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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)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

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

See This
The Cohutta Wilderness lies directly under the Mississippi flyway, the path many migratory birds in the East use to wing it south. Ovenbirds travel more than 2,000 miles to Nicaragua, flying by night at speeds up to 40 mph. Northern Georgia is also the bird's summer breeding ground, so listen for the loud chirping call cher teacher, teacher, teacher and then look for its nest on the ground. Nests look like miniature clay ovens or adobe huts with small doors. Peer though the door to see this teeny brown-and-white-speckled bird. (Check out picture 4 above.)

Locals Know
The Cohutta is the largest federally protected wilderness in the East, with more than 40,000 acres in Georgia and Tennessee. Two major rivers–the Jacks and the Conasauga–run though the lush forest, whose average annual rainfall is more than 60 inches. Not coincidentally, it is home to some of the region's best swimming holes. Cut the summer heat with a dip at the base of Jacks River Falls, or, if it's crowded with dayhikers, save your swim for more idyllic and secluded pools just a couple of miles downstream at Horseshoe Bend, "a swooping oxbow of calm teal water that may just slow you down enough that you'll have to stay another day," says recreation manager Larry Thomas. (Find good campsites where the JRT links to the Horseshoe Bend Trail.)

Camp Chat
In 1958, Sasquatch stomped into the American psyche when a bulldozer operator near Humboldt, California, found a set of 16-inch footprints. Long story short: The prints were a hoax, and so was the 2008 story of two hunters who claimed to have killed a Bigfoot in Georgia's northern woods. They'd stuffed a rubber ape costume with road kill. And yet: There have been more than 3,393 Bigfoot sightings since the '50s. Discuss: Why do so many scary-monster stories survive?

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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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