By Trent Tibbitts

The Jack’s River, Penitentiary Branch, Hemp Top Loop is a 13 mile loop with no backtracking in the Cohutta Wilderness of the North Georgia mountains. It can be done as a day trip or a easy one night back packing trip. I did this trip on July 20 and 21 of 2012. The trailhead is at Dally Gap, a easy drive from Blue Ridge Ga. I got on the trail around 7:30 Friday night and started up the Hemp Top trail. This trail runs the true “Blue Ridge” that divides the Blue Ridge mountains. It is an old road, as is so many of the trails in the Cohutta. It was an easy, up hill,  uneventful, 2.3 mile walk to Penitentiary Branch Trail, that falls away to the left for 3.6 miles. A lot of storms had come through the area over the past few weeks and there were a lot of blow downs on the tops of the ridges. Penitentiary Branch Trail is a wide trail and it is a steady down hill walk. I made it another mile or so before making camp at the first small camp site I came to. It was now 9 PM. I sat up my Enos hammock, inserted my air pad, put up my rain fly, and got to work building a fire. Not that it was cold but when you are alone in the middle of nowhere, it helps to calm the soul.  It was also a personal challenge for me. It had been raining and I love to start fires in wet condition. Like I said it was a challenge. I collected dry sticks that had not been on the ground, along with dry pine needles and worked my way up. The wet wood was really smokey. So much so I had to but it out because the smoke was collecting in my rain fly and I could not breathe. After that I hit the sack. There was lots of lighting around and two owls who keep on hooting. Could have been spooky if you didn’t know what they were. The next morning I was up and back on the trail by 9 AM. The rest of the trail was easy and down hill. A total of 5.9 miles from Dally Gap to Jack’s River. From here back to Dally Gap there are 18 river crossings. So many that you can’t keep them strate. Once on the JRT the first thing you do is wade the river. I hit the water at 10:30 Am. Jack’s is a wild river. All of it is in the Wilderness. Very amazing place. I would stop in the middle of the river at each crossing and take in the glory of the Lord. It wasn’t after to many crossing it started to rain. I started to sit it out but after about 20 minutes of hard rain and when I noticed that the river was rising, I decided that I had a lot more ground to cover and “Flash Flood” came to mind. I had changed in to my sandals at the first crossing. I now had on my rain jacket and cover over my pack. Even though the rain was coming down in buckets and lighting was flashing, I truly did enjoy the hike. I felt more connected to nature. The rain slacked off around 1:30 PM and I stopped to eat at the best camping area I have seen in the Wilderness. It was in a curve of the river and opened up into a large area of big trees with no under story trees. There was a water fall on the opposite side of the river. It was really flowing good with the water from the rain. While eating I watched the river rise four inches in 20 minutes. After eating, I passed a group of three girl, one guy and two dogs going down river. I really worried about them. They had a lot of crossing to make and the river was getting worse. I made the next crossing and noticed that the water was flowing a lot faster than before. The water was now brown and I could not see the bottom. I felt my way slowly across and really used my walking stick. I then entered the Jack’s River Gorge. It is over a mile long and with all the rain it was one long white water roaring rapid. I just knew that I would not be able to make the next crossing. So when I came to a hill-side that had washed away in one of the last rains, I took a nape on the exposed rock face over the river. 1/4 mile up the trail was the next ford. When I got there the river was racing and foaming. No way to cross. Much to fast. Much to deep. If you went in here it was a mile of white water before you could even think about getting out. What to do? I decided to follow the river up, off the trail. No way to get lost, just keep the river on my right. After changing back into my hiking shoes, I bushwhacked about a half mile or more. I fount a foot log and crossed there. I was now above where a major creek feed into the Jack’s and it was not as wild as before. It was still running fast and deep. I made it across with no problem. It was not but 100 yards and I came to my last crossing. I changed back into my sandals. Even though I was at the head waters, the river was still very fast. This was the toughest crossing yet. I had to lean into my stick and feel my way across. Once across it was a easy 2.3 miles out. I was off the trail at 5:30. One of the best and most rewarding hikes I have been on.