The name "penitentiary" may make you wonder about taking this hike, which completes a circuit on the east side of the Cohutta Wilderness. The total distance of this Loop is 13.1 miles, meaning that the hiking time is about 6 hours.
The history and story goes like this: When the Jacks River basin was being logged in the 1930s, the Great Depression was on. At the time, loggers were very appreciative of having a job, knowing there were many men behind them to take their jobs if they quit. The loggers worked long hours, with six days on and one day off. The loggers had to live in a logging camp and could go anywhere they wanted to on their day off. The problem with that was there was no place close enough for the loggers to go in just one day and be back in time for the work bell the next morning. So the men were stuck at the logging camp on a feeder branch of Jacks River seven days a week - like being stuck in the penitentiary. That feeder branch on the Jacks River got stuck with the name Penitentiary Branch, and the trail up that creek met the same fate.
This hike heads north along the Hemp Top Trail, tramping through the high country before turning onto Penitentiary Branch Trail, where it winds along the edge of Penitentiary Ridge with views into the Jacks River valley open between the pines. When you are on this Jacks River hike, the 18 fords make for a challenging and intimate way to get to know this clear and picturesque river. There are numerous crashing rapids that add to the scenery of the Upper Jacks River.
The path then will leave Jacks River, heading up quieter Bear Branch for a surprisingly easy end. If you make the loop counter-clockwise, your feet will remain dry for the longest period of time, but once you are on Jack River, the fords are inevitable. Consider taking this hike during late summer or early fall, when the river is at its lowest. This Cohutta Wilderness hiking trail loop is a long but very doable day hike or an easy overnight backpack.