Cathy had a week off from school, and we had been putting off our goal of finishing the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail for too long. After some “Google-Fu” research we found a small cabin at the Henson Cove Bed and Breakfast establishment that was ideally located to the part of the trail we needed to complete- from Unicoi Gap (north of Helen) to the border of North Carolina. Henson Cove B&B (we stayed in the Cove Cabin) is a nicely run establishment and the hosts, Mariah and Dave, are friendly, courteous and professional. Dave also shuttles hikers along the AT.
Logistically we had to plan our trip to our capabilities, which turned out to be a little challenging because the major crossings and trail-heads were a little further apart than our preference. To make things a little more manageable, after some research, we decided to:
Day 1-Park one car at Unicoi Gap, and drive to Addis Gap on Mill Creek Rd. You can’t quite drive all the way to the trail at Addis, because the forest service has gated the road about a mile short. So our plan was to park as close to the trail as possible and hike the rest of the way. On paper, this made the day’s southbound hike roughly 12 miles. We planned on then leaving the second car at Addis Gap for day two’s final destination.
Day 2-Drive to Blue Ridge Gap (BRG) and hike southbound to Addis Gap. While the road going across BRG isn’t gated, I knew from various sources we probably wouldn’t be able to drive our low-slung Chrysler Sebring all the way up to the trail, so another mile(ish) forest service road walk would be necessary, making day two’s distance (on paper) a 13(ish) mile day after hiking back down the road at Addis to pick up our previously staged vehicle.
Day 3-Drive back to BRG and hike the short distance from there to the GA/NC border, completing our goal, returning to the car. We kept an open mind about the distance of this hike, contemplating whether or not to hike some distance in to North Carolina, to make the next leg of our journey northward more manageable.
The timing of these hikes would be weather dependent. We had a week to complete them, and planned on some slack time so Cathy could re-charge her batteries before heading back to school. It turned out that we needed to go ahead and knock the two long days out consecutively on our first two days, because the forecast made it seem like these would be the best days.
We woke up early on Sunday, February 19th, fresh, rested and ready to hike the first leg of our plan. Staging our vehicles went largely without incident, although it’s always interesting to see how conditions on the ground compare to paper and online maps when you start getting out on the forest service roads. After driving to the gated closure on the forest service road, we parked the vehicle out of the way and started our hike up to Addis Gap and the trail. It’s uphill, but not challenging, so it was a good warm-up. Soon, we reached the trail and headed south towards our destination at Unicoi Gap. It was a chilly morning, and foggy at the elevations we were hiking, reminiscent of our previous “Sound of Silence” hike. The day turned out to be mostly cloudy and windy, and the only way to keep warm, really, was to keep moving, so we kept our breaks to a minimum and plodded along.
Even though the day’s weather was sub-optimal, it was still good to be out on the trail. There are always interesting and beautiful things to look at, even when clouds prohibit views of far-off vistas. Rock formations, plants along the trail, trees growing in strange and interesting ways- all this (and more) is what makes hiking out in the wilds so captivating.
Shortly after we started our hike, a small white dog with a doggy pack on came down the trail from the opposite way. He was friendly, and he came and “introduced” himself to Gryff and Mojo. Soon, his people came in to view. They are a thru hiking mother-daughter team from South Dakota, trail names “Momma Bear” and “Smiles”. Because we jumped ahead and hiked south again on our second day, we met them again. They are chronicling their hike on Facebook: “Moving Forward Hike” and are trying to raise money for a charitable organization that provides service dogs to veterans. In light of our recent efforts to raise awareness of the veteran suicide rates, I felt like it was especially serendipitous that we met them.
I haven’t yet put my finger on it- but as far as my physical hiking on this day- it was definitely an off day. I didn’t have “pep” in my step and it seemed like my energy levels were low. I’m blaming it on not drinking enough coffee that morning. Regardless, I enjoyed being out on the trail with Cathy and the dogs. We didn’t push our pace, but the miles just kept ticking off. Momma bear and Smiles were the first thru hikers we saw, but not the only ones. There are already several on the trail, and their numbers will only increase as March and April approach. ‘Tis the season!
On the AT, you mark your progress by the passage of landmarks. Names like Sassafras Gap, Round Top,the Swag of the Blue Ridge, Young Lick- all were reeled in and left behind by our four busy feet and eight trotting paws. Cathy and I have a trail maxim: “What goes down must go up!” so we knew that each gap we descended down in to had a counter-part climb that promised to be steep and difficult. We lunched at Tray Mountain Shelter, trying to huddle out of the chilly breeze as we ate our sandwiches. It was still too cool to stop for long and enjoy the break, so we pushed on. The clouds and mists were beginning to break as we summitted Tray Mountain and it was really pretty, and you could tell that on a really clear day the views from there would be fabulous.
The descent off of Tray down into Indian Grave Gap finally saw the weather start to greatly improve, as the sun broke through the clouds and it started warming considerably. Once we reached the gap, we decided to sit and rest and enjoy the warmer weather and sunshine. I even removed my shoes and socks, which is always enjoyable after miles on the trail. We spoke briefly with another hiker out for the day with his dog “Sweet”, and Sweet, Gryff and Mojo all got to know one another as well. Most people we meet out on the trail seem to be friendly and personable, which makes for pleasant chats along the way.
All too soon it was time to don my footwear, and begin the long trudge up Rocky Mountain. This was the most challenging climb of the day, but knowing that after the summit and descent into Unicoi gap that our car and rest awaited helped make it more bearable. As we neared the top there were several open vistas to the south that were beautiful, and you could clearly make out the distinct shape of Yonah Mountain in the distance. A short break at the top had us ready for the climb down. We soon made it back to our car and left in search of dinner and rest.
I was hesitant to make Cathy get back out on the trail for back to back days of hiking 12-13 miles, but she was adamant that she could handle it. I knew she could handle it as well, but I didn’t want her to be miserable out there. The hiking on the second day really did test her limits, but she did great. Ironically I felt much better on the second day of hiking than I did the first. I did make sure to drink copious amounts of coffee that morning.
We drove up to Blue Ridge Gap on Charlie’s Creek Road. It’s a forest service road that isn’t in the best of conditions, and one very rough and rocky section defeated my ability to maneuver past in our car, so it was on foot from there. Luckily it was only about a mile short. We hiked up to the trail to begin our southbound journey to the previous day’s starting point, Addis Gap where we had left our other car. Once we reached the trail, we saw a pair of gentlemen on their thru hike. One was wearing a hiking kilt, which I found interesting. This section of the trail didn’t escape the recent fires in north Georgia, and you could see where it had been burnt. It’s comforting to know that by late spring most of the traces of the fire will be gone as the natural process of regrowth continues.
Like the prior day, the miles and landmarks seemed to quickly pass under our feet. As Knob, Plumorchard gap, Bull Gap, Buzzard Knob… we hiked to and past all of them, enjoying ourselves. The weather was warmer, and the sun was out. We made sure not to push and took frequent breaks after our long day previously. On the ascent out of Cowart Gap we saw Trigger trotting down the trail toward us and knew that Momma Bear and Smiles were close behind. We stopped briefly to enjoy their pleasant company. Cathy and I both wish the best for them and their quest to reach Maine!
A little side note: In the morning before we left our cabin, I had packed a bag full of snacks so that we would have a constant and adequate supply of calories to fuel our bodies as we hiked along. I promptly left that bag full of snacks on the table. I was very frustrated with myself when I discovered this out on the trail, because I ALWAYS seem to do something stupid like this.
At some point during the morning Cathy’s Achilles tendon started to bother her, especially on the uphill portions of the trail. As we hiked into Dick’s Creek Gap, we faced a choice- eat lunch there or wait until we got to Powell Mountain Vista and the promise of a beautiful spot to enjoy our lunch. There is a major road crossing at Dick’s Creek with plenty of traffic and noise- I didn’t want to eat there and it would have been a perfect time to have a snack before pushing on, assuming some idiot hadn’t left the snacks back at the cabin. We decided to continue, not fully appreciating the difficult three mile climb facing us out of Dick’s Creek Gap up the northern slope of Powell Mountain to our desired lunch spot. Cathy was feeling really tired and weary as we climbed, and I regretted: 1. my stupidity in forgetting the snacks and 2. stubbornly pushing on before eating just because I didn’t want to hear traffic noise.
However, even when Cathy is struggling she remains determined and resolute, and she pushed through the pain and the fatigue until we reached the top. Lunch was a welcome break, and we took our ease at a campsite directly on top of the mountain before walking down the short side-trail to the vista. It was a gorgeous view to the east. I wish I knew more of the geography of the area so I would know what I was looking at, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.
The good news is that after lunch, the longest and most difficult parts of our day were behind us. We had another short climb up Kelly Knob, but from there it was pretty much all downhill to Addis Gap and then down the forest service road to our car. Also, Cathy’s heel had stopped hurting so intensely so she didn’t have to deal with that pain as much either. Knowing that we didn’t face any more serious challenges made the rest of our day’s journey more pleasant. We hiked back to our car, drove back to Blue Ridge Gap to retrieve our other car, and headed back to our cabin for dinner and rest. After consulting the weather forecast we also decided to take two much needed days off before hiking the final leg of our journey from Blue Ridge Gap to the border.
You’d think that after two days of doing pretty much nothing, my legs would be fresh and ready to hike, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that no, they were still feeling tired and old. I don’t think it is as much a matter of how much coffee I drink beforehand as much as it is the fact that I’m just getting older and am not in very good shape- it’s a pretty stark realization. Be that as it may, we hit the trail on Thursday, February 23, in high spirits. I don’t remember exactly when it was that Cathy and I set the goal of hiking all of the AT in Georgia, but it’s been roughly a year ago now. Today was the day we realized the completion of that goal.
We parked the car about a mile shy of the trail at Blue Ridge Gap and began our climb to the trail. We met a thru hiker just as we reached the gap, and spoke with her briefly before she disappeared up the trail. We caught up with her again at Bly Gap and spoke more at length. Cathy will prepare an additional post talking about “Supergirl”.
The trail between Blue Ridge and Bly Gap makes for really nice hiking. There is an initial climb out of BRG, but for the most part it is a fairly gentle set of small “rollers” with short and not steep ups and downs all the way to Bly. Mojo was fresh and energetic even if I wasn’t, and I had to call him back several times as he ran ahead and/or off-trail in his explorations. We soon came to the GA/NC border, and the completion of our goal. Cathy was the first to cross into North Carolina on the AT!
After a photo op, we pressed on to Bly Gap. At Bly, we found the iconic “Gnarly Tree”. I had seen several pictures of it online, but Cathy hadn’t. We were both able to identify it from a distance, however, because it really is a unique looking tree!
Here we again caught up with Supergirl, and took the opportunity to conduct a short interview with her. We decided at this point to push on further into NC, to Sassafras Gap. This would make the next leg of our northward journey easier, because it will involve back-tracking from Deep Gap in NC. We will only have to back-track to Sassafras now, instead of Bly. That’s fortunate because leaving Bly Gap you ascend Sharp Top Mountain first, and then Courthouse Bald. Both are steep and challenging. It’s a very rude welcome to North Carolina! We crawled over both of them and descended into Sassafras Gap for a well-deserved break and lunch.
The weather was somewhat of a conundrum on this day. It was breezy and partly cloudy. During the times when cloud cover prevailed, it was quite cool and when not moving uncomfortable. It felt very nice when the sun was out, and made the actual hiking pretty warm. I was wearing a pack, carrying our water and food and also wind-breakers and various items , and worked up a pretty good sweat while moving, especially during those times the sun was shining. It seemed that every time we would stop for a break, a cloud would roll in and the temps would drop, and that combined with the breeze and lack of movement made me pretty chilly!
We finished lunch and headed back south. Fortunately, climbing Courthouse Bald and Sharp Top from the north are not nearly as challenging as from the south, although the steep descents present challenges of their own. We climbed back down into Bly Gap for another visit to the Gnarly Tree. While there we met a father-daughter thru hiking duo, “Doc” and “Tunes” from New Jersey. I thought it was really cool to see families hiking together like this.
Leaving Bly Gap headed south, Cathy really felt good and was hiking well. I had to push myself to keep up with her. Luckily as noted before, the terrain wasn’t particularly challenging, and we made it back to the car having put in a respectable 12+ miles. We passed several northbound thru hikers along the way. It was early enough in the afternoon that we planned a short nap, and a trip to town for a pizza dinner. It was a great hike to cap off our Georgia section and we are both looking forward to hiking through North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail!