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Backpacker Magazine – May 2009

Rip & Go: Jacks River Trail - Cohutta Wilderness, GA

Disappear into the largest–and probably the wettest–wilderness east of the Mississippi.

by: Joanna Nasar

Jacks River Trail (Scott Sanders)
Jacks River Trail (Scott Sanders)
Keen Newport H2 (Courtesy photo)
Keen Newport H2 (Courtesy photo)
Jacks River Falls (Scott Sanders)
Jacks River Falls (Scott Sanders)
Ovenbird (Johann Schumacher)
Ovenbird (Johann Schumacher)

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GPS-Enabled Trip Report
See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.
Updated: September 17, 2009

Do It The Jacks River trailhead (1) lies tucked into dense greenery 100 miles north of Atlanta. Dozens of glass-clear swimming holes line the 16.3-mile route that drops 1,592 feet from trailhead to terminus, near the Tennessee border. Hike .7 mile southwest to a junction with the Benton MacKaye Trail (2). Stay on the Jacks River Trail (JRT) and prepare for the first of more than 43 water crossings in .2 mile (3). Take in the view of dark and dripping Jacks River gorge at an overlook at 1.7 miles (4). You'll drop back down to the river at mile 2.2 (5) to ford its wide, swift current–unclip your hipbelt to slip out of your pack if you go for a swim. At mile 6.8 veer left at the junction (6) with Penitentiary Branch Trail.

An old railroad bed makes the trail appear to head straight at mile 7.4 (7): Stay left on the JRT. Splash through another creek and climb up the bank to the Rough Ridge Trail junction (8). Turn right, and–surprise!–traverse another small creek. Cross Jacks River at mile 8 (camping restricted for next 1.8 miles) (9), then stay straight at the Hickory Ridge junction (10). Hike about a half of a mile to 80-foot, two-tiered Jacks River Falls (11), passing Beech Bottom Trail on the way. Roughly a mile past the falls, bear right at the junction with Rice Camp Trail and camp in the flat section ahead to end this 9.9-mile day. Next day: Tackle a tricky crossing at mile 10.9. Look for an island near where the trail meets the river and ford Jacks, hugging the downstream tip of the island. Off course? Look for the blue trail marker on the opposite shore (12) and scramble up the bank. If you want to extend your stay, pitch your tent on an old railroad grade in a pocket of trees at mile 13.6 (13). From here, it's 2.7 miles to the trailhead along the north of the river. Before shuttling your car, go jump overv the state line into Tennessee. Why not? It's only at the end of the parking lot (14).

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May 04, 2012

It's more like 3-3.5 hours because of the forest service road to jacks river falls. The mileage isn't bad..just have to drive so slow on that bumpy dirt road.

Dan M
May 23, 2011

Also - there are good sites after the falls, on the way down, but the better sites are before the falls, and one would want to hit the falls during the day, not at the end of the day. The falls (at mile 10 or so), are the highlight.

Dan M
May 23, 2011

This is an awesome trip. But it's good to be prepared. 1) The shoes advice is great. I wore Tevas, but closed water-sandals would be better. Folks wore sneakers as well. DO NOT bring boots. 2) You need hiking poles, or at least a stick. The river crossings can be treacherous. The trail itself is easy... but the crossings make everything slow, and you need the poles. 3) This is ok for newer hikers, but be prepared on these river crossings. 4) It will take longer than normal, because of the crossings. We averaged 1.5 miles/hr or so. 5) The blazes are generally green, but sometimes vary. Red-Orange was the old color. 6) DO NOT ATTEMPT in rainy weather. The gorge can fill up quickly, and folks have drowned there. The crossings become too dangerous. Plus, it wouldn't be pleasant to be wet and cold. 7) Plan for wet conditions. Some advice follows below.

The directions to the trail head are not particularly good, but if you follow the directions, plus some signs, you'll probably get there. I advise getting a map or better directions.

The trail end, is, in fact, 1.5-2 hours from Atlanta, but once you do the shuttle to the trail head, it's definitely 4 - 4.5 hours from Atlanta. As such, it would be helpful to get either a really early start on Saturday, or get up on Friday and pack in a mile. There are, in fact, 42 crossings of the Jack's river, and 1 crossing of a tributary of the Jack's river. There are also several minor creek crossings. All of the jack's river crossings are above your knees (or, at least they were in May), and some are as high as your navel / waist. It would make sense to bag your sleeping bag in a waterproof bag, so when your pack gets in the water (it will), your bag will remain dry. You might want to do the same for your tent. However, most of the difficult / slippery crossings are below the falls (most likely during day 2).

There are campsites along the entire way, though, the sites are much better at the up-stream side of the trail than the downstream side. You are not supposed to camp within 1 mile on either side of the falls. After 16(ish?) crossings, there are limited campsites available before the restricted area. There are some great sites between 13 and 16. There are a couple good ones after 16 too, but once you start to ascend the gorge, there's not much that's legal. There are a few sites just after the restricted area that people use still.

Hope all this info helps!

Scott Sanders
Sep 16, 2009

It is about 1.5 to 2 hours to the trail head. If one wanted to follow the hike as written, you would need to shuttle to the start of the trail on the opposite side of the Cohutta wilderness. It can easily add another 1.5 hours. The road can be very bumpy. Occasionally, trees fall down and you'll have to re route. One shold expect 4 hours and be happy for every minute they're not jarring their kidneys on the rutted gravel roads. The hike is WORTH the price.

Robert E.
Jul 20, 2009

Traveling on Friday after work. Any campsites near the trailhead? Great article.

Anne B.
Jul 14, 2009

It would be helpful if you gave more specific directions.

Dan Stewart
Jul 06, 2009

Good article, very informative.

Except, the Cohutta Wilderness is not "four hours north of Atlanta." More 1.5 to 2 hours.


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