Flora and Fauna along the Ocoee River
Keep your eyes open in the calmer sections of the river trip because the forest on the banks of the Ocoee is home to a wide variety of mammals such as Black Bear, squirrel, racoon, skunk, opossum, beaver, squirrel, bobcat, chipmunk, mice, river otter, red and grey fox woodchuck and white-tailed deer. The national forest on the south side of the Ocoee River is also a Black Bear sanctuary and no hunting is allowed in the Big Frog Wilderness making the bear easier to spot.
Birdwatchers be on the lookout for a wide variety of bird species including juncos, mourning doves, barn swallows, blue jays, indigo buntings, cardinals, towhees, sparrows, chickadees, and warblers. Raptors in the gorge include turkey vultures, hawks, peregrine falcons and some of the southernmost nests of the American Bald Eagles.
Reptiles found in the gorge include the timber rattlesnake, copperheads, eastern box turtle, common snapping turtle and the southeastern five-lined skink. Amphibians include several species of frogs, toads and salamanders. Notable species of salamander include Jordan’s salamander and hellbenders.
Trees along the Ocoee riverbank are Oak, Pine, Walnut and Hickory. Also, native only to the southern forest the Chalk Maple can be found in the Ocoee river gorge.
There are a number of flowering plants and shrubs that put on a colorful display at different times of the Ocoee River rafting season. Flame Azaleas with their bright orange flowers can be seen in April and early May. Hundreds of Rhododendrons line the banks of the Ocoee and bloom with thousands of white and pink flowers in June each year. Mountain Laurel adds its color to the display in early May until the beginning of June. Two species of smaller flowering plants are found only in the Hiwassee and Ocoee gorges along the river. The Ocoee Leatherflower with a pretty pink bloom is out all summer until mid-September. Ruth’s Golden Aster is a federally endangered species which can only be found growing on river rock in the Ocoee and Hiwassee rivers.
One of the early summer wildflowers is Tennessee’s official state wildflower: Passiflora incarnata, the purple passion flower. The fruit of this species also gives this plant one of its other common names – Maypop. Known to the Cherokees, as “Ocoee,” this plant would then be the namesake for one of the world’s’s most famous whitewater rivers, the Ocoee River of southeastern Tennessee.