Lower Conasauga River Trail: hiking the Cohutta Wilderness from Betty Gap
Hike 13 roundtrip miles on the Conasauga River Trail's southern half in Georgia's remote, lush Cohutta Wilderness. The Conasauga River Trail splashes through 36 river fords (& many creek crossings) from Betty Gap to Bray Field, Little Rough Creek and back.
Georgia’s Cohutta Wilderness is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. The Cohutta Wilderness forest is lush, green, remote and strikingly beautiful, filled with towering trees, crystal-clear rivers and staggering wildlife and plant diversity.
Two rivers bisect this vast wilderness, the Conasauga River and Jacks River. The rivers offer some of Georgia’s best hiking and backpacking trails, the 13-mile Conasauga River Trail and the 16-mile Jacks River Trail, that follow and ford their namesake rivers deep into the Cohutta Wilderness.
This 13-miler on the lower Conasauga River Trail plunges into the Cohutta Wilderness from Betty Gap, diving into a lush forest filled with streams and fern. The hike crosses and meanders along the Conasauga River on a northbound trek to the trail’s halfway point, located near the popular campsites at Bray Field. It’s a fun-filled, wet hike that’s perfect for Georgia’s warm summer season: with 18 river fords each way, you’re almost guaranteed to get wet.
Lower Conasauga River Trail: the hike
The Conasauga River Trail departs its southern trailhead at Betty Gap (view maps and driving directions), diving elevation from the trailhead. The hike descends steadily into the lush, green forest, the trail meandering along the banks of a spilling, tumbling creek. The forest is strikingly beautiful: wide-trunked trees climb from the forest floor that’s blanketed in vibrant green fern and moss.
The Conasauga River Trail continues its descent, crossing the pebble-lined Birch Creek repeatedly. Don’t fret about wet boots when you cross the creek: you’re about to get your feet wet. Really wet!
The trail reaches the banks of the Conasauga River at 1.3 miles, making the first of 18 river fords. River crossings on the Conasauga River Trail are best approached with a wet-feet philosophy: the river’s boulders are usually moss-covered and slippery, and it’s usually safest just to plunge right in. The easiest way to cross? It’s usually the sandy, pebble-lined bottom in the river’s shallows, away from whitewater or fast-flowing, deep channels.
The Conasauga River Trail crosses a small side creek, continuing to follow the Conasauga downstream. The hike passes several campsites and an intersection with the Chestnut Lead Trail at 1.8 miles just before fording the Conasauga River at crossing two. The hike bounds through crossings three and four quickly before crossing a side creek and fording crossing five at 2.5 miles.
The trail climbs elevation, rising high above the river’s banks on a tight, singletrack stretch of trail. The hike dips back down to the river banks, fording the Conasauga River at crossing six. The river cascades through small, wispy white waterfalls just downstream.
The Conasauga River Trail fords river crossing eight and passes a campsite before fording through crossing nine. At 3.15 miles, the river courses through a deep-carved channel amid large, tumbled, moss-covered boulders, creating a mid-river island. Cross the river here to catch the best views of the waterfall, framed lushly in vibrant green moss, from the cross-river campsite.
The trail crosses a side stream at 3.5 miles before fording the river at crossings 10 and 11. The Conasauga River Trail explores a rocky island mid-river at crossing 12 before trekking through a pine grove, trekking through crossings 13 and 14 at 4.25 miles. Tall grasses and wildflowers stretch toward sunlight on the river’s banks.
The final four river fords come quickly as the trail meanders alongside the river, trekking through its boulder-filled banks at crossings 15 (4.5 miles), 16, 17 and 18 (4.8 miles). The Conasauga River Trail treks past an intersection with the Cohutta Panther Creek Trail at 4.9 miles and passes a large campsite at 5 miles before climbing a tall, pine-shaded ridge. The trail crosses Tearbritches Creek and passes an intersection with the Tearbritches Trail at 5.25 miles, reaching Bray Field. Campsites are scattered throughout Bray Field’s shady, relatively flat expanse, the former site of a homestead.
At 5.3 miles, the Hickory Creek Trail veers right, crossing the Conasauga River. The Conasauga River Trail veers a hard left here, hiking westbound from the river’s banks to skirt around a grassy marshland. The trail returns to the Conasauga River’s banks at 6 miles, rising high on the river’s southern banks to catch views of waterfalls as the river cascades over large boulders.
The hike reaches a campsite and a second Hickory Creek Trail intersection at Little Rough Creek at 6.6 miles, completing the southern half of the Conasauga River Trail. From here, the Conasauga River Trail hikes 6 miles and through 20 additional river crossings to reach the trail’s northern trailhead. This hike doubles back on its outbound trek, crossing the Conasauga River an additional 18 times to return to the Betty Gap trailhead. The return hike is steeply uphill after the final Conasauga River crossing at mile 12 – but the hike’s incredible beauty makes it well worth the workout. The trail reaches the Betty Gap trailhead at 13.2 miles, completing the hike.
Trail safety on the Conasauga River Trail
A hike on the Conasauga River Trail is easiest after a week (or so) without rain. If the river is running high, err on the side of safety and find another trail in the area (like the Beech Bottom Trail to Jacks River Falls).
Regardless of the river’s flow, there’s a good risk of falling on slippery rocks, losing the trail or any one of many other deep-wilderness injuries or issues on this hike. Diving deep in the wilderness, the Conasauga River Trail is far from roads or civilization. Depending on your perspective, this remote hike can be really amazing – or if you’re lost or injured, downright scary. And the river crossings can be difficult to spot. That said, the Conasauga River Trail is an absolutely amazing Cohutta Wilderness adventure for experienced hikers. Pack smart, hike with a buddy and enjoy the trail. It’s one of our all-time favorite Georgia hikes.