The Conasauga River Trail is the second longest trail in the Cohutta Wilderness at 13.1 miles. It is the focal point of the western part of the wilderness with 4 trails that converge on it. From south to north they are Chestnut Lead, Panther Creek, Tearbritches, and Hickory Creek Trail.
The trail walked end to end requires 38 river crossings. Many of the crossings on the other side of the Conasauga River have an aqua green blaze on a tree indicating where to cross. Where the blaze is not apparent or nonexistent it is evident where the trail begins the crossing, however, it may be moderately difficult to figure out where it continues after crossing. Just remember the trail parallels the Conasauga River so at each crossing the trail is on the opposite side though it may take a moment to find it.
Most hikers start from the high elevation trailhead at Betty Gap which begins near the headwaters of the Conasauga River. Poplar Springs Branch, Cowpen Creek, and Birch Creek make up the headwaters of the Conasauga River. From the Betty Gap trailhead, the trail follows and crosses Birch Creek until it convergences with Cowpen Creek at the headwaters of the Conasauga River.
From its Betty Gap trailhead elevation of 3,094 feet, the footpath descends rapidly into the river valley. In the first 1.2 miles, the trail crosses Birch Creek numerous times before coming to a tree marked with a blue 2 that marks the first crossing of the Conasauga River at the exact convergence of its headwaters around mile 1.4. Cowpen Creek and Poplar Springs Branch merge to the northwest right before combining with Birch Creek to form the Conasauga River. This first crossing is easy being more creek than a river.
After this first crossing, the footpath covered in rhondonderon turns into an old roadbed that widens into a beautiful section paralleling the Conasauga River on its right arriving at the junction with Chestnut Lead around mile 2.1. Chestnut Lead Trail crosses the Conasauga River to its junction with the Conasauga River Trail a short distance downstream from where Chestnut Creek joins the Conasauga River. Chestnut Lead Trail junction has a nice campground next to the river with big boulders creating small waterfalls and some waterholes. The Conasauga River Trail crosses its namesake river for the 2nd time here below the campsite crossing east to west. It has a blaze marking the crossing.
The next 3.0 miles the trail will cross the Conasauga River 16 times. Between these frequent crossings, the trail parallels the river virtually staying on top of it. This section of the Conasauga River and beyond is beautiful with big boulders throughout the river and this geographic feature distinguishes it from the Jacks River.
The final ford before Bray Field is east to west arriving at the Panther Creek Trail junction approximately at mile 5. Panther Creek flows into the Conasauga river from the east. Panther Creek Trail junction is on the west bank of the Conasauga and to continue to its trail and Panther Creek Falls requires recrossing the Conasauga west to east here. Panther Creek Falls is 1.5 miles to the east on Panther Creek Trail. During high water, there isn't a more scenic waterfall in Georgia.
From the Panther Creek Trail junction, the trail detours left away from the river for the first time. It ascends slightly up a small bluff and continues on a horseshoe shape path before descending as quick as it went up. It descends down crossing Tearbritches Creek and the low elevation terminus for Tearbritches Trail which begins atop of Grassy Mountain. Tearbritches, Conasauga, and Hickory Creek Trail all converge here around mile 5.4 which is called Bray Field.
At this important trail intersection in the western part of the Cohutta Wilderness and former farmstead the Tearbritrches, Hickory Creek, and Conasauga River Trail converge 0.4 miles downstream from Panther Creek Trail. Hickory Creek Trail continues to the east crossing the Conasauga River and for another 6.5 miles winds its way back up to the northeast to its terminus at FS51. Tearbritches is primarily a ridge trail starting on top of Grassy Mountain.
Bray Field is an old farmstead that nature has mostly reclaim but offers one of the few campgrounds next to the river where the sun is unobstructed. It gets dark here earlier due to its interior location on the east side of Grassy Mountain.
From Bray Field, the Conasauga River Trail and Hickory Creek Trail share the same wide roadbed for the next 1.3 miles detouring from the Conasauga River before passing a huge spring on the right. After this, the trail converges with its namesake river again for a spell before detouring again eventually ascending up onto a ridgeline offering a wonderful view of the river below before descending back down to where Hickory Creek Trail and the Conasauga River Trail diverge. Hickory Creek Trail to the west. And the Conasauga River Trail joining its namesake river again. Little Rough Creek joins the Conasauga from the left just beyond where the trails diverge.
This is a wonderful spot to take a lunch break since it is arguably more appealing than Bray Field with a bigger more turbulent river. It is slightly past the halfway point marking mile 6.7. It offers lots of sunlight, a campsite, and big boulders to relax on before fording the river again at this point.
As described above the river here is noticeably wider at this junction and marks the beginning of 20 more river crossings in the next 5 miles. The trail begins its next 20 crossings(19th crossing) by fording the river west to east at the lunch break point.
The next fording which is the 20th is upriver from a pretty cascade. The trail fords the river east to west and after crossing it the trail begins ascending to the top of a small bluff giving a nice view of the river below. The 21st crossing, 3rd from the midpoint, presents a challenge to see where the trail begins again on the other side. The blaze is apparently missing, however, the trail continues crossing west to east up the small bluff. The trail always crosses where it enters and is basically across the river no more than 30 degrees in either direction.
Starting at the 23rd ford the trail resumes paralleling the river and its pattern of frequent crossings. The trail from this point is not maintained like the upper part of the trail with a few more deadfalls and continues this way for the next 4 miles.
Around mile 8.8 you come to the 31st crossing. Crossing west to east the trail enters a 0.9-mile stretch that has substantial fire damage. Just remember the trail parallels the river. Around mile 9.7 the trail crosses the river for the 32nd time from east to west. The west side of the river has no fire damage. This next 1.0-mile section of the trail hugs the river on its left bank and approximately around mile 10 the river becomes wider and more scenic continuing this way for a mile or less.
Around mile 10.7 the trail begins a series of 5 crossings in the next 0.6 miles. After rainfall, these crossings can be extremely challenging so be careful where you cross. Along the way, to the west, the bluffs appear to fall away as the trail descends to 1,400 feet in elevation. The trail crosses the river for the final time right to left around mile 11.7 and begins its final 1.4-mile ascent to the west discovering the ridges again. This final section is a well-maintained trail climbing away from the river gaining several hundred feet in elevation to its northwestern (low elevation) trailhead on Forest Road 17B.
There are five ways to access the trail from trailheads located in the Conasauga River Watershed. The northwestern trailhead (low elevation) located on FS17B. The southeastern trailhead (high elevation) located at Betty Gap. Then there is a way to hike in at approximately the halfway point from the Hickory Creek Trailhead at FS630. From this trailhead, it is a little less than 2 miles to where Hickory Creek Trail merges with the Conasauga River Trail.
This trail merger marks the 6.7-mile point of the Conasauga River Trail if hiking downstream. If continued upstream then Hickory Creek Trail shares the same pathway with the Conasauga River Trail for 1.3 miles arriving at Bray Field. This is the only instance that two wilderness trails share the same pathway.
Tearbritches Trail is a 3.2 mile short climb then steep descent to Bray Field which is located at the 5.4 mile mark hiking downstream. And Chestnut Lead Trail is a 2 mile descent to the river and its namesake trail arriving at the 2.1 mile mark hiking downstream.