A tough start to the Cohutta Wilderness and the Tearbritches Trail
On Forest Road 68 in the Chattahoochee National Forest’s Cohutta Wilderness is a loop consisting of three trails: Tearbritches, Conasauga River, and the Chestnut Lead. Each of these trails has its own character to speak of.
Our hike began with a road walk from the Chestnut Lead Trailhead parking area. We walked west uphill for about a mile and a half on Forest Road 68 until we came to Tearbritches Trailhead. The Emery Creek Trailhead is on the left and Tearbritches is on the right.
We headed northeast on the trail beginning our ascent onto Bald Mountain. The start of this hike is pretty slow going due to the climb and overgrowth of the trail. You can definitely tell right off the bat that the Tearbritches Trail is not traveled frequently. As we climbed we noticed balsam trees that seem out of place here and it is somewhat of a mystery to who actually planted them. There was a wildfire that spread here from a lightning strike on Rough Ridge in the fall of 2016. There are burnt trees and charred earth everywhere as you hike through this portion of the Cohutta Wilderness. The trail is thick with brambles and our legs definitely took a beating as we climbed.
We reached four thousand feet at the top of Bald Mountain and began our descent, now heading pretty much due north. The brush lightened as we headed down the north face of the mountain. Once we were out of the dense thorns, we started to notice all the wildflowers surrounding us. Already we were falling in love with the beauty of the Cohutta Wilderness. Following the ridgeline down a steep grade, we started to see the forest change as we lost elevation. The ground became softer due to pine needles that fell from the white pines that tower overhead.
Into the valley
As we continued our descent down the ridgeline there were great views of Cowpen Mountain to our right. Tearbritches Trail advanced into the valley, leveling off at points just long enough for a brief reprieve, then back to a steep grade as it dipped to below three-thousand feet. As we got to about twenty-five hundred, I could start to hear Tearbritches Creek to my left. Then at around twenty-three hundred, we started to hear the Conasauga River off to the right.
At around two thousand feet we met up with Tearbritches Creek and started to follow it downstream through a tunnel of laurel and rhododendron. We noticed the first campsite of the trek nestled off to the right.
We crossed Tearbritches Creek and came to Bray Field, where there are campsites strewn about and the Conasauga River is dead ahead. This was the end of our stint on the Tearbritches Trail and is the intersection of the Conasauga River Trail and the Hickory Creek Trail. It got a little confusing here, but we soon figured out that we had to cross Tearbritches Creek again and head up a hill to find the Conasauga River Trail.
Conasauga River Trail
At this point, we basically made a U-Turn and started to head up river. To our right, we could see the ridgeline what we were just descending a few minutes earlier. Not long after we started on the trail the river fords began. The cool water of the Conasauga River felt amazing on our thorn scraped legs. On the third ford, I saw the one and only green blaze on the entire trail. Some of the connections aren’t really apparent while crossing, but staying up stream was the key to finding them.
After quite a few fords, we came to where Panther Creek empties into the Conasauga River. The Panther Creek Trail intersects here and heads left. To stay on the Conasauga River Trail, we headed right. I stopped counting the fords eventually and I think I lost track at around eight or nine, I’m not really sure. Our feet were wet, it felt great and the sometimes knee deep water was super refreshing and fun to play around in.
As we continued up river through the Cohutta Wilderness, we were still aware of the fires that have happened there. Either the trail has several subtle reroutes, or people just have taken different routes through out the years. However, the Conasauga River Trail is fairly easy to keep track of and there was even a cairn in the river at one point where it wasn’t completely apparent where the connection was.
After about two miles on the Conasauga River Trail, we started to notice the abundance of waterfalls, so we aptly named this part of the trail Waterfall City. From this point onward, if you are a waterfall junkie, this is your section. This area of the Cohutta Wilderness is stunning. The sights just keep coming at you and there is not enough time on a day hike to take them all in. The waterfalls, rock outcrops and wildflowers just don’t stop along this trail.
There are plenty of established campsites as you make your way up the Conasauga River. This would make an awesome overnight backpacking trip and we definitely plan on taking advantage of some of these campsites in the future.
Even with the multitude of fords, I consider this section of the Conasauga River Trail fairly easy. Despite it being the latter part of July, it was pretty cool in the valley and wading through the Conasauga River every few minutes didn’t hurt either. The trail is definitely used more than the Tearbritches Trail. However, we were delighted to see that aside from trail use, human impact in the way of litter was at a minimum.
As our trek continued through Waterfall City, our water supply started to dwindle, so it was time to stop and filter some. We sat on some rocks and gathered water from the Conasauga River. I love drinking water from the places that I am hiking. It makes me feel more connected to the nature that surrounds me. After procuring fresh water we continued into the Cohutta Wilderness and were nearing the end of our trek on the Conasauga River Trail.
On to the Chestnut Lead Trail
We reached the end of our ride on the Conasauga River Trail and made our final ford. Marcie kicked around in the water for a few minutes and then we said goodbye to the river. From here we picked up the Chestnut Lead Trail and followed Chestnut Creek southwest. We came across a couple camping on the bank of Chestnut Creek, and I have to say that I was a bit envious. Our journey was coming to an end, with only a little less than two miles to go.
We may have had to say goodbye to the Conasauga River, but as we followed Chestnut Creek, we realized that we were still in Waterfall City. Unfortunately, the brush was too dense to get any good photos, so you’ll just have to go discover them for yourself.
As we walked the trail the wildfire damage was still apparent and we came across a tulip tree that had a hole burnt straight through the base of its trunk. The tree was a little over thirty feet tall and still very much alive at the top. It was definitely a sight to see and a testament to the perseverance of nature. As we continued on the Chestnut Lead Trail there were a few more creek crossings and we knew that eventually, we would have to part with Chestnut Creek.
The Chestnut Lead Trail parts from Chestnut Creek about halfway and veered left to begin the climb to Chestnut Lead. We gained about five hundred feet in elevation in under a quarter of a mile. We reached the lead (lead is a synonym for ridge), veered to the right, and the climb continued. It would somewhat level out for a few hundred feet or so and then pick back up again.
At this point, the day was starting to wear on us and I remember saying to Marcie, that nothing in this world is free. We had to work hard to start this journey and we were having to work hard to end it. The end of this hike was really a tease. As soon as you think you’re done with the climb it starts again. We finally made back to the Chestnut Lead Trailhead parking area pretty wiped out from the eleven and a half mile journey.
There really is no official name for this loop trail. I named it the Cohutta Wilderness Loop because that name just makes sense to me. We clocked this loop at around 11.5 miles and it took us just over five hours to complete. If we had not stopped to play in the river, take pictures and to smell the flowers, it would have taken less. In actuality, it only took us four hours of active hiking.
This hike was highly satisfying and we would recommend it to any seasoned hiker for a day hike. That being said, this loop is rated difficult and we would not recommend it for the novice hiker. From beginning to end this trip is strenuous and challenging. However, if you are a novice and want to do a beautiful yet challenging overnighter, this is definitely the trip for you. This would also make a great week long trip because of all the other connector trails along the route.
The Cohutta Wilderness is a breathtaking experience and is truly an outdoors person’s playground. So get out there, have some fun, be safe and for the love of Jebus Leave No Trace!