Penitentiary Branch is an interior 3.6-mile trail that may be accessed via either Hemp Top or Jacks River Trail. Both of these trails have their southern trailheads located at Dally Gap which is accessed via Blue Ridge, GA. Many hikers use Penitentiary Branch Trail to access the Jacks River Watershed.
There are 2 ways to access the popular Jacks River Falls via Dally Gap near Blue Ridge, GA. The first is to take Jacks River Trail from its southeastern terminus (high elevation) at its Dally Gap Trailhead and hike 9.2 miles to the falls in addition to 20 river crossings.
The second way is much easier. It begins from Hemp Top's Dally Gap Trailhead and continues for 2.3 miles on easy roadbed to the Penitentiary Branch Trail (high elevation) terminus on Hemp Top Trail. From there the Penitentiary Branch Trail is 3.6 miles and losing close to 1,400 feet to its (low elevation) terminus on Jacks River Trail. Jacks River Falls is only 2.1 miles from this junction.
Penitentiary Branch a 3.6-mile interior ridgeline trail is an easy trail hiking east to west losing elevation moderately (Over 1300 feet) along the way to the Jacks River Trail and its namesake river. The deadfalls on the trails when I hiked it in March 2016 were limited with only two major obstructions. The trail crosses its namesake Penitentiary Branch at mile 3.2. From there it follows the branch for the next .4 miles to the Jacks River Trail and its namesake river. The total distance from Dally Gap is 5.9 miles.
To continue to Jacks River Falls take a right at this intersection onto Jacks River Trail. The trail fords Jacks River approximately .2 miles downstream. The trail continues approximately .6 miles and crosses Rough Creek. The trail sign indicating the Rough Ridge Trail junction is on the left side of the trail. Continue another .5 miles and the Jacks River Trail makes its second crossing of Jacks River from the Penitentiary Branch Trail terminus. The total distance from Dally Gap is 7.2 miles.
After the trail crosses Jacks River for the second time it is .1 miles to Beech Bottom Trail terminus on the right. From here the Jacks River Trail parallels its namesake river for .6 miles to the falls. Total distance from Dally Gap is 8.0 miles
The best time to view the Jacks River Falls is after heavy sustained rain. The two river crossings hiking in from Penitentiary Branch Trail are not that difficult. The second crossing may be 4 feet(+) after sustained rainfall, however, the current is easier than most crossings. Forge slightly downstream for a more shallow crossing. To avoid any river crossings to the falls hike Beech Bottom Trail.
Penitentiary Branch may also be hiked as part of a loop. Hemp Top to Penitentiary Branch to Jacks River Trail(18 river crossings) is a 13-mile loop that begins and ends at Dally Gap. I did a variation of this loop by starting on the Benton MacKaye Trail above Watson Gap for a 17.5-mile loop.
"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread"
- Edward Abbey
Blue Ridge, GA Access: Access to Penitentiary Branch Trail is most commonly via Blue Ridge, GA now since FS64 below Three Forks Mountain Trailhead is closed due to the road washing away over this past winter because of the record 25 inches of rainfall.
Once arriving in Blue Ridge, GA go to the US 76-GA 5 intersection near the McDonald's. Go North on GA 5 approximately 3.7 miles. Take a left onto Old Highway 2.
Continue straight for approximately 10.2 miles to Watson Gap. The last 1.2 miles is gravel. The intersection at Watson Gap is a 4-way intersection of FS22, FS 64, Old Highway 2, and County Road 187.
At this intersection take a right onto FS 22 and continue 4.3 miles to Dally Gap where the trailheads for Hemp Top and Jacks River are located.
|Hiking to Jacks:||Easy|
|Dally Gap Trailhead:||2,585 feet|
|Hemp Top Terminus:||3,048 feet|
|Jacks River Terminus:||1,693 feet|
|Trail Junctions:||Hemp Top, Jacks River|