The Cohutta Wilderness -- Best Kept Secret for Fall

Explore the largest Wilderness area east of the Mississippi River to visit thundering waterfalls, untamed forests and cool, clear mountain rivers. 

Panther Creek Trail

Nestled in the mountains just west of Blue Ridge is one of the most pristine and remote areas in Georgia. Rushing waterfalls spill around boulders and over rocky cliff faces falling into crystal clear pools. Towering old-growth hardwoods shadow the forest floor covered with vibrant green mosses, ferns and wildflowers. Cool breezes carry the sweet scent of fresh mountain air. The Cohutta Wilderness is one of Georgia’s most beautiful and untamed secrets.

Covering more than 36,000 acres and spanning the border of Georgia and Tennessee, this pristine Wilderness offers ample opportunities for backcountry hiking, camping and backpacking. More than 90 miles of trails wind through the Wilderness to crystalline creeks, waterfalls and lush forests. Primitive campsites and the Lake Conasauga campground make the perfect basecamp for multiple days of adventure. 

While this Wilderness is very beautiful, this area is also very remote and the terrain can be very technical and challenging. The trails of the Cohutta Wilderness are sometimes sporadically blazed or not marked at all.  Please always tell someone where you’re going and share your navigation plans. Always pack an official paper map and wayfinding essentials, including a GPS, paper map and compass–and know how to use these tools to navigate if you’re lost. Always pack emergency essentials. And please remember, it’s always best to avoid trails along the rivers and creeks in the weeks following a heavy rain or if rainfall is predicted in the forecast.

Jacks River Falls

Cohutta Wilderness Adventures

The Cohutta Wilderness is a prime spot to chase waterfalls in North Georgia. Jacks River Falls is one of Georgia’s most impressive waterfalls and it can be accessed by several different trails. For a splashy wet adventure, the Jacks River Trail plunges through many wet river crossings en route to its namesake falls. It’s a perfect adventure for warm weather months: you’re sure to get wet.  

For a (usually) drier route to the falls, follow the Beech Bottom Trail to Jacks River Falls. The Beech Bottom Trail is often the quickest and easiest way to the falls and unlike the Jacks River Trail, only makes several creek crossings. In springtime and summertime, wildflowers, mountain laurel and rhododendron bloom in profusion along the trail.

Another warm-weather waterfall favorite is the Emery Creek Falls Trail, located near the southern border of the Cohutta Wilderness. The trail crosses its namesake creek repeatedly before reaching the reward of two secluded waterfalls. The trail explores some rugged terrain filled with fern, mosses and wildflowers; the hike to the falls is equally beautiful as the main attraction at the end. 

The Wilderness is also an unexpected but popular spot for freshwater snorkeling. Bisected by two rivers, the Conasauga River and Jacks River, the Cohutta Wilderness is home to over 70 species of fish including bass, bream and drum. Turtles, frogs, salamanders and other aquatic life are also abundant in its fresh mountain waters. The Conasauga Snorkel Hole offers snorkelers the opportunity to view these fish, reptiles and amphibians in their natural habitat while cooling off in the surprisingly chilly water.

Like its rivers, the forests of the Cohutta Wilderness are filled with wildlife and plant communities. Deer, bear, wild boar and a wide variety of small mammals and birds make their home across its remote acres. Filled with many species of wildflowers, flowering shrubs and deciduous and coniferous trees, the Wilderness bursts into bloom in warmer months. In spring and summer months, flame azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurel explode in a colorful display. Trilliums, lady slippers, cardinal flowers, blue cohosh and many species of ferns and moss can be found along the riverbanks and on the forest floor. And towering overhead, tulip poplars, hemlocks, maples and pines provide dense shady cover for understory plants below.

Explore a high-elevation mountain bog and beaver ponds near the shores of Lake Conasauga on the Song Bird Trail. The trail explores a particularly scenic stretch of forest and rambles over marshy grasslands via wooden boardwalks. The grassy habitat is a favorite for song birds and a great place for bird watching. With tall marsh grasses and colorful wildflowers blowing in the soft mountain breeze, the Song Bird Trail offers a generous dose of serenity.

For a longer adventure and some outstanding views, combine the Song Bird Trail and the Grassy Mountain Tower Trail. This two-trail combo explores the boggy marsh before climbing to amazing views from a steel fire tower on top of Grassy Mountain. The fire tower offers a beautiful panorama view of the Cohutta Wilderness and nearby Fort Mountain. The forest along this stretch of the Wilderness is filled with rhododendron, hemlock and colorful wildflowers in summer.

Please leave no trace

We all have a responsibility to help keep our Wilderness areas wild, beautiful and pristine.  When you’re exploring the Cohutta, please always remember to follow these seven principles, and please always remember to pack out everything you pack in. 

About the Author

Eric Champlin
Atlanta Photographer & Creative Director

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