main building to arrive at the Center’s upper bridge across the OcoeeRiver. Just past this bridge lies the trailhead for the Old Copper Road Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail #306). The trail drops steeply but only for a short distance to return to river level and begin heading upstream. The trail surface starts as concrete but soon turns first to gravel and then to dirt. Some strategically placed stepping stones get you over Laurel Creek with mostly dry feet.
Start of Old Copper Road Trail
0.8 miles into the hike (or 0.4 miles into the Old Copper Road Trail), you reach an opening on the right that gives a nice river view. This area marks the upper end of the constructed whitewater area, and notice how different the river upstream to your left looks compared to the Olympic whitewater area you walked through earlier. Some rhododendron was just starting to bloom on my mid-June hike.
Upper end of whitewater course
Continuing upstream, the road noise from US 64/74 disappears uphill to the left as the highway and river part ways. The Old Copper Road Trail is marked with a few purple i-shaped paint blazes, but the trail is wide and easy to follow. Each mile is also marked with a sign. Soon you pass a couple of rock outcrops on the left. A rattlesnake startled me as it slithered off the trail and into one of these outcrops.
At 1.4 miles, you cross a wooden replica of the 1841 Howe Thru Truss Bridge that carried the original Old Copper Road across this creek. Some ferns and sweet gums appear among the flora as you continue upstream, and more small streams are crossed via wooden footbridges. These streams make nice cascading sounds as they approach their confluence with the Ocoee. Most of this hike is shaded, but some sunnier areas are encountered as you head further upstream.
Hiking along the Ocoee
Just past the 2 mile marker, you pass a poorly maintained observation/contemplation area on the right. After climbing slightly to reach the highest point on this hike, a gradual descent brings you to the private boater put-in on FR 334. A restroom building and some picnic tables also stand here. The Old Copper Road Trail ends at the put-in, so after a brief rest and trail snack you need to retrace your steps back to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
To add a little variety, instead of walking the concrete path along the river below the Center’s main building, cross the upper bridge and walk the last segment back to your car along the river’s south bank. Just before you walk across the lower bridge to return to the parking area, note the Rhododendron Trail on the left. The Rhododendron Trail is a 1 mile one-way trail that offers a hike similar to this one but shorter and on the other side of the river.