Appalachian Trail’s beginning is a wonderful outdoor hike

By Joy Carey

We are fortunate, in Georgia, to have such diverse topographies, including the coastal beaches, inland lakes, rivers and forests. And just four hours north of Bainbridge are the beautiful Appalachian Mountains.

I had the pleasure of hiking with friends on a few of the trails in the Chatahoochee National Forest in October 2011, during the height of the fall foliage season. The first hike we took was a portion of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) is 2,170 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

It is the nation’s longest continuously marked footpath and was designed, constructed and marked in the 1920s and 1930s by volunteer hiking groups brought together by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Hurricanes, highway construction and World War II interrupted these efforts until 1951 when all sections were open and marked for hikers. The National Park Service maintains a protective corridor along the AT and 3 to 4 million people use the trail every year.

The portion of the AT that we hiked was from Neels Gap to Tesnatee Gap, a total of 5.5 miles. At Neels Gap is Mountain Crossings in the Walasi-Yi Center, a full service outfitter, gift shop and small grocery store. It contains the only building that the AT goes through. There is also a hostel there available on a first-come first-served basis. This day hike is considered to be “moderate,” with some elevation changes and climbs up to 3,942 feet. After checking out the gift shop, we began our hike. The weather started out on the cool side; however, we knew it would get warm, so we dressed in layers. After climbing some rocky switchbacks, we came to a gorgeous view of Blood Mountain. From here, the trail took us through the Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area.

From Bull Gap, a rocky climb leads to Levelland Mountain, where we could see the Georgia piedmont. After fueling up on trail mix and fruit, we descended through mountain laurel and rhododendron and then back up to Wolf Laurel Top. At Cowrock Mountain, we had another great view of the fall foliage on Cowrock Ridge. We never tired of the views. Between the three of us, we took hundreds of photographs. After leaving the Raven Cliffs Wilderness area, we continued to our destination at Tesnatee Gap. We had left a vehicle here in the morning so we would not have to do a round trip.

Our evenings were spent at the Hiker Hostel in Dahlonega, Ga., run by Joshua and Leigh Saint. The hostel is actually a beautiful log cabin with three floors, three bunk rooms that accommodate four people and are $17 a person, or two private rooms that are $40 for the double. These fees include a delicious full breakfast. There is a small kitchen downstairs and laundry facilities. They also offer shuttle services to the various trailheads. Their website is www.hikerhostel.com.

We decided to have our dinners in the lovely town of Dahlonega, just about six miles south of the hostel. There are a lot of nice shops around the square and many restaurants to choose from. Dahlonega is where America’s first gold rush occurred in the early 1800s.

Our second day, we did a day hike in the Raven Cliffs Wilderness area, just south of the AT. This five-mile roundtrip hike is also considered moderate and goes alongside the Dodd Creek with numerous waterfalls. The waterfalls range from 12 to 25 to 50 feet. The most impressive, Raven Cliff Falls, is 50 feet and is at the end of the trail. It comes out of a huge vertical split in the cliff. From here you can climb up to the right side of the rock outcropping to the cliff top where there is another cascade. It is rather dangerous and we decided not to attempt it.

Our third day was spent doing some sightseeing in Nacoochee Village and Helen, Ga. Helen is a Bavarian-themed tourist town. River rafting and tubing are popular along the Chattahoochee River. In Nacoochee Village, there is a historic grist mill powered by the river, a coffee shop and antique shops. Some of the best trout fishing in north Georgia can be found in this area also.

Basil Lucas, a Bainbridge resident, has hiked all but the northernmost eight miles of the Georgia portion of the AT. Recently I asked Basil to share some of his experiences:

What was your first impression of hiking the AT? “My first impression was that these hills are steep and this pack is heavy.”

What is your favorite portion of the AT? “Blood Mountain is my favorite spot. From atop a field of stone, the view toward the south is grand. Some tremendous boulders are on the east side of the mountain. The rock cabin built by the CCC has weathered many a storm on top of Blood Mountain.”

I asked Basil what his least favorite portion of the trail was, and he could not think of one. From what I have experienced, it is a special place. Basil never ran into any wildlife, except for some grouse. He did, however, see lots of wildflowers like trillium and trout lilies.

Basil has also done some overnight backpacking on the trail. Here are some of his comments: “Backpacking can be tough work. The pack has to contain everything you need to survive. A walking cane is a tremendous help. My partner (Richard Stokes from Juneau, Alaska) and I endured a deluge one night that had water coming into our tent. Severe thunder and lightning much of the night was part of a tornadic weather system that, we found out later, killed some folks in Tennessee.”

Basil has never been lost on the trail. It is well marked with white blazes (2-to-6-inches vertical). Blue blazes mark side trails to shelters, views or water supplies. There are official Ridge Runners who work on the trail looking for hikers in trouble.

If you are interested in finding out more about this region, here are some resources:

Southern Appalachians:

Exploring the Appalachian Trail: Hikes in the Southern Appalachians by Doris Grove. In addition to basic mileage, elevation and shelter information, this book gives plant, animal information and information about vistas and social history.

Waterfalls of the Southern Appalachians & Great Smoky Mountains by Brian A. Boyd.

The Best of the Appalachian Trail Day Hikes by Victoria Logue, Franks Logue and Leonard M. Adkins.

The following books are geared to thru-hiking the Appalachian Mountains; however, they have some good information on the Georgia portion of the trail:

The Appalachian Pages: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail by David Miller and Rick Towle. This book has detailed information on elevations, mileages, water sources, landmarks and nearby transportation.

The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook by Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce. This is a wonderful field guide for the Appalachian Mountains.

Even if you are just planning a day hike, I would strongly suggest purchasing sectional maps of the area you are planning to hike. These are published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and are waterproof and tear-resistant.

Some website resources are:

www.appalachiantrail.org; www.fs.fed.us; www.atconf.org.

General advice

Here is some general advice for hiking and backpacking the AT. Have a partner. Use a cane or walking stick. Basil feels that “sleeping in a lightweight tent is preferable to sleeping in the shelters (lean-tos), which are not that comfortable.”

Choosing comfortable hiking shoes that are waterproof, have non-slip soles, toe protection and firm ankle support is important. Gore-tex socks are also a worthwhile investment. When choosing clothing, layers are best. Prepare for wet and cold. Even in summer, the higher elevation weather can change quickly.

Waterproof fabrics are best, but an inexpensive poncho will do in an emergency. Avoid cotton. It is uncomfortable when wet. Synthetic fabric will keep you warm and let moisture wick away.

All water from streams must be treated. Be sure to drink enough to keep you hydrated. Dehydration causes fatigue. Eat high-energy carbohydrates like nuts, granola, dried fruit, chocolate chips and peanut butter, and fresh fruit like bananas.

Even when doing day hikes, be sure to bring a backpack with food, water and extra clothing, hat and sunscreen. Also, bring Band-aids and be prepared for cuts, burns, blisters, sprains or headaches. Do not leave any trash. Take out whatever you carry in.

The Backpacker Magazine is a great resource for information on outdoor equipment for day hikes, as well as overnight backpacking.

Whether you are planning on hiking, backpacking, paddling, fishing or just enjoying the views, you will not be disappointed with the north Georgia mountain region.

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