Way Down Yonder [in] the Chattahoochee

For Memorial Day weekend, Remington and I went camping at Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. Neither of us had been to the forest before, which contains the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, so we decided it was time to pay the forest a visit. We did some initial research about the forest and found a couple of campgrounds near Blue Ridge, GA. The Blue Ridge area offers hiking, mountain biking, fishing, waterfalls, and swimming holes. It sounded perfect! We planned to drive up Friday evening, find a car camping spot to set up base camp, and then fill our days with short adventures. We packed our bags Thursday night and left Greenville immediately after work on Friday.

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It was a three hour drive from Greenville to Blue Ridge, GA. Located near the western third of the forest, the drive was beautiful and we immediately fell in love with the rolling, green mountains, the valley farm lands, and the cool mountain lakes. We made a few stops along the way, causing the night to quickly approach us as we drove the windy forest roads. We decided to check out Cooper Creek and Mulky campgrounds first. The two campgrounds neighbor each other and offer a combined number of 36 campsites. The directions said to turn onto Forest Service Rd 4, but we were having trouble finding the road. We had our two phones next to each other poorly attempting to compare Google Maps and the map on the Forest Service app. After driving in circles and stopping to see if Deep Hole campground had any spots, we eventually made it to Cooper Creek and Mulky Campgrounds. Between the two campgrounds, all of the 36 first come first serve campsites were taken. Before jumping to any conclusions, we decided to ask the campground host if he could recommend any lesser known or trail side campsites. He couldn’t. This was a whole new phenomenon for us – we always found a campsite. It was around 9 PM, we were hungry, and our moods were declining rapidly, so we decided to find the closest hotel in Blue Ridge and start fresh in the morning.

The next day, with our bellies full of continental breakfast, we stopped by the local outdoor store to buy a map. Our comedic scene of comparing Google maps the night before had proven that, even when driving through the woods, a map is crucial. While we were at the store, we asked one of the employees for camping advice, since all of our previous ideas struck out. The employee immediately told us to go to the Cohutta Wilderness Area within the Chattahoochee Forest; that is where she spends all of her time. Her first suggestion was to hike along the Conasauga River where there are campsites scattered along the river in a beautiful valley. Her second suggestion was to camp at Jack’s River Field which is an established campground, but usually less crowded because it is harder to reach. Her final suggestion was to park at Dally Gap and hike a ridge section of the Benton MacKaye trail, and then take split off down to the Jack’s River trail.

 

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We eagerly hit the road again with our new found knowledge and a variety of options. Old Highway 2 is the only way to get to the Cohuttas from Blue Ridge without driving around the perimeter of the forest. The old highway eventually turns into a gravel road with scattered, but incredible, mountain views. Jack’s River Field campground was along the way to the Conasauga River, so we planned to go to the river first and if it didn’t work out, then we would turn around and camp at the field. The forest apparently had a different agenda for us. As soon as we drove past Jack’s River Field, the road was blocked off. There was no way for us to get to the Conasauga River without circumnavigating the forest and driving for a few more hours. We quickly moved onto plan B, and then just as quickly moved onto plan C because the campground, too, was full. Our final plan was to hike and camp at Jack’s River, and it was going to work; no if’s, and’s, or but’s, about it.

We arrived at the Dally Gap gravel parking area, and we were once again surprised by the number of people. The store employee had told us that she can hike the entire loop in a day, including a swimming break. Based on her feedback, we decided to hike the ridge trail and then go down into the valley to camp along the river. Then, in the morning we would have a few more hours of hiking, and we could stop along the way for some fishing. There are two ways to access the Benton MacKay (BM), which goes along the ridge. The first way is to hike an uphill gravel road from the parking lot that is to the right of the trail sign. The second way is to take the Jack’s River trail for roughly a mile and then cut onto the BM trail. We decided to go with the second option. The BM trail started off pretty steep but changed to a gradual up hill once we were on the ridge. The ridge welcomed us with a cool breeze, mountain views peaking through the trees, and rhododendrons in full bloom.

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The Jacks River Trail head at the Dally Gap parking area

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After a couple of hours, we made it to the juncture of the Benton MacKay and the Penitentiary Trail. We cracked the obligatory pun that the Penitentiary Trail looked surprisingly liberating and then headed down its path to Jack’s River. An hour or two later, we arrived at the river and saw the first of many campsites. If you have camped along the Chattooga River in South Carolina, then you can imagine what the camping is like along Jacks River. There are numerous campsites along the riverbanks with varying sizes and privacy. There are a handful of sites perfect for large groups and many sites for two or three tents. Most of the campsites were occupied, but it looked like there is always room for more people. The campsite we settled on was nestled in between the river and a creek with a wall of trees offering great privacy. We quickly set up camp to mark our territory, then had plenty of time to cool our feet in the river, refill our water bottles, and do some evening fishing. For dinner we cooked Mexican chicken and rice with a side of Goldfish and watched the fire as the night rolled in.

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The next morning had a relaxing start with loose-leaf tea and some hearty oatmeal. After breakfast we packed up camp and headed downstream back to the parking lot. About a mile down the trail, the river created a nice pool, so we tried our luck at fly fishing. The fishing was an enjoyable break, but we came up short, so we packed our bags and continued downstream. Then we arrived at an unexpected intersection. We weren’t supposed to come to an intersection; the trail was supposed to take us directly to the parking lot. We anxiously opened our map only to realize that we hiked at least a mile in the wrong direction. The Jack’s River is one of those pesky rivers that run south to north and we had been ignorant of that detail in our morning daze. The parking lot is on the south end of the trail, so our assumption had lead us astray.

Thankful that we realized our mistake after only one mile, we turned around and followed the river upstream. We saw our initial navigational mistake when we made it back to the Benton MacKay trail. The upstream section of the Jack’s River trail is tucked behind a campsite, whereas the downstream section flows directly from the Benton MacKay trail. We checked the map one more time, and we were clearly headed in the right direction. This was also the beginning of the river crossings. Jack’s River trail has roughly 20 river crossings making the trail unique to any other trail we have hiked. The river crossings were a cool and refreshing change of pace and the majority of crossings were easy to navigate. Looking at the map, we estimated a 4 to 5 mile hike, but it became apparent that the zig-zagging of the trail added multiple more miles than what the map reflected. Additionally, the river crossings slowed down our normal hiking pace. There were also an abundance of large fallen trees that required us to crawl under or over the trunks. All said and done, we hiked for almost 7 hours over eleven miles on the second day. This was significantly more than the 4 or 5 mile hike we were mentally prepared for.

We made it back to the car hot and tired, but with plenty of new memories and stories. Will we be back to the Cohutta Wilderness Area? Definitely. Will it be anytime soon? May be not. The forest is unique both naturally and culturally with the largest wilderness area on the east coast and the starting point for the Appalachian Trail. However, the Chattahoochee National Forest is Atlanta’s wilderness escape and it shows. The next time we visit won’t be on a major holiday weekend and it will be during the off-season. Until then we will keep exploring the forests a little closer to home.

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