As a busy business owner, I find hiking to be a refreshing break from the stress of budgets, bank accounts and bottom lines. Beautiful views inspire me, steady walking is meditative, and the fellowship of suffering creates much-needed friendships. The pain and reward of the hike offer endless metaphors for life, business and faith. This is an installment of my “Get Misplaced” trail guide series. Enjoy!
The Chattooga River is surrounded by beauty, history and renown. Springing from the ground southwest of the beautiful Cashiers, NC, the Chattooga River flows southeast and forms part of the border between South Carolina and Georgia. At Lake Tugalo in Rabun County, GA it joins the Tallulah River (famous for the Tallulah Gorge and the great tightrope walker Karl Wallenda). These two rivers exit Lake Tugalo as the Tugaloo River, flow to Lake Hartwell, where they are joined by the Seneca River and continue their journey from that point as the Savannah River, eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Savannah, GA, the state’s oldest city, notable for being built on a plan by the colony’s patriarch James Oglethorpe. The Chattooga River is a popular destination for whitewater rafting and is designated a “Wild & Scenic River.” If you hear banjo pickin’ while you hike along the Chattooga, you may want to look over your shoulder… yes, it was the setting for the movie “Deliverance.”
The single track trail that follows this river is the little-reviewed, woefully under-mapped trek that began my hiking obsession. The very first time I strapped on a pack and spent a long weekend in the woods was along this trail in 2013. The five guys with whom I hiked the Chattooga River Trail would become my closest friends, constantly talking gear and planning the next trip. On November 20-22, 2015, this team of adventurers returned to the Chattooga with a new group of initiates. I was privileged to help lead a whopping excursion of 14 men along the trail, over half of whom had never hiked before. This is my review of the trail itself. I plan to write a review of the trip itself at a later date.
Exactly how long is the Chattooga River Trail? I really don’t know. I planned the trip using the third edition of “Hiking Georgia” by Donald Pfitzer as my guidebook. He measures the hike from US 76 to SC 28 as 16.7 miles. I believe this mileage to be incorrect. On my second hike of this trail, multiple hiking partners tracked our progress with GPS apps and though they had varying mileage, they all logged this trail at least two miles longer than Pfitzer reports. The shortest mileage reported by a mapping app put the trail at just shy of 19 miles and the longest put it at 21. I believe the more accurate distance is around 19 miles.
When the trail runs along the river, the elevation is between 1100 and 1350 ft. The highest point along the trail reaches an elevation of about 1900 ft. According to a report submitted by kevin1854 at TrimbleOutdoors.com, you’ll hike uphill a total of 2683 ft and downhill a total of 3038 ft. (This report also affirms my estimation that this hike is about 19 miles.)
The trailhead at US 76 features a large parking lot with a restroom facility and drive-up access to the river at Bull Sluice, all on the South Carolina side of the Chattooga. To start the trail, you will walk down a set of steps to a dedicated walkway that crosses the highway bridge to the beginning of the trail on the Georgia side. The trailhead is marked with a large rock engraved with “Chattooga River Trail” and the mileage to Dicks Creek Road. You will follow the trail on the west side of the river, hiking in Georgia until the trail crosses the river just before the trailhead at SC 28.
The trailhead at SC 28 is nothing more than a gravel parking lot that can barely fit 7 or 8 vehicles. It sports an informational kiosk at an engraved rock, similar to the one at the beginning of the CRT, but with the inscription “Bartram Trail,” the mileage to Warwoman Dell and the US Forestry Service logo. (More on the Bartram Trail under “Blazes & Navigation”.)
The CRT falls squarely in the moderate difficulty rating. Being a river trail, almost half of the CRT either follows the Chattooga River immediately along its banks or high above, overlooking the rushing water. These stretches of flat hiking are much appreciated by tired legs and make this a great first trip for aspiring hikers. However, the CRT often wanders from the Chattooga to make sure you get some good hiking over elevation changes (by the end of the 19 miles, you will have climbed 200+ flights of stairs… and that’s just going UP!) With one exception, all of the climbs along the trail are winding elevation gains that lead out of one bottom, over the crest of a foothill, and back into another bottom to repeat the process. Only one hill requires switchbacks. This climb occurs somewhere around the 8 mile marker, after passing Licklog Creek. After hiking along the river for a stretch, the trail will turn sharply to the left (almost 140 degrees) and immediately start to climb elevation. Though there are several other climbs on the CRT that are similar in elevation gain and difficulty, the sharp turn from the river and the use of switchbacks usually causes this one to stick out in the hiker’s memory. My hiking friends joke about this climb as the “one big hill” on the CRT, though there are several that rival it scattered along the 19 miles.
Do not let the flat sections of the CRT convince you that it will be a push-over trail. This has proven to be a revelatory hike for several of my friends, giving them an unflinching evaluation of their physical condition. Experienced, well-conditioned hikers will find the hike enjoyable while challenging. However, I’ve seen once-athletic friends fight desperation as they attempted to complete this hike… or be forced to opt out at a road crossing.
I am a bit biased when it comes to river trails… I love them. Yes, the flat terrain along the river is a welcomed easy hike. However, it’s not just the easy stretches that I love; my soul is refreshed by the rush of moving water, and about half of this trail runs along the Chattooga River. It also crosses about a half-dozen branches and creeks that feed into the Chattooga, the most notable of them being Warwoman Creek and Dicks Creek. Dicks Creek features a beautiful pair of gently cascading waterfalls before terminating into the Chattooga; do not miss seeing these falls along the spur trail around mile 12.
Due to the multiple crossings of branches and creeks, the CRT is dotted with well-built wooden footbridges and features two beautiful metal bridges, one near the half-way mark of the hike and the other just before the trailhead at SC 28, when the trail crosses the river. The wooden footbridges require a bit of caution, as they could be slippery.
The CRT is crossed multiple times by old logging roads, jeep roads and horse trails throughout the national forest. Closer to the trailhead at SC 28, the terrain changes a bit as you pass a flood plane just before Holden Branch, a stand of planted pines just beyond it, and if you’re paying attention you’ll spot some abandoned farm equipment before the trail reaches the Chattooga River again.
You will see three different colors of blazes along the Chattooga River Trail: green, white and yellow. Beginning at the trailhead at US 76, you will follow green rectangular blazes. These are the new blazes for the CRT. On a rare occasion (like on the stretch past Licklog Creek), you may still see a stray white diamond blaze. These are the old blazes for the CRT and may be painted or metal. After Sandy Ford, you will come to a spot in the trail where the Bartram Trail enters from the left and joins the CRT. At this point, the CRT turns to the right and the first yellow blaze is marked to indicated that the Bartram Trail has joined. You will now follow the yellow rectangular blazes of the BT all the way to the trailhead at SC 28.
Be careful when crossing Dicks Creek. The spur trail marked with the green blazes of the CRT leads to the waterfall where Dicks Creek feeds into the Chattooga, but this trail dead-ends shortly after the waterfall. To continue on the trail proper, follow the yellow blazes that mark the BT (after taking a few minutes at the falls… you don’t want to miss them. The falls are refreshing and the Chattooga River is at the widest you’ll see along the trail.)
There were multiple times along the trail when I would have appreciated a few more blazes, especially along sections that are prone to become overgrown. Overall, the trail is marked and maintained adequately, though I feel it could use a bit more TLC. I assume that the trail is maintained by US Forest Service staff as opposed to a hiking club.
There are several wonderful campsites along the CRT. The first two notable sites are along the Chattooga River just before and just after the four-mile mark. The first of these sites requires following a short spur trail off of the CRT down to the right about 30 yards toward the river. If you bypass this site, the CRT will leave the river for a bit and shortly return to it with a spacious, well established campsite that offers a beautiful view of the river, flat spaces for tents, plenty of trees for hammocks and easy access for water. If you choose to press on past these options, the next notable campsite is around the 6 mile mark. This site is very similar to the previous one but is a bit more spacious, also providing a wonderful view of the river and easy access for water. Both of these riverside campsites give a wonderful view of the sky for viewing stars, sunrises and sunsets on clear days. The rush of the Chattooga makes for some wonderful sleeping.
After leaving these campsite options, the next notable site is at Sandy Ford. This is one of the two road crossings along the CRT, where Dicks Creek Road approaches the river. Personally, I am not a fan of camping at sites that allow drive-up access, for privacy and safety reasons. Beyond Sandy Ford, you will notice a few nice established camp sites that are more remote. Earls Ford is the second and final road crossing before SC 28. This area provides lots of open, spacious camping spots that are frequented by car campers. Again, I am not a fan of camping in drive-up areas, but the next sizable campsite is about four miles down the trail. If you choose to move on, be aware that it will be a trek to the next good-sized site. (There are smaller sites along the way… by “smaller,” I mean “tiny,” so you’re not completely without options in-between.) The trail crosses Warwoman Creek and three beautiful little branches – Laurel Branch, Bynum Branch and Adline Branch. The latter of these is the only one that provides an established campsite, but it is quite small (again, “tiny”). If you can press on, the trail passes a flood plane on the left and comes to Holden Branch almost a mile and half past Adline Branch. Holden Branch provides an ideal campsite, spacious enough for large groups with good tree coverage and water access. Because it is surrounded by trees on all sides, it is also a warmer location for camping than any of the riverside campsites, Sandy Ford or Earls Ford. Holden Branch is a great final campsite for a three-day hiking trip, putting you an easy three miles from the trailhead at SC 28. For a three-day, two-night trip, I suggest camping the first night at the 6-mile campsite on the Chattooga River and the second night at Holden Branch. (This will put you hiking an estimated six miles the first day, ten miles the second day, and three miles the final day.)
Beyond Holden Branch, the next established campsites are found where the CRT rejoins the Chattooga River. Once you come to these sites, you are very close to the end of the trail and could easily press on to the trailhead instead of camping another night. If you move past Holden Branch, the temptation to sleep in your own bed may motivate you to hike on to the car.
Whether you are a beginning hiker or an old pro, the Chattooga River Trail is worth a long weekend. Start early on your first day (as close to noon as possible) so you have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery on the way to the 6-mile campsite and a few hours of daylight to enjoy the river once you’re there. Be prepared for a tough ten-miler on day two; even seasoned legs will feel the burn on the elevations en route to Holden Branch. Try your best to charge straight through the switchbacks on “the one big hill,” then take a few minutes to rest on the ridgeline and enjoy the view of the bottom on the other side. Take lots of pictures; there are plenty of photo-worthy spots, especially on the metal bridges. If you camp the second night at Holden Branch, you’ll make it out of the Chattooga River Trail with perfect timing for a late breakfast at the Huddle House in Clayton; the food and the service are wonderful. Go get misplaced on the Chattooga River Trail!