Field Excursions: Pristine water wonderland awaits at Goforth Creek in Ocoee River Gorge

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

For those who enjoy visiting the Ocoee River Gorge, but aren’t skilled enough-or old enough-to kayak its Olympic-rated waters, Goforth Creek is your ticket to family outdoor fun in the land of whitewater.

If you go

What: Goforth Creek family hike, sponsored by Tennessee Wild

Where: Cherokee National Forest

When: Sunday, Sept. 16, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. EST

For more information: Click here (preregistration is required)

Goforth Creek embodies all that the Appalachian Mountains have to offer in the way of water. The pristine freshwater creek rocks and rolls its way down Chestnut Mountain, a wild and undeveloped wilderness within the Cherokee National Forest, a 650,000-acre forest and the largest tract of public land in Tennessee. At its base, Goforth Creek empties into the Ocoee River after travelling under U.S. 64.

Along its course, the creek tumbles over ancient rocks that create pockets of water wonderland fun, ideal for wading and rock hopping, fly fishing, photography and enjoying quiet time in the wilds of Tennessee.

Named for Josiah Goforth, who moved to the area in 1850, Goforth Creek is one of the Ocoee River Gorge’s best-kept secrets, seemingly well-known only within certain recreational niches. Goforth is one of the only wild wading streams within the Ocoee River Gorge. The creek is also a popular fly fishing destination, as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks it with trout eight times a year. A tributary of the Ocoee River, Goforth Creek is a popular launching site for kayakers aiming to run a section of the Ocoee.

“Goforth Creek is a great place for families,” Tennessee Wild campaign coordinator Jeff Hunter said. “It’s close to Chattanooga; it’s pretty, it’s easy, there’s lots of wildlife and kids can get in the water.”

Best of all, the water at Goforth Creek is about as clean as you can find in today’s rapidly developing world.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, a stream that comes out of the mountains, where there is no human habitation or development above it, is much cleaner than flowing waters in developed areas. Although there are still things to be concerned about, like bacteria, the fact that Goforth flows right through the forest without traversing through developments makes it a much more ideal place to play in the water, officials said. 

The southeastern United States is a hot spot for aquatic biological diversity, and Goforth Creek is an example of an ecologically complex and fragile ecosystem. According to a 2010 report prepared by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Goforth Creek drainage is oriented in a way that may contribute to a cooler, moister microclimate associated with the Southeast’s rich diversity of life.

More than 25 species of land snails, including the Goforth snail, have been documented in the creek drainage, which represents 10 percent of the total snail species known to the state of Tennessee.

The Tennessee dace fish is also found in Goforth Creek, as well as Greasy Creek, Madden Branch, Caney Creek and Rogers Branch within the Cherokee National Forest. The Tennessee dace populations in these streams represent a significant proportion (about half) of the known populations of this species in the world.

The area is also rich in native plants, including Ruth’s golden aster, and rare plants exist throughout the area.

Black bears populate Cherokee National Forest, so it is prudent to be mindful of them while hiking at Goforth Creek.

The U.S. Forest Service says that although Cherokee National Forest has a healthy black bear population, bears don’t want to see you any more than you want to see them. According to the Forest Service, bears are curious animals, but if you make yourself look large and talk loudly, chances are, it will leave. 

The entire Cherokee National Forest is a wildlife management area, so bear hunting is allowed except in the three designated wilderness areas: Big Frog, Little Frog and Gee Wilderness Areas. Black bear season opens in the fall in the Ocoee Gorge. For more information, click here.

Hiking in waterfall heaven
The Goforth Creek hiking trail begins at a small gravel parking lot off U.S. Highway 64, where Goforth Creek empties into the Ocoee River. A small green sign along the road marks the location of the trailhead.

Goforth Creek trail follows the creek along an old road bed, offering stunning views of waterfalls, clear pools, rock overhangs, wildlife and native wildflowers. The trail climbs briefly away from the water to a short grade and then rejoins the creek at a meadow, a former home site. There, the trail crosses the Goforth Creek and gains elevation on its climb to the rim of the Ocoee River Gorge. The trail ends at the summit of Chestnut Mountain, overlooking the Ocoee River Gorge and Big Frog Wilderness Area.

A round-trip hike on the entire Goforth Creek trail is approximately four miles in length. The creek segment alone is approximately one mile round-trip.

Threats to Goforth Creek
A proposed new route within the Appalachian Development System known as U.S. 64/Corridor K, a project of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, has been proposed for the Ocoee River Gorge in an effort to improve transportation within that area. Some of the proposed road developments may impact the Goforth Creek area, as well as other waterways and sensitive ecosystems within the Cherokee National Forest.

“The original design for Corridor K was proposed in 2003; however, due to the expense of the project and opposition to the route, TDOT decided to start over again,” TDOT Region 2 spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said.

The Southeast Tennessee Rural Planning Organization voted Corridor K as a top priority in recent years, so the project has been revived with a focus on “context sensitive solution planning,” a method of planning that gets the public involved on the front end and includes a citizens resource team, according to Flynn.

“The problem with the Ocoee Gorge is that it is one rock slide away from being closed, as happened in November 2009 to April 2010,” Flynn said. “Also, U.S. 64 is the only east-west corridor in Polk County, and it is used for a lot of different types of traffic: truck traffic, commutes to work and school, recreational usage and tourist usage.”

TDOT is currently conducting an environmental review of the area. Six options are being analyzed as part of the environmental impact statement, including a no-build option and improvements to the existing U.S. 64 route.

“The project is in the environmental study phase-no routes have been chosen-so there are no specifics on where the project, if constructed, will go,” Flynn said. “We don’t want to do anything that would affect the beauty or environment in that area because it is one of the treasures that we have here in Polk County.”

TDOT expects to have the draft environmental study phase available for review by the summer of 2013, and a formal decision about the project is expected by the fall of 2014.

“I would encourage citizens to get engaged in the public process that will be rolled out as part of the planning process for Corridor K,” Hunter said. “These are your public lands, and you need to be informed and let your voice be heard.”

For more information about the Corridor K project and upcoming public workshops this fall, see

Directions from Chattanooga
Head north on I-75 to exit 20. Take the bypass around Cleveland and exit on Highway 40/64/74 at the Ocoee sign. Continue east on 64/74 to the Ocoee River Gorge. After passing the second Ocoee powerhouse, look for the green Goforth Creek sign. The gravel parking lot is small and tends to be crowded with hikers and kayakers, but additional parking is available along the road. No parking fee is required.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at