By Suzanne Welander
The Class I-II Toccoa River is recommended for the remote wilderness within the National Forest, for overnight camping trips, and as one of North Georgia’s classic whitewater runs for novices.
The Toccoa is a delightful mountain stream that flows north out of the Chattahoochee National Forest into Tennessee. Divided by a dam that forms the reservoir at Blue Ridge Lake, the river above the dam boasts sparkling waters that tumble down mostly mild rapids. Many paddlers have honed their whitewater skills here, while also catching the wilderness paddling bug. The Toccoa River Canoe Trail begins at the Deep Hole Recreation Area and flows 13.8 miles to the take-out at Sandy Bottom. Some stretches of the trail pass through primitive forest, where yet-unafflicted hemlocks tower over the stream. Below the reservoir’s dam, the river is wider and lacks significant rapids. The scenery becomes more developed as it speeds into McCaysville and on into Tennessee, where it is thereafter known as the Ocoee River.
Class I–II (II+)
Length 20 mi
Time 2 days
Gauge Web, phone, visual
Level 250 cfs
Gradient 14.5 fpm
While it is navigable by canoe or kayak above the junction with Cooper Creek in Fannin County, the highest worthwhile put-in is the US Forest Service campground at Deep Hole. The first 3-mile segment traverses some farmland, some woodland, and intersects with a couple of roads before veering into the fragrant forest. Putting in downstream of Deep Hole where GA 60 passes near the river (B) brings the forest’s entrance 1.8 miles closer. A private-land owner located upstream of the forest disputed paddlers’ access in 2003, but courts have since confirmed paddlers’ rights to boat through.
Flowing through the national forest on the back side of Tooni Mountain, the river becomes a sheer delight for beginning canoeists, canoe campers, and trout fishermen. Water quality is good, and trout fishing is excellent. Add beautiful scenery, wooded seclusion, and mild rapids, and you have the perfect environment for an overnight trip.
Within the forest section, fairly continuous Class I rapids keep things lively. A half mile of Class II+ activity begins below the Rock Creek junction. The Benton MacKaye Trail, a loop of the Appalachian Trail, crosses the river via suspension bridge at this point, providing a good vantage point for scouting the largest rapid. Approaching Class III difficulty, portaging this rapid can be difficult and time-consuming. Camping is easy in this area, and the trail makes a good hiking side trip up Tooni Mountain. In the winter and early spring, the view from the ridge that towers over the surrounding valleys is worth the climb.
There is no easy access via road to the wilderness segment of the river. While it’s possible to paddle it as low as 250 cfs, the river is shallow and opportunities for mishaps increase as more rocks become exposed. Deadfall spanning the river is becoming more common and may force a portage. Paddling becomes less technically demanding—and more enjoyable—at higher levels.
Gradually, the river leaves the seclusion of the forest and enters a picturesque valley upstream of Swan Bridge (C). From here to Lake Blue Ridge, the surrounding views are fairly pastoral, giving way to streamside cabins mingled with intermittent brushes with forest after passing Dial Road. The current remains swift and busy with Class I–II activity for the next 9 miles. There are no major rapids until reaching “Party Rock” (G). Here, the river narrows into a series of Class II+ rapids that become more challenging at higher water levels. After this point, the river is usually quickly stilled into the backwaters of Lake Blue Ridge.
When the lake pool is down 40–50 feet— usually in the late winter—an additional section of solid Class II rapids is exposed. This 7-mile horseshoe-shaped section can be run without setting a vehicle shuttle: Park cars near the intersection of Shallowford and Old Dial Roads. The put-in at Sandy Bottom is less than a mile upstream from this point. The take-out is a 0.33-mile walk uphill from the river using a four-wheel-drive road (H) at Tilly Bend.
Access is generally good throughout the upper section. Additionally, the Forest Service’s Toccoa River Trail stretches 13 miles from Deep Hole to Sandy Bottom. Depending on the river level, the trail makes for one busy day, or a more relaxing two-day trip. Access at these points is inviting and easy, with primitive facilities. Other common trips include the 7 miles from GA 60 to Dial Road (D) that includes the most remote forest and challenging rapids. Farther downstream, a good whitewater training run begins at the campground put-in on Aska Road (E) and ends 5.25 miles downstream below what’s usually the last rapid at (G).
From GA 2/515 in Blue Ridge, turn east onto Windy Ridge Road. The road quickly comes to a stop sign; turn left. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Aska Road. The lowest usual take-out point (G) is 7 miles ahead on the left. Ample parking is available at the bend in the road near the top of the rapid; if you choose to run the rapid, your car can easily be moved to the more restricted pull-out near the bottom for loading. To get to the putin, continue in the same direction on Aska Road. Along the way, you’ll pass most of the intermediate access points, with the exception of the Sandy Bottom take-out and Swan Bridge. Aska Road will eventually dead-end into Newport Road. Turn left here, then right at the next dead end into Dial Road. Take Dial Road until it reaches GA 60; turn right. The turn for Deep Hole Campground is on the right, approximately 0.5 mile after the road rejoins the river.
The Tennessee Valley Authority provides data for the gauge at Dial Road on their website or by calling 800-238-2264 (see “Preparing for Your Trip,” page 4, for the website address). The river can be run as low as 250 cfs but is more enjoyable above 400 cfs. Experienced boaters will continue to enjoy the river at levels above 1,000 cfs, but beginners will be imperiled, particularly upstream of Dial Road, because rhododendron thickets eliminate eddies and block safe access to the banks in many spots. Below Dial Road, 150 cfs suffices as two big creeks contribute flow downstream of the gauge. A visual gauge is located on river right between the Toccoa Valley Campground and Shallowford Bridge.
Suzanne Welander is the co-author, with Bob Sehlinger, of the definitive Georgia guidebook, Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia published by Menasha Ridge Press. New for 2015, the completely updated 2nd edition adds five new waterways, including the new urban whitewater course in Columbus, with all new maps and data for all 771 access points. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia is available from Menasha Ridge Press.
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