Hike 16.7 miles on the easy-to-moderate Jacks River Trail in the Cohutta Mountains in Georgia’s Fannin and Murray counties to see wilderness, Jacks River Falls, cascades, pools, and bluffs.
By Tim Homan
The Jacks bears the name of the obviously stout Cherokee who, for a small fee, ferried travelers across the river on his back in Alaculsy Valley. The Jacks River Trail is the longest and wettest (forty-two fords) in the Cohutta Wilderness. The river it follows and crosses is also the most popular destination in the wilderness. A network of seven trails leads day hikers and backpackers directly to this trail and its river, so expect to have plenty of company on weekends and holidays (but don’t expect Jack to help you across the fords).
If you are interested in walking Jacks River Trail from end to end, you may want to start at its southeastern (upstream) Dally Gap Trailhead (2,578 feet). This route travels downriver and downhill, losing about 1,050 feet to Beech Bottom at mile 8.6 and slightly more than 1,600 feet to its end in Alaculsy Valley.
The trail follows a wide, easily walked old road from Dally Gap. For the most part, this first section is a gentle downhill stroll through hardwood forest to the Jacks River and its tributary, Bear Branch. Along the way, where the white-blazed Benton MacKaye Trail ties into the Jacks River Trail for a very short distance, there are two large eastern hemlocks to the left. The larger of the two-13 feet 2 inches in circumference and 133 feet in height – is the most recent of the last three state record eastern hemlocks found in the Cohutta Wilderness.
Although it parallels Bear Branch from the gap, the trail does not approach closely enough for a view until mile 1.6. Three-tenths of a mile farther, the trail trades streams and follows the Jacks as it winds toward the northwest. This turn is only a few hundred yards from where the river enters the wilderness.
At mile 2.3 the trail crosses the Jacks – the first of twenty fords to the falls. As on the Conasauga River Trail, a blaze usually guides the trail’s return to dry land across the river from each ford. These blazes, however, are not always easy to spot. Part of the challenge of Jacks River Trail is figuring out where the fords begin and end. Often you need to angle downstream while fording the river to locate the blaze and worn spot on the opposite bank. Just remember that the trail, even on islands, always heads downriver. (See the Conasauga River Trail, also in the Cohutta Wilderness, for further descriptions of the fords and their potential dangers.)
Much of today’s trail, including some of the fords, follows the path of a former logging railroad used to transport timber out of the mountains during the early 1930s. In places, parallel rows of the slowly rotting ties are still visible. You may still find hand-forged railroad spikes of several different sizes. If you are walking in an aisle-like section – straight, level and wide – you are probably on the former railroad bed. It was flattened by horse-drawn scrapes and, later, by steam shovel. Logging along the Jacks River began in 1929. By 1937 the railroad had been dismantled.
Along the riverbanks near many of the fords, look for the piled-rock buttresses that mark the location of the trestles that once spanned the river. A flood washed these bridges away nearly 60 years ago.
The high shoals below the second ford begin the river’s most turbulent stretch. For nearly a mile the river, especially during high water, is one long ricocheting cascade, more white than not. Here the Jacks exhibits the steep-sided, V-shaped profile of a youthful river cutting into mountain. Where the Jacks descends, so does the trail. It may climb a hillside, but it always drops back to the river.
Starting with the fourth crossing at mile 4.6, you wade the river fifteen times in 2.5 miles. These fords come in quick succession, most only 0.1 or 0.2 mile apart. The trail remains nearly level and parallel to the river between crossings to its eighteenth ford at mile 7.1. The Penitentiary Branch Trail junction is in the campsite across from this ford.
Beyond the next (nineteenth) ford, the trail climbs a short distance up and away from the river, then descends to cross Rough Creek at mile 8.0. Rough Ridge Trail ties into the Jacks River Trail immediately across the creek. If you turn left and follow the creek upstream, you will be on Rough Ridge Trail. Jacks River Trail turns right and closely parallels the creek downstream before swinging to the left, above and then away from the river. Once it leaves the Jacks, the trail gently ascends to a ridge, then slopes down to its twentieth and final ford before the falls. The section of trail between the nineteenth and twentieth fords twice appears to lead up and away from the river. But it is actually the river that twice meanders away from the trail. And both times, instead of following the river, the trail takes the shortcut straight across the gap.
Beyond the twentieth crossing, the Jacks River Trail reaches two junctions, one right after the other at mile 8.6. The first, to the left, is yellow-blazed Hickory Ridge. The second, to the right 45 yards farther downstream, is unblazed Beech Bottom. The end of Hickory Ridge has been rerouted since it was drawn on the Cohutta Wilderness map. If you are walking the Jacks River Trail downstream toward the falls, you will reach the Hickory Ridge junction before you reach the Beech Bottom junction.
The trail continues to follow the river downstream to the cliffs above Jacks River Falls at mile 9.2. Dropping in stages at the head of a wide gorge, this waterfall is the most scenic and most visited single feature in the Cohutta Wilderness. It is also the most powerful falls in the North Georgia backcountry. The dark-pink blooms of the Piedmont rhododendron usually peak from May 15th through June 5th, adding to the beauty of the Jacks River Falls area and other rocky, open areas along the river corridor.
If you would like to see and hear Jacks River Falls at its frothing, roaring best, wait until winter or early spring, after several days of heavy rains. Then, on a sunny day, the waterfall becomes one long, crashing, upwelling run of brilliant white water. Beech Bottom Trail enables you to reach the falls without having to ford the river.
Beyond the falls, the trail follows an obvious railroad cut down to the river’s edge. It reaches the twenty-first ford, the first in 1.8 miles, at mile 10.3. Here the pattern of crossing and paralleling the river begins again. Only this time the trail remains level or slightly downhill between crossings.
Downstream from the start of the twenty-sixth ford, you will see the first of several tall bluffs along the lower Jacks. The gap at the top of this bluff is Horseshoe Bend Overlook. If you want a good look at the sheer rock around the bend, keep walking down the bank after the crossing. Beyond the forty-second and final ford at mile 14.8, the last section of trail remains close to the river, occasionally close enough for long-range views. Here, as it flows toward its meeting with the Conasauga River just outside the wilderness boundary, the Jacks becomes wider and less turbulent, its pools longer and deeper. The Jacks River Trail ends next to a bridge in Alaculsy Valley (966 feet).
Starting from its southeastern terminus at Dally Gap, the distances to the Jacks River Trail’s junctions are as follows: Benton MacKaye Trail, 0.9 mile; Sugar Cove, 3.9 miles; Penitentiary Branch, 7.2 miles; Rough Ridge, 8.0 miles; Hickory Ridge, 8.6 miles; Beech Bottom, 8.7 miles; Rice Camp, 10.4 miles.
Highlights on Jacks River Trail
- Miles 2.6, 3.6: Excellent views of the Jacks River as it cascades through the mountains.
- Mile 9.2: Jacks River Falls – an impressive 80-foot, two-tier waterfall.
- Mile 11.8: Bluffs along the western side of the river at Horseshoe Bend.
Directions to Jacks River Trail
To the northwestern trailhead in Alaculsy Valley: From the GA 52-US 411 intersection in Chatsworth, travel US 411 North approximately 13.4 miles, past Eton toward Tennga, to the community of Cisco. In Cisco, turn right onto the paved road immediately before the Cisco Baptist Church, which is also on the right. This road, once Highway 2, is now known as Old Highway 2; it is also called FS 16. Continue on FS 16 (follow the pavement until it ends; stay to the right at the fork; pass Hopewell Church; cross the Conasauga River; continue straight ahead where FS 51 turns right) for approximately 8.7 miles to the suspension bridge over the Jacks River. The Jacks River Trail parking lot is to the right, across the river in Tennessee.
To the southeastern trailhead at Dally Gap: From the US 76-GA 5 intersection just north of Blue Ridge, travel north on GA 5 toward McCaysville for 3.7 miles. Turn left onto Old GA 2 at the “Old State Route 2” sign and small Watson Gap sign. Continue on this road for approximately 10.5 miles (the pavement ends at mile 9.0) to the major Forest Service intersection at Watson Gap. Turn hard right at the gap onto FS 22 (one lane) and drive approximately 3.6 miles to the trailhead at Dally Gap.
This hiking guide to the Jacks River Trail is adapted from The Hiking Trails of North Georgia by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and accuracy, Homan has long been recognized as the authority on North Georgia hiking trail by serious hikers. His other books include Hiking Trails of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wilderness, Hiking the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.