The Chattooga River is the "Deliverance" river.
It is the mythical Cahulawassee River that novelist James Dickey described in his 1970 novel. It was popularized in the 1972 whitewater backcountry movie with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, and Dickey playing the portly local sheriff.
The Chattooga is one of the top paddling streams in the East and one of the prettiest and least spoiled escarpment rivers in the Southeast. A 57-mile stretch of the Chattooga is part of the protected national wild and scenic river system.
The free-flowing stream begins in the mountains of western North Carolina, then flows south and separates Georgia and South Carolina. It runs through three national forests en route to Lake Tugaloo. It drops 50 feet per mile with riffles and pools.
I had paddled the Chattooga over a wet and wild long weekend years ago. That was not my mission on this trip.
The stream also runs next to some of the sweetest hiking trails in the Southeast. That's what I came to experience.
The 28-mile Chattooga River Trail starts at the U.S. 76 bridge between Georgia and South Carolina.
That's where many of the whitewater raft trips begin. They head down the stream in the opposite direction: south through what's called Sections 3 and 4 of the Chattooga.
The trail runs upstream or north on the Georgia side of the river from the highway bridge at an elevation of 1,190 feet, the trail's lowest point.
The trail will take hikers past Bull Sluice, one of the biggest and toughest rapids on the Chattooga; the river drops 14 feet over three falls at that spot.
It joins the Bartram Trail and runs north through the river's 15,432-acre corridor toward the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, where Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina meet.
It's a wild country with steep terrain, lush forests, waterfalls and cliffs, with the trail generally within a quarter mile of the wild river.
The area gets lots of rain — up to 80 inches a year. It has a steep terrain. Its geology creates cliffs, waterfalls and gorges.
The Chattooga's North Fork is a pretty stream with tumbling water, deep green pools hemmed in by bluffs, cliffs and steep forested slopes. The East Fork and West Fork are very similar, flowing through a country that was logged decades ago.
The water is crystal clear. You can examine rocks and see the trout in the sparkling gin-like waters.
You may encounter a few anglers in search of trout. But there is a very good chance that you will be alone in this wild and rugged country. The river has shaped the mini-gorge and the sound of flowing water is never far away.
One of the biggest rapids along this section of the Chattooga is Big Bend Falls, where the stream cascades 15 feet over a 30-degree, tiered and rocky slope. It is the biggest drop on the river and one that thunders.
Other local attractions include the Rock Gorge, Reed Creek and Lick Log Creek Falls (a 50-foot-high Lower Falls and a 30-foot-high Upper Falls).
At Burrell's Ford, 10 miles north of the U.S. 76 bridge, the trail switches to the South Carolina side after 9.7 miles on the Georgia side.
The Chattooga River Trail also shares part of its route with the Foothills Trail, a 77-mile hiking route through South Carolina and North Carolina with 28 more miles of spur trails.
The Chattooga trail continues north about 3.5 miles into the wilderness until it ends at the Ellicott Rock and Bad Creek/Fowler Creek trails. It runs 18.3 miles in South Carolina.
Hiking is the best and only way to get to the 9,012-acre wilderness tract that lies in all three states.
Since 1987, boating has been banned on the Chattooga's upper 20 miles north of Georgia's state Route 28 bridge, the so-called Russell Bridge, although the U.S. Forest Service is re-evaluating that policy.
It is isolated, primitive and well protected. Signs of civilization are very limited, especially along the river corridor where buildings are banned in the quarter mile on each side of the stream.
The well-maintained trail, marked by black blazes, runs close to the stream and campsites are numerous. It can get crowded, especially at the campsites on summer weekends.
The U.S. Forest Service calls it a difficult hike because of its inaccessibility and the terrain in spots.
The trail also runs close to Spoonauger Falls, a pretty 50-foot-high cascade named after a local family, on a side stream in South Carolina. It is also called Rock Cliff Falls.
A 3.5-mile section of the trail between the Bad Creek and East Fork trails was once a major Cherokee trading route and that makes it one of the oldest in the Southeast.
Parts of the Chattooga River are easily accessible; other stretches are hard to reach.
Hemlocks and rhododendrons are numerous, along with old-growth white pine, tulip poplar, birches and other Southern hardwoods.
In places, you are hiking through tunnels of what natives call "rhododendron hell," thick tangles of the shrub that dominates the forest's understory.
The wilderness is named after noted American surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to determine the boundary between the three states by surveying the 35th parallel.
He completed his mission in 1811 by chiseling a mark on a rock in the Chattooga River. It is about 3.4 miles north of Burrell's Ford.
However, Ellicott missed by 10 feet. Another surveying team two years later concluded that the three states joined at a different spot and marked a second rock, Commissioner's Rock. That is the correct boundary rock today.
Both are on the east bank of the Chattooga near the southern terminus of the Bad Creek Trail.
The wilderness was created in 1966 and expanded in 1975. About half of the acreage lies in North Carolina in the Nantahala National Forest. In Georgia, it is the Chattahoochee National Forest. In South Carolina, it's the 371,000-acre Sumter National Forest.
You can also reach the wilderness from trailheads on the north side of the tract in North Carolina, between Highlands and Cashiers. They drop hikers into the Chattooga gorge.
In fact, one of the most rugged and prettiest sections of the Chattooga River is north of Bull Pen Road in North Carolina. The stream is narrow and known for the steep Chattooga Cliffs.
The Burrell's Ford Campground is closed for renovations and improvements.
Primitive camping is allowed along the trail. Campsites must be at least 50 feet from streams and trails and more than a quarter mile from roads.
The trail is especially attractive in the spring and fall. Summers can be sweltering in the Deep South.
IF YOU GO:
To get to Burrell's Ford, head south from Highlands, N.C., and pick up Georgia's state Route 28. Turn left on Burrell's Ford Road and follow it for 9.4 miles. You can also reach the trail off South Carolina's state Route 107 and Forest Service Road 708.
For information about the Chattooga River Trail, contact the Chattooga River Ranger District, 9975 Highway 441 South, Lakemont, GA 30552, 706-754-6221, http://www.usda.fs/gov/conf., or the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest, 112 Andrew Pickens Circle, Mountain Rest, SC 29664, 864-638-9568, http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/fms.
For Nantahala information, contact the U.S. Forest Service at the Nantahala Ranger District, 90 Sloan Road, Franklin, NC 28734, 828-524-6441, http://www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc.
For rafting information about the Chattooga, contact three outfitters:
Whitewater Ltd., P.O. Box 309, Long Creek, SC 29658, 800-319-8870 or 864-647-9587, http://www.wildwaterrafting.com.
Nantahala Outdoor Center, 13077 U.S. 19 W., Bryson City, NC 28713, 888-905-7238, http://www.noc.com.
Southeastern Expeditions, 7350 Highway 76 E., Clayton, GA 30525, 800-868-7238 or 706-782-4331. Reservations: 423-338-9755.