Into the Woods: Jacks River Falls

As the spring hiking season winds down (and the temperature winds up), I was fortunate enough to get one last good trek in. This happened to combine three of my favorite types of hike: 1) remote (i.e. uncrowded), 2) new turf for me, and 3) solo. This was as much of a prayer walk as a recreational hike; the quiet of the forest is rejuvenating on many levels.

This time, I went back to the best local hard-to-access place: Cohutta Wilderness in Chattahoochee National Forest. Most of the good trailheads in Cohutta are 50 miles or so east of Chattanooga, about an hour-and-a-half of drive time (It takes about 45 minutes to go the first 40 miles and about 45 minutes to go the last 10). The forest service roads leading into the Cohutta area are typically narrow, rutted, and hard on cars. Even so, I’m almost always able to get where I’m trying to get in my trusty Nissan.

Having heard for years about the clear and beautiful Jacks River, a tributary of the Connasauga River that flows nearly its entire course within Cohutta, but never having explored it, I decided to make for Jacks River Falls in the northwestern corner of the wilderness. It’s a 9-mile round trip (4.5 in, then retracing your steps), so perfect for a day trip.IMG_6308

After the expected long and bumpy ride to the Beech Bottom Trailhead, I hit the trail about 9:30 a.m. in thick fog and drizzle (after heavy rains the night before). The first mile or so of the trail was actually less steep and in better repair than the road, and the overall elevation change over the course of the trail is very minimal.

The wilderness status of the area quickly becomes apparent when you start coming to downed trees across the trail. Whereas in state and National Parks and more travelled areas of National Forests, trail debris is largely kept at bay by staff and volunteers funded through usage fees, the “back-to-nature” management of wilderness areas keeps trail maintenance to a minimum. Through those 4.5 miles, I must have passed over, under, or through no less than 40 downed trees (really 80, considering it was a there-and-back hike), most appearing to have fallen very recently. It has been a very wet spring in the area (with 20+ inches of rain since March 1), and soggy soil makes for easy uprooting in a good wind. There were a few creek fords as well, but none so deep or wide that I couldn’t navigate them without getting my socks wet.

Arboreal gymnastics notwithstanding, this is a fairly easy hike with lots of biodiversity and natural interest. The forest itself, with towering tulip poplars, maple, and beech, and (sadly) dying hemlocks, is the main attraction. If you’re a flower-lover, piedmont rhododendrons and mountain laurels were in full bloom, along with pinkroot, partridgeberry, galax, and others. Serviceberrys were just begin to come ripe (they were tasty, thanks), and there were plenty of blueberries waiting for those willing to try this trail later in the summer.

There were plenty of animals about as well, from millipedes, butterflies, and beetles to migratory warblers, frogs, snakes, and fish (some were kind enough to pose for photographs, the rest, not so much).

The falls at trail’s-end were well worth the endeavor, with all the cool spray and deafening roar one can handle. For the nimble, there is a very steep scramble down to the bottom of the falls, where plenty of large rocks make for a great lunch spot (my standard hiking lunch of an avocado and english muffin demands a spot to sit). I also took the opportunity to shed my boots for a nice wade.

All told, this is another of our region’s great treasures and an easy hike (5 hours at a very leisurely pace with a long break) for those willing to brave the long, tooth-rattling drive. That trip is just hard enough to keep traffic down (I passed only a handful of other hikers all day), but if you want to get away for a day, it’s a small price to pay.

Caveat ambuletor: Yes, I did say snakes. Also spiders. Also poison ivy.

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