I have hiked many trails over the years, but never the Appalachian Trail (AT). Recently, my wife and I decided to start hiking the Appalachian Trail, one section at a time. We planned our first hike over a few months and convinced my parents to keep our three girls for a full week. I took enough vacation at work so that I could have about two weeks off. That would give me a few days before our hike to pack and a few days after to recover. For our first section hike, we started at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia and hiked to Neel’s Gap. I write this to chronicle my family’s section hikes for you. I hope to pass some of our learnings, triumphs, and failures to all those who plan to hike the Appalachian Trail, whether you are a thru-hiker, section-hiker, or day-hiker.
Amicalola Falls is breathtaking. Climbing the stairs is breathtaking, too, literally. My advice: take frequent breathers and just pretend you are awestruck by the majesty of the falls. The visitor’s center has a desk for hikers to register for parking ($5 for 2 Weeks) and sign in on a log that specifies one’s destination and estimated time of arrival. I suppose that would come in handy if someone were to turn up missing. The area around the falls was pretty crowded, but the number of people declined inversely with the steepness of the approach trail. The lodge at the top of the falls has a restaurant and a store. The food was excellent but a bit expensive. Water was plentiful there at the falls, then non-existent for about 4 miles going up the mountain. The breeze was a welcome addition to the parts of the trail that crested the ridge. It helped dry the sweat from the climb. Water was again available at the Black Gap shelter just before Springer Mt. and the AT terminus. The overlook at the top of the mountain was nice, but camping there is discouraged because of bears. The Springer Mountain shelter is not far (0.2 miles, marked with blue blazes) and has bear boxes and cables along with easy access to a stream and two privies.
My wife and I set up camp and socialized with a few other campers. We were tired and a bit foot-sore so a hot meal and place to sit were welcome despite the mosquitoes. That night it poured rain. The wind, however, had us staring at each other with eyes as big as owls. We are beach people so hurricane force winds shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, thanks to our Marmot tent, we stayed safe and dry in what sounded like the storm of the century.
Rain kept us pinned down the next morning until after 10:00. Breaking camp was a soggy experience, but we were able to use the shelter to stay dry as we repacked everything. The storm made it chilly temperature-wise. We wore our rain gear even after it stopped raining to stay warm. My wife wasn’t happy when she squatted down at one point and heard her rain pants rip across the seat end. The hike down Springer Mountain was like walking along a rocky creek (the trail became the creek). Our shoes were worth their weight in gold since they kept us from slipping and sliding on the wet rocks. At the bottom of the mountain, there is a parking area and information board about the McKay Trail that intersects the AT periodically. Soon the trail leveled out near Long Creek Falls. We made good time and enjoyed the sound of the river. We didn’t follow the side trails to the actual waterfalls since we started so late, but they looked promising. Foot bridges crossed the river and made good watering places. The trail beyond Long Creek was beautiful, but water was not available again for a while. We passed a marker where a school had once been located and several paths converged. The white blazes were hard to find at this juncture. Two paths running parallel going uphill were the problem. The one on the left was the correct path leading up to Hawk Mountain. We passed the tail to the Hawk Mountain Shelter without stopping for water which was a mistake. The water we topped off at lunch by Long Creek was not enough to sustain us to our next camp. We ended up spending a lot of time catching a trickle of water from some rocks on Sassafras Mt. instead. Lesson learned: Just because water was plentiful for a few miles doesn’t mean it will be available further ahead. Fill up. We camped about two-thirds of the way up Sassafras Mountain. The wind whipped around the tent and dried out all our damp gear, but the temperature also dropped. We had a hard time hanging our bear bag from a tree since all the trees with good branches seemed to have a blanket of briars beneath them. In all the trees but one, the lowest branches were probably about 25 – 30 feet from the ground, which is almost impossible to throw your rope over. I was finally able to find one about 100 yards from our campsite. My legs were a little bloody after I battled the thorns. Honestly, I don’t think the bear would have pinpointed were our food was anyway, since the wind was blowing so hard all night.
After breaking camp in the morning, the rest of Sassafras mountain was a steady climb and descent. About 3:00pm the trail led us through Chattahoochee National Forest. One nice part about the national forest, ironically enough, was the trash cans. We unloaded all our accumulated trash outside the bathroom facility. It was rather a relief to throw away the granola wrappers and other trash. The park has recently reduced the number of trash cans in an effort to cut maintenance costs, but, luckily, we passed by the ones still there. The scenery along the way was really beautiful. My wife particularly enjoyed the wild flowers: violets, trillium, wild geranium and bellwort. She kept stopping to take pictures. Toward dusk we arrived at Lance Creek camp site. It was surprisingly crowded, and hanging the bear bags on the cables provided was a group effort. We met other backpackers who told us about great places we could take our children or Scout troop in the future. The weather was perfect for a peaceful night.
We left Lance Creek campsite knowing that we had just over seven more miles to complete on our trip. Our final destination – Neel’s Gap on the other side of Blood Mountain. Tradition states that the Cherokee and Creek Indians fought a ferocious battle at Slaughter Gap at the base of Blood Mountain and that the mountain was the home of the “Nunnehi,” spirit people who cared for travelers before leading them home. The climb up Blood mountain was slightly challenging with frequent switchbacks, but the waterfalls and overlooks were worth it. The two-room, stone shelter at the top of Blood Mountain is worth seeing also. It was built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). We signed the registry and took selfies atop the 6th highest peak in Georgia. The climb down was marked by white blazes on the rocks and trees pretty frequently because the AT intersects the Freeman trail and the Byron Reece trail. The area around Blood Mountain was crowded for a weekday. Neel’s Gap boasts the Walasyi-yi center. There is a hostel on the left side and the Mountain Crossing store on the right connected by a stone breeze-way. This is the only place where the AT passes through a man-made structure. The store sold a variety of supplies and souvenirs, but the frozen pizza was the best. Who would have thought that a freshly baked frozen pizza could taste so good? One hiker told a fellow traveler that the place also had “magic pipes” where water miraculously appeared when you turned a handle. We had a good laugh at that. We and another hiker caught a ride back to our car from a local man who ran a shuttle service. What a curvy road! Hwy 19 felt like a roller coaster. My wife was car sick before it was over, but it was amazing to reach the car in less than an hour when it took us four days to get to Neel’s Gap on foot. To end our trip, we stayed in a cabin at Blood Mountain Cabins for the next three days and did a few other small hikes in the area. That concluded our first section hike of the Appalachian Trail. We have already planned our next hike and are really looking forward to it. We will keep you posted.