Blue Hole Ocoee

Ocoee Whitewater Center, Cherokee National Forest

A great place to go swimming, snorkeling, free-diving and suntanning!

(But not on weekends)

Last revised August 26th, 2016

This page can now finally be reached using a simpler URL: www.BlueHoleOcoee.com (capital letters are optional)

For the SwimmingHoles.info entry on this site, click here. (They call me the "guru" of Blue Hole Ocoee, which is cool but doesn't seem to include any extra money or a company car. :) )

 2016 Itinerary now confirmed: click here 

List -- by year -- of all photos and videos moved here

Blue Hole, looking downriver. The Centennial Olympic footbridge is in the background; the best-known underwater tunnels are just to the left out of frame; the Ocoee Whitewater Center is out of frame to the right.

Things To Bring Current Summer Roadtrip Schedule Photos and Videos -- Some underwater! Summer Water Release Schedule for Ocoee #3 Dam
Summer 2015 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2014 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2013 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2012 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2011 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2010 Roadtrip Diary
Summer 2009 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2008 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2007 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2006 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2005 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2004 Roadtrip Diary
Summer 2003 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2002 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2001 Roadtrip Diary Summer 2000 Roadtrip Diary Summer 1999 Roadtrip Diary Summer 1998 Roadtrip Diary

Background:
Ever since 1994 or so, I've been roadtripping a lot up to Cleveland Tennessee, where my longtime friends Dirk, Randall and Gabrial lived, to visit them and go swimming in the Ocoee River Gorge. There's a place called Blue Hole, part of the Upper Ocoee River, where there are underwater tunnels shallow and deep, wide and narrow; nice wide swimming holes 10-12 ft. deep; places where you can jump in or go free-diving and look at the rocky bottom, in clear mountain water. There are easy tunnels for the whole family to swim through, and some that only kids (and skinny adults) can attempt, and some that no-one I know of has succeeded in swimming through. It's a lot of fun! :) Great weather, great swimming, great company, underwater tunnels....what more could one ask for?

First, some important things to know:

  1. For my friends in the Atlanta area, it's about an hour and 50 min. from downtown Atlanta to the Ocoee Whitewater Center and Blue Hole using the quicker route, and a bit longer via the "scenic route", assuming you travel near the posted speed limit in most areas. It's only about 80-90 minutes from Atlanta's northwestern suburbs (Cobb, Bartow, Cherokee counties), since they're closer. From my house in Auburn, Georgia, it's about two hours and forty-five minutes. :(
  2. For everyone, the official address for the Ocoee Whitewater Center -- which is just a bit downriver from Blue Hole Ocoee -- is 4400 US-64, Copperhill, TN 37317. This should work in all GPS navigational apps, and on websites like Google Maps.
  3. See the "Things To Bring" section below for a list of things to bring with you. $3 cash, a mask or a pair of goggles, water shoes and something to swim in is a good start. :)
  4. A $3 fee applies to vehicles parking in the day-use Ocoee Whitewater Center lot. This is a US Forest Service "Fee Area" and for a whole day of fun, it's a bargain for a carload of people at twice the price. A Cherokee National Forest annual pass is only $20 after May 1st, though, and includes all of the Forest's 'fee areas' including the beaches on Parksville Lake and up at Chilhowee. I get one now every year.
  5. The water level in the Upper Ocoee riverbed at Blue Hole is controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) at Ocoee #3 dam. Before embarking on any trip to Blue Hole, it's always wise to call the Ocoee Whitewater Center at 423-496-5197, 9am-5pm, to ask the nice volunteers there if the water is low and therefore safe to go swimming: "We'd like to go swimming in Blue Hole today. Is the water too high? Is there a dam release scheduled for today?"
    Here are some reasons why TVA might be running high water through the Ocoee at Blue Hole:
    • White-water "paid for" by the rafting companies. Since TVA would normally divert the water through the mountain tunnel to Ocoee #3 powerhouse and generate power from it, the water has to be "paid for." The summer rafting/kayaking schedule is located here; water is normally run high in the Upper Ocoee river-course on Saturdays and Sundays for rafting.
    • After extremely heavy rainfall in the Ocoee Basin, or throughout the region
    • problems or routine maintenance can force TVA's Ocoee #3 powerhouse or the water diversion tunnel to be shut down, and the extra flow would have to go through the riverbed.
  6. Summer schedule for the Upper Ocoee: Click here for TVA's scheduled releases.
    High water is not scheduled for weekdays at all, only Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day, but as we've seen several times, conditions can change, due to heavy rains in the Ocoee basin or maintenance on the dam, tunnel or powerhouse turbines at #3.
    TVA has now installed a lights-and-siren warning system along the riverbed in front of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which is audible upriver at Blue Hole and at least as far as "Little" Blue Hole, ten additional minutes' walk up the path. The alarm will begin sounding when the sluice gate is opened at Ocoee #3, and it sounds at 10-minute intervals thereafter for 90 minutes. The released water takes 60-90 minutes to get from Ocoee #3 dam to Blue Hole and the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
  7. Although the water is usually quite clear (except for about one day after the river's been high), the underwater rocks can be muddy. Don't wear something that can't be washed at home afterward.
  8. This is, after all, backwoods Tennessee. Since this isn't a pool, swimming in shorts, cutoffs or whatever is okay. Thongs might look a bit out of place. :) "Skinny-dipping" is not impossible, but I'd suggest heading further upriver on the path away from civilization and the Whitewater Center before trying it.
  9. There are bathrooms at the Ocoee Whitewater Center, open 9-5pm, same hours as the visitors' center upstairs and the small gift-shop downstairs. There is also a 'waterless' restroom facility toward the bottom of the parking lot but it's basically an overgrown porta-potty. It's better than nothing but you might want to hold your breath while inside. :)
    A Coke vending machine and a PowerAde machine are located outside at the OWC, plus there's a pay phone.

Directions To Blue Hole

With the prevalence of navigational apps and GPS systems, it's easiest now to simply provide the address of the Ocoee Whitewater Center and let your technology handle the rest. It is located at 4400 US-64, Copperhill, TN 37317. Your navigation system should route you to US 64 through Ducktown TN (from the east) or through Cleveland, Ocoee or Benton TN from the west, as there is no other way to get there. If it doesn't do that, check another source.
Since I'm from Atlanta, I have included directions from the Atlanta metro area via two routes.

Upon Arrival

If you're approaching from the east (Ducktown), there will be a left-turning lane, and you'll see a parking lot on the left in front of the building. Turn in there. If you're approaching from the west (along the river gorge), stay on US-64 until you have passed the day-use parking lot and turn right into the OWC parking lot.
Parking is now free for up to 30 minutes in this upper lot, so you can stop and visit the restroom and change. You may be able to purchase a daily pass for $3 or a full-year Cherokee National Forest pass inside, but not always. You'll have to move your car to the lower "day use" lot afterwards.
Continue past OWC in the parking lot and at the exit, you'll see a sharp left marked with "Ocoee Whitewater Center parking." Turn down here and park in the first non-reserved space you find.
If you haven't already paid for a day-pass at the office, go to one of the Daily Use fee kiosks and drop the envelope in the slot, and put the stub on your dashboard. You're all set! --Or, you can be like me and get an annual pass. :) A pass for the entire Cherokee National Forest is $30 for the year, but it's only $20 after May 1st. That's a great deal, since it also includes places like Mac Point Beach, Parksville Beach, the Chilhowee Recreation Area, and all the other Daily Use Fee Areas in the Forest including boat ramps and shooting ranges. Note that it does not include overnight camping in developed campgrounds, which runs typically $12-20 per night. If you can't purchase an annual pass at the Whitewater Center, you can get one at the Ranger Station on US-64 by Parksville Lake.
Taken from the parking lot facing downriver Facing upriver: OWC is the red building in the distance at left OWC itself, taken from the short-term parking lot

Things you'll see at Blue Hole

The riverbed right by the Center mostly consists of rocks, with some deep pools and a small waterfall near the day-use parking lot. I don't usually go swimming here because there are "neeter" areas and underwater tunnels up the river, but this is a great area to take younger kids since it's not too far from the parking area. The rocks are worn smooth from millions of years of waterflow in the river basin and look neet; they are slippery, so be careful. The intentionally rusty suspension bridge marks the upriver limit of the riverbed modifications for the 1996 Olympic Games -- the parking lot is where the temporary grandstands were built.

You'll see a set of rock stairs leading down from the Center to the path along the river; Blue Hole is about a hundred yards upriver from the bridge. You can see it easily from the bridge.

Here's a rough sketch of the area around the Ocoee Whitewater Center (from Ducktown and McCaysville, you'd enter from the upper right-hand corner on US 64; from Cleveland and Route 411 you'd enter from the left side).


From OWC, take the stone steps down to the path near the river. Walking upriver on the footpath that runs beneath the bridge, you'll cross a small stream on some flat rocks. Beyond this to your right is Blue Hole itself, a wide deep spot in the river with good places for jumping off rocks, etc. Many people "establish their base" here, but I generally continue onward and drop my stuff near the tunnels; later I snorkel back down the river to enjoy this deeper part of Blue Hole.
The best-known underwater tunnels are located beyond the deep basin, a bit further upriver. This is where I usually park my stuff and enter the river, since you can walk across the rocks and hop into the tunnels right from the shore. So, go about another 100 yards past Blue Hole on the path; you'll see an expanse of solid rock that tilts down toward the river on your right.
In the middle of the riverbed at this point are a collection of small "holes" -- you've found the tunnels!


If you step carefully across the rocks toward the holes, "The Throne" is one of the first holes you come to from the path -- it's almost perfectly circular and about two-and-a-half feet across. You can recognize it because if you look down into it, you can see out the side into the next hole; you'll also see that a handy rock "shelf" extends across the bottom. This is where I usually enter the water since it's easy and not prone to slipping or sliding. It's just big enough for one person and standing here kinda makes you feel One With the River, like you're the lord of all you survey, hence I call it "The Throne." :)
The Throne is that black hole to the left. Yes, there's water in it just out of view!

If you duck your head under you can exit from The Throne into the next hole, which is irregularly-shaped and wider. Here the bottom shelves down to about 7 feet deep. Angling off to the right is an underwater opening that leads you to a multiway underwater chamber. You can veer right and come out the "Main Entrance," you can go upward through an opening, or you can veer left and go thru a smaller tunnel into a circular basin about big enough for four people. From this hole you can continue out through one of two exits into open water (perhaps four ft. deep) on the opposite side of the riverbed from the path.

None of these tunnels is more than 3 or 4 feet long, making them safe for most kids and nearly all adults, as long as you can swim. They can be done with or without diving masks or goggles, although masks or goggles make it a lot more fun and much safer, especially for large groups.
This is the narrowest tunnel (recommended for skinny kids and adults only) as seen from c. 5 ft. past the Throne From the same spot, this is the passageway to the left. A kid in the foreground (left leg visible) has just poked his head up through the narrow opening; in the background is someone snorkeling in the "wide circular hole" mentioned above From the "wide circular hole" here are the two exits out to open water on the other side of the riverbed. And facing back, here's the pebbly bottom of the wide circular hole from one of the exit tunnels.

If you go back out to the path, further upriver about a 10-12-minute walk you come to an area we call "Little Blue Hole." This area tends to be a bit less crowded with casual tourists and whitewater-rafting parties and can be a more pleasant place to suntan, etc. We've gone "skinny-dipping" here before, when there was no-one else around (except a Forest Ranger who walked up and saw us, but that's a different story...)

Here's a view from midriver a bit downstream from the tunnels looking back at the "main entrance," from which the kid has just emerged.
From the same spot, here's a view looking downstream. In the background is the suspension bridge. Past the kids just right of center is a tilted rock in the distance -- there's an excellent tunnel running underneath it. Just to the right of the large tilted rock (left foreground) and to the left of the rocky "peninsula" (middle distance, center) you can see all the way to the far side of Blue Hole itself. The wide swimming hole seen here is actually the smaller, more distant swimming hole seen in this image from the bridge, facing upstream.


If you go up to Blue Hole this summer or any summer, be sure to drop me a note in email if you have any comments or suggestions. It's a great place to go swimming or snorkeling!


Things You Should Bring

(Listed in approximate order of importance)
  1. $3 for the day-long parking fee. Or just get an annual pass once and enjoy the whole summer. :)
    For large vehicles, like buses and passenger vans, it's 50 cents per person.
  2. Mask, snorkel and fins. If nothing else, bring a mask, or at least some goggles for your eyes. Blue Hole is ten times as much fun when you can see where you're going, and there's a lot to see on the bottom. Besides, then you won't have to borrow a mask from me! :) Fins (or 'flippers') are not needed in the "Swiss cheese" tunnels, but they're really helpful everywhere else in open water.
  3. Shoes, preferably water-shoes or old tennis shoes. On a sunny summer day, the rocks in the riverbed and along the sides can get extremely hot, and shoes become really important. The rocks are also slippery when wet so choose something with decent wet-traction.
  4. A bathing suit. Note how this is listed below money, masks and shoes? :) You can also go swimming in shorts or cutoffs, and I've seen passersby, and locals on the way home from work, take a quick dip wearing long pants...and sometimes underwear. The farther up the river you walk, the less crowded the river tends to be, so skinny-dipping isn't out of the question once you're away from the crowds.
  5. A hat. That Sun'll bake yer brain. :)
  6. An underwater camera. Not a necessity but they work pretty well and on a clear day with sunshine you can get some awesome underwater shots, as you can see on these pages. For disposable underwater cameras, Fuji's is the best I've seen, but Kodak's is okay too. I've switched to a Pentax Optio W30 and a Fuji Finepix digital underwater camera for underwater photos and video. Both are good; I think the Pentax gets better audio results underwater.
  7. Tanning lotion, preferably the allegedly-waterproof kind. If you can find it, bio-degradable sunblock would be even better since there is substantial underwater life in the river.
  8. Towel and/or blanket. --Especially if you're suntanning.
  9. A wetsuit, or something warm to wear if the water's a bit chilly. It can be chilly early in the season, or when the water is flowing a bit higher than normal due to rainfall in the basin, or when the wind is really blowin'. Wearing a surfers' rashguard, or a shirt over longer shorts, or bike-shorts under cutoffs, etc., can help fight the chills.
  10. A cooler with drinks and stuff. If you picnic near Blue Hole, please dispose your trash properly...and give others hell if they don't. :)
    Please note that Forest Service rules prohibit the consumption of alcohol and Rangers will occasionally patrol the area checking coolers, etc.

If you'd like to make it an overnight trip, the closest motels are in Ducktown, TN; you passed them if you approached from the east but they're a little pricey. There are also various lodges, campgrounds and cabin-rental places in the Cherokee National Forest. Thunder Rock Campground, across the river near TVA's Ocoee #3 powerhouse is only about 2 miles from Blue Hole and costs $12/night for a spot. Apparently no permit is required for "primitive" camping up in the mountains within the National Forest, but there are bears and stuff.
For more information about primitive camping, go here.
In the event I can't stay with my friends in Cleveland, TN, I generally get a room in town there. There are several inexpensive ($50-60) options there.
If you'd like to picnic at Blue Hole, a bridge by the lower "day" parking lot leads to a small picnic area across the river from the parking lot. These tables are first-come first-served.

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Summer Roadtrip Schedule/Diary

Dates Plans Comments
May 24th and 25th, 2016 Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made Despite the early visit -- I haven't been up there during May in several years -- the water was tolerable and we didn't have to use wetsuits! (I was worried about that.) Water flow was great, water was quite clear and there was cloudless sunlight both days.
I only got a few pics and one video; see below for links. Great to meet Cody and James, plus Marcus, Ross and Craig up there. (The latter three are rafting guides.)
June 7th and 8th Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made! This was a pretty awesome visit. The sky was very clear both days and I'm paying for it with a pretty righteous sunburn, but the water was clear, there was never a ton of people there at any one time, and I met a lot of cool folks and loaned out a lot of masks. Great to meet Garret and Holt, Michael and his group, Noah and Waylon, and Daniel and the guys from Moldova.
Pics from the first two visits are now posted publically on my Facebook profile here. (It should be visible to all.)
Vids are now posted here! My only complaints about my Fuji underwater camera are that the lens is too far to the left (easily blocked by an errant finger) and the microphone is too "hot" or loud underwater, so turn the volume down.
June 14th and 15th Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made! Pics from this visit are now posted here!
June 21st and 22nd Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made! This was a great trip in every way -- great weather, warm, clear water, and some really awesome people.
Pics from this visit and the one before are now posted here on my FB profile.
Vids are now posted here!
July 5th-6th Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip scrapped due to blown tire, and rainy weather up in TN I'm glad I stayed back in Georgia on Wednesday, as a big storm knocked the power out at the house for several hours.
July 13th and 14th Wednesday and Thursday roadtrip made! This was a pretty good trip, not quite as awesome as June 21st and 22nd but still good. The weather was about perfect on Wednesday and great on Thursday until a strong storm came through at around 4:30. Although there were a lot of church- and other groups present -- around 150 youngsters on Thursday -- the tunnels area was never completely overrun. Great to hang out with David, Israel and Colin on Wednesday and a lot of people on Thursday whose names I didn't get...and really cool to meet up with my friend Randall, one of the awesome Clevelanders who first showed me Blue Hole in all its raw pre-Olympic glory back in 1994!
A nice, long vid showing some kids swimming in the tunnels is posted here.
July 26th and 27th Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made! This was a pretty awesome trip, too! While there were some desultory thunderstorms that passed over both days, they weren't severe and we just weathered the storms by getting out of the river for a while. The water was almost dangerously warm -- 88F by the end of the day on Tuesday! -- but pretty easy to spend the entire day in the water. Lots of really cool people, including Anthony and Colby, rafting guides from Raft One who were there both days, Cody and Sage, a cool kid with an even cooler name: Ripken (named after Cal Ripken), and Nate and John, who I'd met before. Nate had brought his scuba gear and -- for the second time -- let me use it in the deeper part of Blue Hole. VERY cool and a lot of fun. Pics from this visit are now posted publically on Facebook here.
Videos from this visit, Colby and Anthony trying out my snorkel-masks, Colby and Anthony using my snorkel-masks in the tunnels, and Me snorkeling down the shallow section to Nate and John, have been posted to the 2016 Youtube playlist.
August 10th and 11th Rescheduled Wed. and Thurs. roadtrip made! Aside from some clousy weather, this was an excellent trip. With school back in session in many districts there were no large church or school groups to contend with, and the are was never too crowded. There was a lot of cloud cover but no significant rain despite dire forecasts, and the water was a refreshing 80-83F, more comfortable than the 88F sauna two weeks ago. Talked to many cool people, including Bryan and Zak, "Ghost" and Seaver, Kagan, Brooklyn, Brittany and Tony, Geoff, Eden, David and Joshua, and Nate and John (Nate didn't bring his scuba rig this time, though). Very cool times and Joshua and I closed the place down at 8:15 pm on Thursday after some great times.
Pics from this visit are now posted here on Facebook.
Videos from this visit, from behind Ocoee #2 Dam on a rafting day, Ocoee #2 Dam and the rafting put-in, snorkeling thru tunnels and into the deep section of Blue Hole, and Geoff, Eden and David swimming thru the tunnels, have been posted to the Blue Hole Ocoee 2016 Youtube playlist.
August 16th/td> One-off Tuesday roadtrip made! My friend Jason and I both had the day off, and since he can't come up to Blue Hole for a two-day visit, I figured we could make a one-day trip up so he could get there once this summer. Great weather with lots of sun and refreshing water at about 83F. Saw a few familiar faces including Anthony and Nate, and some new ones including Matthew and Zeeshan. Pics from this visit are posted here.
August 23rd and 24th Tuesday and Wednesday roadtrip made! Last trip of the season unless it stays really warm into late September, and it was a great time. Relatively quiet both days with no large groups, as you'd expect this late in the season. Weather was a bit cooler and less humid on Tuesday and clousy and more humid on Wednesday, but it never rained and the sun came out just in time for my friend Nathan's arrival on Wednesday, and he brought his scuba rig. Cool to see 2016 friends again including rafting guides Anthony and Nate (different Nathan), Geoffery, Eden, David and Josh, and new friends Sean and Randi. special shout-out to Josh for coming out late in the day on Wednesday because he'd promised he would...without a suit and intending to wear long pants in the water. We closed the place down in style.
A video of Geoff, Eden and David in the tunnels is here and pics from this visit are posted here.
August 30th One-day Tuesday roadtrip possible...maybe This will depend on my work scheduled that week, plus it's right before the start of DragonCon. We'll see.

Photos and Videos

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