ome years ago my father announced that he was going to have to give up his goal of hiking all of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia (in sections, not a through hike). He felt he was getting too old and his balance was not up to it. He said he only had one 5 mile section left to do, the one at the very start.
The problem with the start of the Appalachian Trail is that you can’t get there by car. Before you start hiking the AT you must do an 8.3 mile hike just to reach the start. And that 8.3 mile hike was beyond him — to say nothing of the subsequent 5 miles, and somehow returning. He had checked out the Hiker’s Inn which is 4¼ miles from the start (and reachable by a 5 mile hike) but that still left him with a 2*9 mile hike on one day (my father does not like camping).
So he was giving up the idea.
But I (who had not been aware that this was a goal of his) thought that might make a neat goal for me. I intended to run it, of course. I wasn’t 90 yet, and I thought I could make it. It’s only about 75 miles, or 85 if you include the Approach Trail.
So I set out to do it.
No rush, but each time I visited my parents I’d do a section of the trail. Our house is maybe 15 miles from the center of the AT in Georgia, so I sort of worked my way out from the middle. Each section had to be done as an out and back stretch — I didn’t want to discommode anyone else by having a car at each end of a section — so in fact I’ve run all of the AT twice.
The closest highway access to the trail (for us) is at Hogpen/Tessnutee and Unicoi gaps so I ran the sections starting at them first. Then I ventured out to Neel’s Gap and Dick’s Creek Gap. Last Thanksgiving I ran from Dick’s Creek Gap to the NC border (at first being confused because Garmin Connect showed the wrong location for the border and suggested that I had not reached it).
This summer I ran from Woody Gap to Hightower Gap. But there I was stuck, like my father, with the start of the trail yet to do.
The problem is that from Woody Gap to Amicalola Falls (where the approach trail starts) is a ~29 mile stretch with no highway access. Now I could run 29 miles in a day… but that would require getting someone to drive me around and leave a car, and I didn’t want to do that. I had run from Woody Gap to Hightower, which meant that all I needed was to run from Amicalola to Hightower which was ~17 miles. Or 34 miles there and back. I’ve run that far in a day before, but not often and I didn’t want to do it unsupported in strange territory.
Of course there are dirt forest service roads that criss-cross the mountains, most of the mountain gaps have some sort of road crossing through them, but they are often in bad shape and I didn’t really want to drive them in a rental car with city suspension.
But my first cousin had hiked the AT from the start up into NC and he had managed to get up to the AT about a mile from the start at Springer Mountain.
This intrigued my father. He had not felt up to the 8 mile hike up to Springer from Amicalola, but felt he could manage a 1 mile hike to it. He still wouldn’t hike the entire trail, but at least he’d get to the start. But now he was worried about the state of the road (my father likes to worry).
So at the beginning of this visit I had ~17 miles of AT to do, and I wanted to scout out the trail and the road for my father.
I decided that I would make two expotitions. The first would start at Amicalola Falls and go up the Approach Trail to the start at Springer, and then continue on the .9 miles to the forest service road to make sure I would recognize it when I drove up the road.
The second expotition was to drive up the road to that spot, park, and run out to Hightower Gap and return. I know it sounds simple. Just drive up the road. The problem is that the roads are often unmarked (or if they are marked have a different name from what is on the map), and the maps show roads that aren’t there (or aren’t visible) and don’t always show roads that are there (but might actually be someone’s long driveway if I really knew the area).
So you can’t look for road signs, and you can’t count turnings.
I expected to get lost.
And I did, but not very.
The road was in worse shape than I had hoped. So on my return journey I looked at a map posted on a sign at the parking area up there (foolish me, I had not brought a map of my own), and saw a road that claimed to reach Ga. 60, a road I knew. So I set out on it. The map had not said how far it was to 60, and although the road was in good condition, it was also much longer than the route I’d taken up. So I reverted to that first choice when I described it to my father.
Sadly, when the day came, my father was not feeling up to it. So I wasn’t able to take him. And then the next day it was raining.
Perhaps on my next visit…
But in the process of scouting for my father I had managed to complete my goal and I ran the last sections of the AT I needed.
The Appalachian Trail used to start at Mt. Oglethorpe, but in the 1958 this start was deemed to commercial, and the official start was moved to Springer Mountain. But 8 miles of the original trail remains and has become the AT Approach Trail. Behind the Amicalola Falls Visitor Center is a gate that informs you it is 2,108.5 miles to Mt Katahoin, Maine.
As the name implies Amicalola Falls State Park is the home to a waterfall, and the Approach trail climbs towards this. After a bit it stops being a conventional “trail” and becomes a set of steps. The sign reminded me of various signs in London Underground stations which warn you that there are “320 stairs to climb and only people in good health should attempt this. Otherwise use the lifts.”
There are no lifts at Amicalola Falls.
The falls are spectacular though.
Once you reach the base of the falls you are treated to even more steps to take you up to the top.
You can’t see the falls from the top. But there is a nice view of the valley below.
And here the trail turns back into a trail. It heads off away from the state park and into the woods.
Back at my parents’ house there isn’t much in the way of fall color yet, but here, at a slightly higher altitude the leaves appear to be turning…
East coast trails are marked with blazes on the trees along the route, usually painted but sometimes nailed on. The Appalachian Trail is marked with a white rectangular blaze, and the various spur trails to it are marked with blue blazes. The trail to the hiker’s inn here is marked with a yellow rectangular blaze. That’s a new one to me, I had previously thought that “yellow blazes” was a euphemism for the highway (the dashed yellow lines that divide the lanes) and have only heard “yellow blazing” as a derogatory term to mean someone who hitch-hiked to skip difficult sections of the trail. A little further along I found the Breton MacKaye Trail which was marked with white diamond blazes.
The approach trail is considered a spur and is marked with blue blazes.
A little further up the trail I find my first gentian. I think this is Sampson’s Snakeroot (Gentiana villosa). I don’t see them often, but today they are quite common — I’m not usually here in October and I guess this is when they bloom. I’ve seen one in September, and my sister used to find them at Thanksgiving some times.
The odd thing about these flowers is they never seem to open, they are always closed buds. But today I watched as bumblebees flew to the flower, pulled the petals apart, wormed its way inside, wiggled around, and then came out again. Sometimes when it came out the flower remained open — perhaps this is a signal to other bees not to try pollinating this flower again.
Eventually I reach the top of Springer Mtn. There is no fancy gate here, just a plaque embedded into the rock.
Now I proceed along the AT.
After a little while I reach the road and there I find a large parking area and a big sign. So I now have a clear idea of where to deposit my father.
The next day I meander around the nameless dirt roads until I find the sign. And then I run out along the AT to Hightower Gap. I have now completed the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
This section of trail is not terribly interesting, but it does have a very nice waterfall about halfway along it.