The Chattooga River in Georgia’s northeast corner is one of the classic whitewater runs in the United States.
Less known is the fact that right beside this National Wild and Scenic River, surrounded by vast acreages of national forest, is one of the best hikes in the Southeast: a 20-mile one-way route that snakes between green wooded bluffs and sculptured rock formations while skirting the river’s ledges, drops and rambunctious rapids.
Most hikers begin their trip from the Chattooga River Information Station near the U.S. 76 bridge, which, at 1,190 feet, is the lowest elevation on the entire Chattooga River Trail.
Visitors voyage on a two- to three-day ramble northeast along the river’s west bank to the first highway crossing at the Highway 28 bridge. The trek is best done as a shuttle hike rather than a loop, so you’ll need two cars. The trail alternates between a single-file track and brief stretches on old roads.
Along the way, you can explore the sights boaters whiz past: cascading waterfalls and steep-sided coves; unnamed stream crossings; secluded sandy beaches; and long, calm pools where you can stop for lunch, cool off in deep green swimming holes, and fish for trout and bass.
There will be some moderate elevation gain on this footpath, so pack light. The trail occasionally crosses hump-backed ridges, leading as much as half a mile from the wild river.
Numerous campsites are located near and along the banks of the Chattooga in this area. Backcountry permits are not required within the river corridor.
Even if all you wanted was a no-hassle hiking or backpacking trip, the temptation to spend a day on the water might prove too strong. After all, the lower 31 miles of the Chattooga form some of the best high-voltage whitewater in the Southeast.
Commercial outfitters will take you down the river in rafts for a seven-hour trip on Section IV with its white-knuckle “experts only” Class IV rapids. Section III is an exciting ride, too, through one of the most beautiful stretches of the Chattooga, culminating in a heart-swallowing plunge over the infamous Bull Sluice.
Outfitters also offer various kayaking and canoeing clinics on tamer sections of the Chattooga, as well as weekend overnight float trips that include everything except sleeping bags. The Andrew Pickens Ranger District (864-638-9568) can provide outfitter names and contact information.
If you have more time and energy, the Chattooga River Trail continues north into the 8,300-acre Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, the only U.S. wilderness that straddles three states. Bisected by the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River and composed of rugged terrain and tall peaks, the tract was named after noted American surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to determine the boundary between Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
When to Go
If you’re not used to Southern summers (hot and humid, with the air often referred to as “thick”), opt for spring or fall. You’ll also find more solitude as the temperature drops.
The Georgia portion of the Chattooga River Trail coincides with the Bartram Trail for 8.1 miles. Both trails are marked throughout with yellow rectangle blazes.
Located 100 miles northeast of Atlanta. Take U.S. 76 east from Clayton for nine miles. Trailhead parking is on the left before the Chattooga River Bridge. Finish at the first highway crossing, Highway 28, at the Russell Bridge.
Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, 770-297-3000, www.fs.usda.gov/conf; or Chattooga River Ranger District, 706-754-6221. For route finding, you’ll want the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map No. 778: Brasstown Bald and Chattooga River.
LARRY RICE resides in Buena Vista, Colo., and writes frequently for national magazines on backpacking and canoeing. Along with hiking the Chattooga River Trail, he has paddled (in a solo whitewater canoe) both Sections III and IV of the Chattooga River.