Conasauga River Trail: hiking the Cohutta Wilderness from Betty Gap
Hike the Conasauga River Trail's southern half in the lush, remote Cohutta Wilderness in North Georgia. This outstanding (but difficult) hike splashes through 36 river fords (and many creek crossings) from Betty Gap to Bray Field and back.
The Cohutta Wilderness is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. The wilderness is lush, green, remote, and strikingly beautiful, filled with towering trees, crystal-clear rivers and a staggering diversity of wildlife and plant life. The vast wilderness is bisected by two rivers, the Conasauga River and Jacks River, which offer some of Georgia’s best hiking and backpacking adventures.
This 13-miler on the Conasauga River Trail’s lower half plunges into the wilderness from Betty Gap, diving into a lush forest filled with abundant wildflowers and ferns. The hike crosses and meanders northbound along the river 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 crossings, each way, we almost always get wet.
Lower Conasauga River Trail: the hike
The adventure begins at the trail’s southern trailhead at Betty Gap (view maps and driving directions), diving elevation from the trailhead. The hike descends steadily into the lush, green forest, meandering along the banks of a spilling, tumbling creek. The forest is strikingly beautiful: wide-trunked trees dapple the forest floor in sunlight, and the forest is blanketed in vibrant green fern and moss.
The trail continues its descent, meandering through the pebble-lined Birch Creek repeatedly.
The trail reaches the banks of the Conasauga River at 1.3 miles, making the first of 18 river crossings. Fords on this 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 is usually the sandy, pebble-lined bottom in the river’s shallows, away from whitewater or fast-flowing, deep channels.
The trail crosses a small side creek, continuing to follow the river downstream. The hike passes several campsites and an intersection with the Chestnut Lead Trail at 1.8 miles, just before fording the river at crossing two. The hike bounds through crossings three and four quickly before crossing a side creek and navigating through 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, crossing at number 6. The river cascades in a series of small, wispy white waterfalls just downstream.
The hike navigates through river crossing eight and passes a campsite before fording 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. The best views of the waterfall, framed lushly in vibrant green moss, are from the campsite just across the river.
The trail dives through 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, plunging through crossings 13 and 14 at 4.25 miles. Tall grasses and wildflowers stretch toward sunlight on the river’s banks.
The last 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 hike passes 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 scatter 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. This hike turns a hard left here, hiking westbound from the river’s banks to skirt around a grassy marshland. The trail returns to the Conasauga’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 trail’s southern half. From here, the northern half of the Conasauga River Trail fords 20 additional river crossings to reach the northern trailhead. This adventure doubles back on its outbound route, crossing the river an additional 18 times to return to the Betty Gap trailhead. The return hike is steeply uphill after the final river ford at mile 12, but the forest’s incredible, lush beauty makes it well worth the workout. The adventure ends at 13.2 miles, reaching the Betty Gap trailhead.
Trail safety on the Conasauga River Trail
This hike is usually easier after at least a week without rainfall, when the river is running low. If the river is running high, we always opt for safety and find another trail in the area (like the Beech Bottom Trail to Jacks River Falls). When it’s raining, either on the trail or nearby, the river’s depth can rise quickly, so we always avoid the trail if there’s even a chance of rain.
And the trail presents a good risk of falling on slippery rocks, losing the trail, or many other deep-wilderness injuries or issues. Diving deep in the wilderness, this trail is far from roads or civilization. Depending on your perspective, this remote hike can be amazing – or if you’re lost or injured, downright scary. And the river crossings can be difficult to spot. That said, it can be an absolutely amazing adventure for experienced hikers. If you go, pack smart (check out our hiking gear list and backpacking gear list for our favorite gear), including a paper map and compass. Hike with a buddy, tell someone where you’re going, and be prepared for the worst, including the possibility of spending an extra night (or a few!) in the wilderness. But enjoy the trail. It’s one of our all-time favorite Georgia hikes.
(What is Wilderness, and why is it important? Read more in our guide to Wilderness areas in the South.)
Lower Conasauga River Trail Map: Betty Gap to Bray Field Map, Directions & Details
Free parking is available at the USFS trailhead at Betty Gap. Trailhead access is via gravel roads.
34.854750, -84.581050 // N34 51.285 W84 34.863
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