The Eastern Continental Divide is a geographically important mountain ridge that separates the waters of the Tennessee River from the waters of the Savannah River. When hiking the Hemp Top Trail, you'll be on top of this very ridge. Just to the west of the ridge, the Cohutta Mountains' most famous river, Jacks River, is a must-see after heavy rainfall in flood stage. Just don't try to ford it... even though I forded it several times on this day (it was in flood stage), it would be a risky procedure when the river is as high as it was on this day. This hike occurred on Saturday, October 3rd, 2015. My original plan was to hike the Penitentiary Loop - to first hike the Hemp Top Trail until the Penitentiary Branch Trail. I would then hike the Penitentiary Branch Trail. I would reach the Jacks River and follow the Jacks River Trail back to the trailhead, fording the Jacks River 18 times in the meantime. However, circumstances made me hike out and back to the Jacks River area at the end of Penitentiary Branch Trail.
R/T Length of Trail: 12.8 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6:20
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: Very well-graded ascent on Penitentiary Branch Trail
Points of Interest: Jacks River at the end of the Penitentiary Branch Trail
Trail Blaze Color(s): None except the Benton Mackaye Trail's white diamond blazes
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter; Spring
Beginning Point: Dally Gap Trailhead
Directions: From McCaysville, GA: Follow GA State Route 5 South for 6.4 miles. Then, turn right onto Old Highway 2 and follow it for 10 miles. The road will turn to gravel. After 10 miles, you will reach Watson Gap. Turn right onto Forest Service Road 22-2 and follow it for 3.3 miles until you reach a hairpin turn in the road with a parking area on the left. This is Dally Gap. Note: all gravel roads on this route are passable by most passenger vehicles.
Note: My GPS malfunctioned so the full track didn't record. Thus, the mileages given on the map are not the full mileages.
It is autumn, the driest part of the year. But not of the year 2015. I cannot recall an autumn wetter and rainier than this one. It all started with one series of heavy rain events in late September and early October. These rain events brought intense flooding to South Carolina and rather large rain amounts all over the Southeast. It was in the middle of one of these rain events, on one of the the rainiest Saturdays that I could remember in recent times, that I rashly decided to attempt a very wet loop hike in the Cohuttas, known as the Penitentiary Loop. While the hike did not sound very difficult, it had over a dozen fords of the Jacks River, and I decided to take on the challenge of completing this loop with the given high water. Even though this might have been possible, considerably more time was needed than the amount of time I had. I ended up getting two fords into the hike and then backtracking. It was still a great hike, as I completed about half of the loop and saw some wildlife.
Two trails depart from the Dally Gap Trailhead: Jacks River Trail and Hemp Top Trail. The Penitentiary Loop utilizes both trails. I planned to hike the Penitentiary Loop counter-clockwise, so I took the Hemp Top Trail, and I believe I made the right choice for this type of day, although in other conditions, the opposite direction may be better. The section of the Hemp Top Trail between Dally Gap and Hemp Top follows an old road that led to the now dismantled Hemp Top Fire Tower. The Hemp Top Trail is the trail that heads uphill from the trailhead. It starts out on the gated old road right away. The ascent on the Hemp Top Trail is very well-graded and easily done. At 0.7 miles, the trail passes through a landslide area and there is a partial view to the east (it was completely fogged-in on this day). At 0.9 miles, the Hemp Top Trail reaches Spanish Oak Gap. Here, the Benton Mackaye Trail comes in from the left and joins the Hemp Top Trail on its way to Hemp Top and Big Frog Mountain. The Hemp Top Trail bears right and continues an easy ascent beyond the gap. At 1.5 miles, the old road that the trail follows makes a hairpin turn at the high point of this hike. From here, the Hemp Top Trail gradually descends along a ridge with good winter views.
Reach Rockwell Gap at 2.3 miles. The Penitentiary Branch Trail leaves the Hemp Top Trail here. The Hemp Top Trail continues straight on to Hemp Top and Big Frog Mountain, but this route turns left onto the Penitentiary Branch Trail. The Penitentiary Branch Trail connects the Hemp Top Trail with the Jacks River Trail. All of the Penitentiary Branch Trail is downhill, but is very well-graded and the uphill on the way back will be just a breeze. As I descended along the Penitentiary Branch Trail, numerous small streams, overflowing with water, were visible. As you descend, the distant roar of the Jacks River becomes audible. There are some winter views in places on the trail. As the trail approached Penitentiary Branch, I caught some glimpses of it being very flooded and fast-flowing. Just before reaching the creek, I spotted a family of hogs on the trail. They darted away before I was able to get a picture. At 5.4 miles, the trail reaches Penitentiary Branch. Normally, this is a dry crossing, but on this day, the fast and furious creek was more than ankle-deep. On the other side of the creek, the trail turns sharply left and follows the creek downstream. You will pass many cascades and small waterfalls on Penitentiary Branch. On this day, some of these water features were quite photogenic. At 5.8 miles, the Penitentiary Branch Trail terminates at the Jacks River Trail.
The junction is home to a large and popular camping area that was occupied even on this dreary and wet day. The junction is located at the confluence of Penitentiary Branch and Jacks River. If you turn right onto the Jacks River Trail, it is two fords and two miles to Jacks River Falls. However, my plan was to hike the Penitentiary Loop, and that meant I had to turn left. It didn't take long to realize that the plan was unrealistic. The first ford was right there at the junction. The Jacks' waters were brown and swift, and it was unclear about the water level. It turned out to be around waist deep in most areas. The water was quite cold, and even though the river was passable (at the moment), the ford took 15 minutes to complete. It was obvious I wouldn't make it far at this pace. The second ford came up a quarter-mile farther. It didn't take any faster. I was forced to a halt at the third ford, at 6.4 miles. The third ford looked more difficult than the first two, with a large rock slab under the fast-flowing water. After some consideration, I decided to turn around here. Even though I could probably make it across this particular ford, the amount of time all the fords would take would have me continue hiking well into the dark, and I absolutely didn't want to be fording a swollen and rising river in the dark. The correct choice was to backtrack. I decided that I'll complete the Penitentiary Loop on another day, when the waters are lower. Retracing my steps from the third ford, the return trip was quite easy, with all of the ascent very well-graded. I returned to the trailhead at 12.8 miles.
Hike the full Penitentiary Loop - 13.1 Miles
There are no good bonus stops in the area of this hike, but there are numerous other hiking trails that can be used for additional hiking.
Sorry for the poor quality of many pictures. On a day as rainy as this one, it is difficult to take good quality pictures.
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