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Stops on the Way

7 Amazing Things to Do in Gorgeous Ocoee Country, Tennessee

On the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hike, raft and eat your way through this beautiful corner of the South.

The land in Southern Tennessee is crisscrossed by rivers, carving their way through gorges and around mountains. Waterfalls tumble down hillsides covered in summer green leaves that turn into reds, oranges and yellows come autumn. This area, known as Ocoee Country after its biggest river, is 60% national forest. It’s a remote and rural outdoor lover’s paradise with hiking trails, whitewater rafting and fishing galore. In between vast chunks of nature, charming small towns dot the landscape offering delicious food, local brews and unique lodging.

Here are seven of our favorite things to do in and around towns like Benton, Ducktown and Copperhill, Tennessee.

Raft the Ocoee River

Rating the Oconee River
Rating the Oconee River (Photo: Courtesy of Polk County Chamber of Commerce)

This gorgeous river was developed as a whitewater rafting hot spot for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Choose to raft either the upper section with exciting class IV rapids, or the middle section with more consistent, but moderate class III and IV rapids. Dozens of outfitters offer half-day trips on either five-mile section, or full day trips that cover both. On full day trips, you’ll stop halfway for a catered lunch, which isn’t your typical ham sandwich. Think fresh lemonade, cold shrimp, fruit platters and charcuterie.

Explore the Hiwassee River Gorge

If you’re looking for a more mellow day on the water, head to the Hiwassee River. Rent tubes from Webb Brothers Rafting & General Store, located in the town of Reliance where it looks like time has stood still. The old Texaco gas station sign points the way.

Webb Brothers Rafting & General Store
Webb Brothers Rafting & General Store (Photo: Courtesy of Polk County Chamber of Commerce)

If you’re traveling with small kids who aren’t old enough to raft or float, the Storybook Trail at Hiwassee Ocoee State Park is the perfect place to get some fresh air. The short and easy nature trail has signs posted along the way with pieces of a story for kids to uncover as they hike.

Another great way to experience this river is a ride on the Tennessee Valley Railroad. The trip follows a 50-mile track that was an engineering marvel when it was built to service the local copper mines. Because the grade of Copperhill was too steep for the train to conquer, the tracks cross over themselves as they wind their way upwards. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can opt for the Copperhill Special, which includes a two-hour layover in the historic town, giving you time to explore or grab a bite to eat. While the trip is beautiful year round, it’s particularly gorgeous in the fall when the leaves are changing.

Tennessee Valley Railroad crossing the Hiwassee River Gorge in Polk County
Tennessee Valley Railroad crossing the Hiwassee River Gorge (Photo: Courtesy of Polk County Chamber of Commerce)

Spend the Night in a Treehouse, on a Camel Farm or in a Bed & Breakfast

You won’t find hardly any chain hotels in this part of Tennessee, which means there’s tons of unique accommodations. At Treehouse Mountain Retreat in Copperhill, you can stay in one of four one-of-a-kind treehouses, some of which have their own swinging bridges. At the Ocoee Riverside Farm in Benton, you can stay in a Conestoga wagon or a condo with glass floors overlooking a camel barn where you can watch these weird and wonderful creatures. In Ducktown, stay at Company House Bed & Breakfast which dates back to the pre-Civil War era. For another unique experience, enjoy a luxurious cabin on the banks of the lower Ocoee and relax in a cedar-fired hot tub at Welcome Valley Village.

Hike to Benton Falls

Benton Falls in Polk County, Tennessee
Benton Falls (Photo: Getty Images)

The easy, 3-mile roundtrip hike to Benton Falls is great for the whole family. The 65-foot waterfall delicately cascades down a stair stepped cliff and is gorgeous any time of year, but especially in the fall. If you’re seeking more waterfalls, this area is full of them—there are 16 in the Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area alone.

Afterwards, stop by Cloer Mill General Store for hand-dipped ice cream. The shop has nearly 20 flavors to choose from.

Have a Beer in Two States at Once

While there’s no shortage of craft breweries in the United States, Copperhill Brewery may be one of the most unique. With the Tennessee-Georgia state line running right through the middle of the brewery, you can sip a beer in Tennessee while your tablemates enjoy theirs in Georgia. Because the front door is on the Tennessee side, that’s legally where the brewery is in business.

Another fun local brewery in Copperhill is Buck Bald, which is located in a renovated gas station.

Sample Local Cuisine

In the same way you won’t find chain hotels in this part of the country, you’re not going to find an Applebee’s on the corner either. This corner of Tennessee takes pride in its local cuisine, and you definitely won’t want to miss it.

For an unexpected lunch in rural Tennessee, you’ll want to try Rod’s Rockin Rolls. This unsuspecting hole-in-the-wall in Ducktown has a former Harrah’s casino and cruise ship chef at its helm. You’ll find fresh sushi and Thai spring rolls alongside Italian pastas on the menu.

If you’re looking for classic Southern comfort food, Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner in Ocoee is a great spot with fried chicken, meatloaf and catfish on Fridays. Gg’s Diner in Benton is another country favorite serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At the end of the night don’t miss Bar 21 in Copperhill, a classy spot that could easily be in downtown Atlanta rather than the heart of the historic Copper Basin. Sip on a nightcap while enjoying the art deco interior.

Glide Through the Air or On the Water

Glider Tour of Eastern Tenneesee in Polk County
Glider Tour (Photo: Courtesy of Polk County Chamber of Commerce)

Get an adrenaline rush as you soar through the Cherokee National Forest on one of two ziplines or zipline and canopy tour combinations. It’s a great way to see the surrounding landscape and get the kids’ wiggles out.

Another way to see the area from the air is by taking a glider ride. You’ll be towed up into the heavens by a small plane before being released to glide through the sky on a motorless aircraft. Southern Tennessee unfurls below you including the Appalachian Mountains and many rivers snaking through the landscape. Tours are less than $200 per person and the gliders can carry one to two passengers.

If water is more your speed, check out Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina for watercraft rentals and spend an afternoon on Parksville Lake. The 1,930 acre lake is the oldest man-made lake in the Cherokee National Forest, and you can enjoy it from a lazy lake cruise aboard a pontoon boat or try a standup paddleboard—all can be rented right on the lake.

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