A few weeks back, I posted my backpacking related goals for the year. These involved backpacking at least once each month and writing a guide to backpacking in the Cohutta Wilderness. I decided I wanted to start these resolutions strong with my first trip of the year, so I came up with a three day, 45 mile trip that would cover all of the high points of the Cohutta Wilderness and many of the trails I had not already completed. It turns out, a month and a half without going to a yoga class though means that my knees are in no great position to be out backpacking. I did get out to do what I am calling the Cohutta’s Ups and Downs Lite though, which is a 2 day, approximately 25 mile trip, which still incorporates most of the great places in the area. Based on my experience this weekend, I would say this route should be hiked by everyone in Georgia with a weekend to spare. Because of the number of times you will have to cross rivers or streams, most people would probably prefer to hike it in the late Spring or Summer, to help stay warm. And don’t worry, I will be going on, and writing about, the longer trip later this season too.
The route is pretty straight forward, starting from Hickory Creek TH, hike over to Rice Camp Parking and keep taking Rice Camp to Jacks River. Head east on Jacks River and camp somewhere between Rice Camp and Hickory Ridge Trail. The next day, take Hickory Ridge and Cowpen, finishing out the day with a great view at Panther Creek and taking Conasauga River back to Hickory Creek. All of the trails are well enough marked in this direction. The only real challenge is at the crossing over Jacks River to get to Hickory Ridge. There is really just an arrow pointing randomly across the river. My advice: blindly follow that arrow. The trail is over there if you cross and keep walking back along the same direction on Jacks River you came from that morning.
For my trip, I was expecting lows in the mid 20’s with highs getting all the way up to the mid 50’s Monday. However, when I got into my car Saturday morning at 5:30 in Atlanta and saw the thermometer at 25, I figured mid 20’s wasn’t going to happen in north Georgia. By the time I arrived at the Hickory Creek TH, the temperature had dropped to a balmy 18 degrees. I wasn’t going to let that stop me though. I had, fortunately, brought along some slightly warmer clothes than I thought I would need just in case, and made a quick wardrobe change at the TH. By the time I reached the first ankle deep stream crossing, the temperature had not increased, but I decided to just roll up the running tights and pants and push through with socks and shoes on. It was cold, but I didn’t regret my decisions. Over the next couple of miles, my feet got warm again, just in time for the second crossing of the day, which was knee deep. I stuck with my plan and went on across. This time, it was wider, and deeper, and it took me longer to make it, so I knew I would need to get moving quickly to keep my feet warm. However, after 10 minutes of walking they still felt surprisingly cold, so I look down and realized my shoes had frozen solid, with my feet in them. I had never experienced this before in the Southeast.
After 15 minutes without shoes on and hugging my toes in my hands, my feet felt good enough to continue on, and the rest of the morning went by smoothly. The temperatures got warmer, but I am not positive it ever got much above freezing on Saturday. I spent the day walking in a Cap3 zip top, R1 hoodie and rain jacket and never had any issues with sweat, even moving at about 2 mph walking pace. I completed the whole of Hickory Creek Trail without having to get my feet wet again, and started up Rice Camp, where numerous small creeks forced me to dabbled the toes back in water here and there. This trail was well worth it though. At only about 4 miles, it seems to cover more than that because of the different types of areas you get to see. Everything from tight tunnels of trees, to nice open trail, you feel like you are covering more distance than you actually are. This of course ended with my last river crossing for the day – Jacks River.
This one got me cold. The water is about mid-thigh deep, and the crossing is pretty wide. I got to hit it around 3:00 in the afternoon, at the warmest part of my day, so that helped a good bit. The crossing was smooth, and the Jacks River Trail itself is really nice, with a great view at the waterfall. My only qualm with this area is that in the mile or so around the falls, camping is restricted to the winter months, and no camp fires are allowed at all. I can understand trying to restrict the impact that large numbers of people will have on the area, but after a riving crossing like that, I really just want to be able to get a fire going and warm my feet back up. Hopefully the Forestry Service will rethink this ban on fires, even in the winter months. Obviously, if you really want a fire, there is camping just on either side of the restricted areas that you could pick instead.
After enjoying the falls for a while, I decided to hunker down in camp, have some food, and do some reading. It really was a magnificent evening. Oddly, I wasn’t very hungry so a bit after dark, I ended up having some hot chocolate and Peanut Butter M&Ms before curling up in my bivy to finish out the night with my book. If you check out the gear list, I brought a lot of insulation, and I did it because I knew I would lack a fire, have a long night ahead of me, and want to still be comfortable enough to sit out of the bivy and read a while. And all of that was accomplished, so the little bit of extra weight the insulation added up to was well worth it.
I decided that night that my right knee wasn’t feeling capable of two more days, so I took the next morning slowly, eating some hot oatmeal, packing up camp, and I even took time to destroy a fire ring that was at my campsite. The hike that day would include crossing the Jacks River again, hiking up Hickory Ridge, and getting to the second/third high point of the day at Panther Creek Falls. I mostly took my time all day, trying to regulate my heat so I didn’t sweat too much hiking up Hickory Ridge, but after the crossing of Jacks River first thing in the morning, the trail was pretty straightforward.
After taking a half our or so to have some shortbread, almond butter and good ole hot chocolate (I just have never liked coffee that much), on top of Panther Creek, I casually made my way back over and up Hickory Creek trail to my car, right around 4:00 Sunday.
This trip was focused on being peaceful and finding some great views. Altogether, I count one Up and two Downs: the view from the top of Panther Creek Falls, and the views from below both Panther Creek Falls and Jacks River Falls. I’ve already got some thoughts on making it back up to the area in a few weeks to hike a bit more and hopefully bring along some friends this time, but they may hold out until at least March to let the air temperatures warm up some.