Kayak Jacks River Exhilarating Whitewater in Georgia’s Cohutta Mountains

jacks river kayaking
Jacks River Falls in the Cohutta Wilderness. Photo RV Dreams.com

The Jacks River is a spectacularly beautiful “steep creek,” which drains a high mountainous area of northern Gilmer and western Fannin Counties, and flows northeast to join the Conasauga River just north of the Tennessee border. Two sections totaling over 17 miles drop at an average rate of 90 feet per mile, and are runnable by advanced and expert boaters after heavy rains. The Jacks flows almost entirely within the 36,977-acre Cohutta Wilderness of the Chattahoochee National Forest, and Jacks River kayaking offers some of the finest whitewater in the Southeast. Its wilderness designation protects the river’s pristine beauty and excellent water quality, but presents major access problems, since all of the roads which lead to its most navigable parts have been closed to vehicles 3.5 or more miles from the river, since 1975.

Get an Overview of the Coosa River Watershed where Jacks River is located.

USGS and County Maps for Jacks River Kayaking

Hemp Top, Tennga (USGS); Murray, Fannin, Polk TN (County); Cohutta and Big Frog Wilderness (USFS)

Jacks River Kayaking from Jones Mill to Jacks River Bridge

Class: II-V; Length: 18.2 miles; Time: 14 hours; Gauge: None; Level: N/A; Gradient:  82 (263, 232) feet per mile; Scenery: A+

DESCRIPTION

One can drive to the river’s edge in the Jones Mill community, but the stream here is extremely small (15 feet wide), and putting in here commits you to running to the Conasauga, over 18 miles, a long day-trip under ordinary river conditions. However, the challenges of the Jacks are anything but ordinary! The river descends about 40 feet in the first 2 miles; the first 4.5 miles contain numerous deadfalls, often forming river-wide blockages. The difficulty and danger of Jacks River kayaking increase exponentially after the second mile, just past Bear Branch, as the river cuts a deep, narrow, twisting gorge and plummets 495 feet in the next 2 miles. Both banks are steep, and the precipitous, twisting, often blind drops are very difficult to scout or portage.

The Jacks River hiking trail joins the river at Bear Branch and parallels it for 15 miles to the take-out, mostly along the bed of an old logging railroad used between 1915 and 1930 by the Conasauga River Lumber Company to log 70 percent of the present wilderness. It fords the river almost 50 times and should not be hiked when the river is high. While this trail generally runs close to the river and is wide and level, along this most dangerous part of the Upper Jacks the trail is steep and narrow and usually high above the river. The trail could be used here to portage long sections of river, but seldom is near enough to be useful in portaging individual rapids. The river gradient lessens near mile 5 past the entrance of Sugar Cove Branch on the left, but very frequent Class II and III and occasional Class IV rapids continue to the confluence with the Conasauga River, whose flow is doubled by the Jacks.

To avoid many Jacks River kayaking difficulties and dangers on the uppermost stretches of the river, you can carry-in to one of several lower access points. The most practical lower entry to the Lower Jacks is from the north along the Beech Bottom Trail. You will need a good portaging system, such as balancing your boat on a backpack frame with a good waist belt, allowing you to transfer most of the weight to your hips and to keep your arms at your sides. Beech Bottom Trail is wide and provides good footing. The first 1.3 miles of the trail descend to a creek, but most of the rest is uphill until you’re near the spectacularly beautiful Jacks River Falls.

The entire trail is 3.5 miles, but after 2.75 miles you can carry or slide down to a point about 300 yards upstream of the unrunnable, 40-foot Jacks River Falls. The descent here is about 200 feet vertically, on about a 35-degree incline. To avoid having to portage the falls (on the right) and run the 0.4 miles of Class IV immediately below it, you might slide down to the river in a southwesterly direction at mile 2.5 of the Beech Bottom Trail. Downstream of this point nothing normally rates above a hard Class III, although the gradient exceeds 100 feet per mile after about 3 miles in the dramatic horseshoe bend area. Nevertheless, all of the Lower Jacks River kayaking is very technical and continuous and offers a most wonderful 7.7-mile slalom run.

The shuttle is about 2 hours each way! This should be done the day before if you are running the full 18 miles. If you attempt the Upper and Lower Jacks and plan to run it in one day, it would be best to go in May or June and put-in before sunrise. One group of three kayakers left the Jones community at 6 a.m. in mid-June and reached the Jacks River Bridge at 9:45 p.m.!

SHUTTLE

Although a shorter route is available on dirt roads through the Cohutta Mountains, it is much quicker to use a 65-mile shuttle along paved highways. To get to the take-out, take GA 5 north from Blue Ridge into Tennessee and continue on TN 68 to Ducktown. Go west on US 64 and south on US 411 to near the Georgia state-line. (This point can alternatively be approached from the south on US 411 out of Chatsworth.) Turn left onto Ball Play Road, the last paved road before crossing the Conasauga. Follow Ball Play over the tracks and to a stop sign, turning right onto Ladd Spring Road. Follow this road, staying to the right when it turns into the gravel FS 221 until you reach the Forest Service campground on the right at the Jack’s River confluence. (You can also leave US 64 in Tennessee and cross the Ocoee at Powerhouse #3, go a few miles and take the first right, go to the end of the road and turn left onto Sylco Creek Road. It becomes Sheeds Creek Road and leads to the Jacks River bridge at the northwestern trailhead of the Jacks River Trail.)

To reach the highest put-in at Jones Mill, return to GA 5 north of Blue Ridge and take Old GA 2 west from Gravely Gap, about 4 miles north of Blue Ridge, for about 10 miles to Watson Gap, about 2 miles past the end of the pavement. Go straight onto FS 126, following the signs to Jones Mill and Bethlehem Church, and put-in at the bridge at the bottom of the hill or just upstream past Bethlehem Church at the confluence of the West and South Forks of the Jacks. Parking at the bridge is very limited but is on National Forest land. All the land adjacent to the river downstream for 2 miles is private property.

To drive from the take-out at Jacks River Bridge to the Beech Bottom Trail put-in, go north-northeast on Sheeds Creek Road (the dirt road on river right, across the bridge at the take-out) toward the community of Sylco. After 1.25 miles turn sharply right onto FS 62, towards Simmons Gap. This will lead you to the parking lot for the Beech Bottom Trail in about 6 miles.

GAUGE

There is no gauge on the Jacks, but the USGS gauge near Eton on the Conasauga is helpful as much for its rainfall readings as for river height or flow. A level of 1,200 cfs to flood stage on this gauge warrants further evaluation. It is important to determine if the river is rising or falling and how quickly it is doing so when studying this considerably downstream gauge’s readings. If it is falling, you will need a much higher flow. After a heavy rain the river peaks and runs off quickly, particularly when the water table is low, typically in the summer and fall. Ideally, you want to embark in the rain or shortly after its end. Running the Upper Jacks would usually need a recent heavy rain of at least 2 inches. Gauges on the upper Conasauga, which is runnable at the same times and is similar in character to the lower Jacks, can aid in determining the suitability of the level.

See more Georgia Rivers

This Jacks River kayaking guide is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.

 

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Brown’s Guides is a website about the top outdoor experiences in America and about the professional outfitters and guides who know them best. Hiking, biking, sea kayaking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and over 100 other outdoor activities are indexed on the site. BG has been doing this type of thing since 1972 in books, magazines, maps and on the Internet.

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