We stood at the base of Panther Creek Falls, a 75-foot cascade followed by a series of shorter drops, tired and confused. As darkness approached, the temperature dropped closer to the single digits. My map, which I’d printed off some website, put Panther Creek Trail on the south bank of the creek, which was an impenetrable warren of rhododendron that only stopped when it reached the base of a cliff. We’d crossed to the north bank a quarter-mile earlier as if the trail had changed its mind about its course, but we lost it in a boulder field covered with six inches of snow that made navigation, as well as walking, maddeningly difficult. To make matters worse, faded blazes on some of the trees along the north bank added another level of second-guessing. We had only covered five of the ten miles I had planned for the day.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, panting and holding the useless map. “This shouldn’t be this hard.”
I turned to Travis, and we shared a laugh. It was all we could do in the face of such absurdity.
There was no obvious way forward, and with darkness approaching, I didn’t want to be scrambling on slippery rocks after dark. Convinced–wrongly it would turn out–that the trail was on the other bank, I pointed to a fallen tree that spanned the creek and slowly made my way to it, with Travis close behind. I planned to cross the creek and hopefully find the passage up through the cliff on the other side
45 minutes later, after clawing our way about a hundred yards up a steep hillside with snow blanketing loose dirt and gravel, we stood at the edge of Panther Creek Falls as the sun began to set on what had begun as a promising day.
Earlier that day, in Chatsworth
I met my buddy Travis in Chatsworth, Georgia around 9:00 that same morning. He had driven up from Atlanta, and I had driven down from Louisville, paying close attention to a snowstorm that had cut a swath through Georgia, dropping anywhere from 3-10 inches of snow and leaving bitterly cold temperatures in its wake.
We grabbed some breakfast, then drove north to Crandall, where we turned east and followed Forest Service Road 630 nine miles up into the mountains where the Hickory Creek Trailhead waited.
Our plan was to hike a 27-mile circle counter-clockwise through the Cohutta Wilderness, which straddles the Georgia/Tennessee border just west of the Appalachian Trail. On paper, it should’ve been easy, but topo maps only describe the shape of the land, not the contents.
It was late in the morning by the time we hit the trail, and even with the bright sunlight, the temperature only reached the mid-teens. As Hickory Trail wound its way down the mountain, the temperature seemed to drop by ten degrees whenever we entered the shade of the mountains or passed through a copse of trees.
At 1.9 miles, Hickory Trail meets up with the Conasauga River Trail and follows the river east for 1.3 miles until it reaches Bray Field, a major trail junction. We stopped here to pack away our parkas and enjoy the river until we got cold again and continued on our way.
All day long, snow fell from the trees in a fine mist as the wind passed through the branches. It was beautiful to see, like a small explosion of white and reflected light. We laughed at each other when it fell on the other’s head and down the neck into his shirt, sparking a spasm of cold, wet jittering.
Little did we know that the 3.2 miles to Bray Field would be the prelude to a sputtering 2.5-mile scramble up Panther Creek Trail that began with a careful fording of the Conasauga River.
Panther Creek Trail
Bray Field is where the Hickory Creek, Conasauga River, Panther Creek and Tearbritches Trails all come together. Panther Creek Trail begins on the northern bank of the river, and we were in no mood to remove our boots and slosh through the chilly waters in our Crocs. Instead, we spent a good 30 minutes walking the banks until we found a place where we felt like we could hop from rock-to-rock with little risk of falling in. The final jump involved lunging across a thigh-deep channel of water four or five feet wide to a small rock that jutted out of the water at the base of a bigger rock that rested on the far bank. Somehow, we made it without getting wet.
Panther Creek Trail climbs the narrow valley of Panther Creek, and what the topo map failed to tell us was that countless trees had blown down, forcing us to either crawl through a nest of sharp branches that never failed to grab a loose strap or thread a loop of strapping or climb above or below the tree without slipping in the snow. If that wasn’t enough, the combination of snow and no blazes painted on the trees made the trail nearly impossible to find in some places. This meant walking off in one direction until it was obvious that no trail existed there, then backtracking to try another direction until the right one was found. Our pace slowed from nearly three miles-an-hour to less than a mile-an-hour.
By the time we reached the base of Panther Creek Falls, we were frustrated and mentally drained. At the top of the falls, we were demoralized.
I was too mad to eat dinner
My rule of thumb for winter hiking is to find camp at least 90 minutes before sunset. This provides enough time to set-up camp, eat dinner, hang food and get ready for bed before it gets dark…and cold. For this trip, our stopping point was 4:00, which we’d exceeded by the time we reached the top of Panther Creek Falls.
We found a good spot and quickly set-up camp for the night. Once the tent was up and my pack was unpacked, I was too mad to eat dinner. I offered to set-up my stove for Travis, but he just laughed and told me that if I didn’t eat, he wouldn’t eat. So, we changed our clothes, peed one last time, then crawled into our sleeping bags before 6:00.
We talked about the day and how hard it had been to get up a trail that, without the snow and downed trees, would have been pretty easy to hike. All the time, in the back of my mind, I made calculations about our proposed agenda. I had to assume that the trail ahead would be filled with downed trees and hard to follow trails, which would mean a slow pace. This meant making it back to the cars by Monday at lunchtime was in severe doubt.
As much as I hated to bail on our plans, the only sensible option was to hike back down the way we had come and drive back into town and re-group. I shared this idea with Travis, and he agreed that it didn’t seem possible to hike the last 21 miles of our proposed trip in a day-and-a-half. It was settled. We would strike camp in the morning and head back to the cars and maybe get a hotel for the night and do some hiking somewhere else before heading home.
The next morning, we awoke to bitterly cold temperatures that, because of the cloud cover, must have only bottomed out around ten degrees. We made coffee and ate in the tent, avoiding the cold until we could wait no longer. After a false start down the wrong side of the falls that led to a dead-end at the edge of a cliff, Travis got a cell signal and we finally figured out where the trail was.
We didn’t talk much on the way down, opting to focus our thoughts on each next step. When we reached the end of Panther Creek Trail, at the Conasauga River, we ate lunch on a flat rock that cut the river in half, finally relaxing enough for small talk. We had each decided we’d had enough hiking for the weekend, and we agreed to find a Mexican restaurant in Chatsworth before parting for home.
After another tricky river crossing, we made it back to our cars and down the Forest Service Road, which had frozen to an icy chute overnight. Once we regained cell reception, we found a Mexican restaurant and laughed and recounted our experience and ate until it was finally time to say goodbye and promise to return for another attempt in better weather. Until then, all I can say is this—if you plan on hiking the Cohutta Wilderness, invest in a good map.