Hike 2.2 miles on the moderate-to-strenuous Sugar Cove Trail in the Cohutta Mountains Wilderness in Fannin County, Georgia, to see wilderness, unusual cove forest, and Jacks River.
By Tim Homan
One of five interior trails in the Cohutta Wilderness, Sugar Cove requires a 2.5-mile walk – 0.4 mile on East Cowpen and 2.1 miles on Rough Ridge-just to reach its upper elevation junction. But if you are interested in hiking this trail, don’t let the additional distance discourage you. The 2.5 miles are easily walked and quickly completed.
Beginning at about 3,600 feet, Sugar Cove Trail immediately plunges into a beautiful, steep-sided cove. The upper portion of the cove has an open hardwood forest, allowing largely unobstructed views of 50 to 60 yards. Past the beginning patches of sweet shrub, the forest floor is often covered with arching fern fronds. The rich soil also makes this cove a great place to see wildflowers in the spring. By mid-May during a rainy year, the lush display seems almost tropical.
As you descend, the forest becomes more dense and the individual trees grow taller and thicker. Here, beside the normally dry headwater streambed of Sugar Cove Branch, the second-growth cove hardwoods – black cherry, yellow buckeye, sweet birch, sugar maple, and tuliptree – have grown to larger dimensions than along any other trail in the Cohutta Wilderness.
The abundance of sugar maple – a tree at the southern limit of its range – is the cove’s most distinctive feature and the obvious origin of its name. These maples occur less and less frequently from west to east in the Georgia mountains. Although fairly common from the Cohuttas westward, sugar maples are rare in the trailside forests of north-central and northeastern Georgia.
Near the bottom of the cove, the largest sugar maple along the trail is 10 feet 9 inches in circumference and perhaps 110 feet tall. Quite possibly a state record, it has a blackened base and is located a few feet to the right of the trail at 0.8 mile. The sugar maple leaf has smooth margins, is dark green above and usually has five long, pointed lobes. If you have seen the Canadian flag, you have seen the shape of the sugar maple leaf.
During its first 1.2 miles, the trail loses nearly 1,100 feet. The beginning 0.3 mile drops sharply. Beyond that plunge, the downgrades become less severe as the trail slopes down to its first crossing of Sugar Cove Branch at mile 1.1. After crossing the branch, the path crosses a tributary, then returns to and crosses the branch a second time.
Immediately after it crosses Sugar Cove Branch for the fifth time at mile 1.5, the trail veers left and climbs, steeply at first, a hillside high above Jacks River. The path scarcely levels before beginning its slow, winding, 0.5 mile descent to the river.
The trail crosses the Jacks (elevation about 1,880 feet), then quickly reaches its lower-end sign where it meets the orange-blazed Jacks River Trail. To the right and upstream, it is 3.9 miles to Dally Gap, the southeastern trailhead of the Jacks River Trail.
Highlights of Sugar Cove Trail
- Throughout: Lush wildfiower displays during spring months.
- Mile 0.8: Record-size sugar maple for Georgia.
- Mile 2.2: Jacks River.
Directions to Sugar Cove Trail
From the Ellijay square travel GA 52 West for 9.5 miles to the Lake Conasauga Recreation Area sign. Turn right onto FS 18 and continue 3.5 miles on that road before turning right onto FS 68. Once on FS 68, continue straight ahead, uphill. After traveling approximately 6.0 miles on FS 68, you will reach the three-way FS 68-64 junction near Potatopatch Mountain. Turn right onto FS 64 and proceed 4.4 miles to the large East Cowpen parking area to the left in the middle of a sharp curve. Sugar Cove is an interior trail that has its southwestern (upper elevation) end on Rough Ridge Trail and its northeastern (lower elevation) end on Jacks River Trail.
To reach Sugar Cove’s upper elevation end, start at the southern trailhead of East Cowpen Trail and walk 0.4 mile to Rough Ridge Trail. Hike 2.1 miles on Rough Ridge, an easy walk, to the prominent, usually signed junction where Sugar Cove Trail begins on the right. This junction is further marked by a flat rock big enough to sit on, a worn resting place around the sign, and Sugar Cove’s descending, bare-dirt treadway.
This hiking guide to the Sugar Cove 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.