The Oconee National Forest is the sister of Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia. The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest has a combined total of 866,468 acres, with 116,232 acres of that being Oconee’s contribution. The two lands are governed as one, so rules and regulations that affect one of them usually impact both of them. Headquarters are located in Gainesville, GA.
Intro to Oconee National Forest
The Oconee is a temperate deciduous forest of pine, oak, hickory, and maple. Much of the forests’ hardwoods were harvested in the late 1800s. Because of this, today’s visitors don’t get to see the tall, old virgin woods that other forests have.
The good news is, a hundred years is enough time for a new forest to grow back. The sugar maples by the Oconee River were particularly targeted for lumber all those years ago.
In fact, their removal threatened the health of the Oconee River and nearby streams. Now that the forest has grown back, run-off, erosion, and siltation are all much less of an issue.
Word of the Day: Siltation: The natural consequence of erosion in which sediments begin to leach into the water at unusually high volumes, causing problems for marine life.
Oconee is east of Chattahoochee, where the North Georgia Mountains are. So while Chattahoochee is mountainous and rocky, Oconee is pretty flat in comparison. The forest does have gently rolling Georgia hills, meadows, thickets, and some river marshes when the water is high.
The USFS bought 31,000 acres of land in north-central Georgia in 191, back when each acre only cost $7.00! That acreage went on to become part of Cherokee National Forest in 1920. In 1936, the boundaries between forests were reevaluated and the land became Chattahoochee National Forest instead.
23 years later, President Eisenhower set aside 96,000 acres adjacent to Chattahoochee. This created the Oconee, which was then joined to Chattahoochee. And so began the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest we enjoy today.
Recreation in Oconee National Forest
Oconee is known for its fantastic hiking and horseback riding trails, historic sites, watersports, birding, and hunting opportunities. If it’s a steep and challenging climb you’re looking for, you may want to go to the Chattahoochee side of the forest. The tallest point in Oconee is a mere 645 feet above sea level.
Looking to take your family on a hike with some educational value? You should check out the 1-mile trail leading from Lake Oconee to the ghost town of Scull Shoals Mill Village. The area is open from sunrise to sunset and requires no fees or passes. The walk is gentle, a good hike for young kids to get out into nature and see some amazing structures from our nation’s past. The site contains relics from the early Native Americans to Hernando de Soto’s search for gold, to the first mills built to sustain and enrich the lives of settlers.
Would you like the opportunity to help maintain archaeological and historical sites, monitor wildlife populations, perform educational programs, and even respond to emergencies in the forest? You may just make a great volunteer! The Forest Service works with the state, federal agencies, universities, conservations organizations, and citizen volunteers to maintain the vast acreage of Chattahoochee-Oconee.
Wildlife in Oconee National Forest
The Chattahoochee-Oconee forests house some of the most amazing creatures of America’s Southeast. Keep an eye out for black bears, river otters, coyotes, bats, deer, foxes, and even bald eagles.
If you’re a birder looking for the best place to take your binoculars in Ocoee, we can recommend the perfect place! Dyer Recreation Area is a freshwater wetland and a birder’s paradise. Dyer Pasture is a bird sanctuary where you can spy several species of beautifully colored ducks. You also might see geese, gadwall, pintail, egret, heron, and many other waterfowl. Other bird species of the area include red-winged blackbird, kingfisher, woodpecker, hawk, eagle, osprey, wren, and killdeer.
While you’re scouting for your feathered subjects, you’re also likely to run into turtles, muskrats, and beavers.
Piedmont: Land of Conservation
The Piedmont ecoregion is a swath of land that exists as the transition between the North Georgia Mountains and the flat coastal plains of the southeast, shared between Chattahoochee and Oconee. Piedmont is an ecologically important area for wildlife conservation as at least 55 species of interest have been identified there. This ecoregion is so diverse, it contains many different kinds of habitats. This includes freshwater marsh, beaver ponds, serpentine outcrops, river shoals, mesic hardwood forest, pine woodland, granite outcrops, cane thickets, and grasslands.
Oconee National Forest contains three endangered species: the relict trillium, wood stork, and red-cockaded woodpecker. Chattahoochee and Oconee together contain around 23 threatened/endangered species and upwards of 100 other sensitive species. Relict trillium (Trillium reliquum) was listed as endangered in 1988 and only occurs in three states, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Like all trillium, they’re actually part of the lily family! If you are lucky enough to happen upon one during the blooming season (March-April), take all the pictures you want. But please do not pick them! You will find these beautiful little burgundy flowers in the depths of the hardwood forest, bluffs, and on floodplains.
Know Before You Go
This Alerts and Notices page applies to both forests and stays up to date with topics on closures, weather conditions, regulations, and so on. It’s always a good idea to check this page before heading to the woods. There is often relevant information for campers.
And of course, save TheNationalForests.com to your reading list so you’ll always have a quick and easy connection to America’s national forests. Have fun, be safe, and leave no trace!