Tucked away in the southeast corner of Tennessee, near where North Carolina and Georgia bump up against the state, is a gem of a state park packed with adventure and stunning views. The natural beauty of Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park is right there in its name, the first river managed in the State Scenic River program.
“You can spend a week here and not explore everything,” says Park Manager Angelo Giansante, who has been with the park for 16 years, the most recent six as its manager.
While the park has lots of outdoor recreation to offer, the two rivers are definitely the major draws. Whether it’s a relaxing float or a challenging whitewater trip, the Hiwassee and Ocoee have you covered.
Giansante notes that water sports are extremely popular, and like most parks, Hiwassee/Ocoee experienced a tremendous jump in visitor numbers beginning in 2020.
“The lower rivers experienced an increase of over 200% — so much that parking became an issue,” he says.
Those lower rivers are where the gentle floats are offered, better for first-time water adventurers or those with small children. Think tubes and canoes. Even if you’ve been on the water before, Giansante says that those floats can be good for relaxing and alleviating anxiety, something we all need from time to time.
The park has maintained a lot of that increased visitation, evidenced by how busy Giansante and his dedicated staff have been this summer.
For those seeking more thrills, the upper rivers have all five classes of navigable rapids — everything from Class I (moving water over a shallow riverbed) to Class V (whitewater rapids with large obstacles that are difficult to avoid). The upper rivers are where several commercial river outfitters operate, guiding people safely through their perhaps once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
Giansante says having lots of people utilizing these rivers is what makes their protection possible.
“The resource depends on the people,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. More people using the rivers equals more protection. It’s what keeps the rivers alive.”
What does he mean by that? If not for the demand for whitewater and float adventures, the Hiwassee and Ocoee might not be wild rivers anymore.
Even if you are more of a water-adjacent sort of person, don’t let that stop you from visiting Hiwassee/Ocoee. You can watch all those people floating or rafting by on your way to your own natural adventures.
Prefer trying your luck with a fishing pole? The Hiwassee and Ocoee have you covered. In addition to the largemouth bass and catfish you might reel in at other parks, you’ll have the opportunity to catch yellow perch as well as brown and rainbow trout that are stocked by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Hiwassee/Ocoee is also home to some excellent birding. As you might expect of a park focused on rivers, water birds like herons, kingfishers, geese and ducks abound. But the woods also are home to finches, doves, cardinals, buntings, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, swallows and more. The park can also serve as the first stop in a more extensive birding vacation. Nearby birding sites include Fort Loudoun State Park, Cherokee National Forest and Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
Hikers have bountiful options for taking to the trails in this area. In addition to paths in the Hiwassee/Ocoee immediate environs, there are miles and miles of trails in the Cherokee National Forest. A portion of the John Muir National Recreation Trail (not to be confused with similarly named trails in California and Alaska) also runs through the region in nearby Reliance.
Camping at the Gee Creek primitive tent campground can also be part of a longer vacation. Giansante says he’d love to see more people come to the area for more than a single day.
“You could come here every year for vacation and do something different every day,” he says. “If you only come for a day, you miss things like sunrises in the mountains, sunsets in the mountains and so much more.”
Man with a mission
When you talk to Giansante about Hiwassee/Ocoee, you can tell he enjoys taking the time to talk about this park that he loves. He’s passionate about the resource and teaching people about it. The park partners with other agencies to educate all those visitors about the rivers, safety on the rivers and all the natural wonders that surround the rivers.
His efforts and those of his staff were honored in 2021 when the park was recognized as the best in the state for customer engagement by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
“Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park has found numerous ways to interact with the community, and we are pleased to honor it in this way,” Jim Bryson, deputy commissioner of TDEC, said at the time of the awards announcement. “All of our parks are doing an excellent job at serving visitors, so to stand out in customer engagement says a lot about the staff at this park.”
According to Tennessee State Parks, the Hiwassee/Ocoee staff created or participated in videos to promote responsible camping, used virtual classes and social media posts to keep guests informed about changes at the park and allow them to engage virtually, and adapted quickly to COVID-19 to meet the needs of visitors. A plan was developed that allowed the Ocoee to have a rafting season despite the pandemic, leading to the busiest August the Ocoee had seen in a decade and bolstering the local economy.
Giansante’s road to Hiwassee/Ocoee is an interesting one — and one he didn’t expect. Unlike many park employees who grew up in the country or with a nature-focused state park nearby, Giansante’s early years were spent in inner-city Nashville. Even though he visited Cedars of Lebanon State Park about once a year, it wasn’t until he was half a world away that his true interest in the outdoors was piqued. While serving in the Army in Iraq, he became fascinated by the creatures that called the desert home and with the vast number of stars he could see in the sky.
Upon his return home, he visited Rock Island State Park. In fact, he spent a summer camping there and even ended up taking other campers on hikes and giving them information on where to enjoy specific activities. This was all witnessed by Park Manager Joe Moore who encouraged Giansante to become a park ranger. Following a season at South Cumberland State Park, he came to Hiwassee/Ocoee in 2007 and has been there ever since.
Giansante recalls a funny story about his first day at Hiwassee/Ocoee, one that shows the newness of the environment to him. He was riding with Ranger Howard Deverell, and they were discussing people who were out on the river and knowing how to tell when they were in trouble. Giansante said they all looked like they were trouble!
“Now I know exactly what it looks like when someone is really in trouble,” he says.
His years of learning about the rivers are intertwined with his growing love for the area where he’s raised his children and has gotten to know the locals and where he now takes part in a wide variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, paddling, cave exploring and rock climbing.
He’s quick to point out that his staff and the area’s outfitters are big parts of the success and attraction of Hiwassee/Ocoee.
“I have some of the most dedicated staff I have ever seen,” he says. “My main job is to give them the resources they need to accomplish their amazing ideas.”
Knowing that a river trip is often a one-time thing for visitors, he nevertheless works to make it just the first of many.
“We are here to serve,” he says. “We want to be the launch pad to your adventurous life. We want to make it as unintimidating as possible.”