Thru-Hiking Dreams – Georgia, March 2012

Been a while since I’ve been on the trail…

Work afforded me an opportunity to travel to Georgia. I planned my Georgia hike this year around this trip changing my usual Memorial Day trip into a late March trip. I took a vacation day on Friday and arranged a shuttle from Neels Gap to Unicoi Gap in preparation. Plans changed for the work trip moving things up a day, but I rearranged my hike to accommodate without changing my shuttle.

Work was finished by Thursday morning and I drove up from Atlanta stopping at the REI at the Mall of Georgia on the way up. This brought back some memories after having lived in Flowery Branch, GA over 8 years ago. We used to go shopping at the Mall of Georgia when we lived in the area. I picked up some final odds and ends for my hike and continued the drive up to the trail. I didn’t trust the nav system in the car an ended up driving all over the place in the mountains before getting where I planned to start my hike, Hogpen Gap.

Getting out of work on Thursday afternoon allowed me to get some miles in early. Parking at Hogpen Gap put me 6.5 trail miles north of Neels Gap. A nice warm-up and good distance for an afternoon hike. Temps were in the high 70s and the trees still had no leaves so had to watch out for sunburn. I parked the car, changed into my boots and got ready to go. The trail south out of the parking lot followed up some switchbacks and climbed about 200 feet before reaching the top of Wildcat Mountain. At the summit, there was a trail that led to a shelter well off the trail. Why anyone would want to hike over a mile to get to a shelter is beyond me. I continued on and descended 600 feet to Tesnatee Gap. This was the lowest point on the day’s journey at 3200 feet.

I climbed up and ascended Cowrock Mountain. There were some really nice views from the cliffs on the trail and I enjoyed seeing the purple and green-yellow trillium flowers along the trail. I had not seen these before during my AT hikes, so was excited to finally see these. The trail went over a number of ups and downs as the trail continued. Finally I reached a gap with a view of Levelland Mountain. I was hoping that the trail was not going to go to the top. It was pretty imposing from where I stood. Unfortunately I was wrong and the trail was indeed going there. Fortunately, the trail was well graded and followed several switchbacks on the way to the summit. The trail seemed more gentle and less rocky on the descent and I made my way to the hostel at Neels Gap.

As I approached Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap, I saw quite a few tents pitched behind. This made me worry that the place was filled, even on a Thursday. This is not too implausible considering the end of March is still Thru-Hiking season in Georgia. I had passed quite a few people on the trail heading northbound as I had hiked south. I talked with a few folks and found out that there was still plenty of space and that a church group from one of the local colleges was serving a spaghetti dinner for hikers that night.

I checked into the hostel and met up with Lumpy, who would be driving the shuttle the next morning. The dinner was delicious and much appreciated. During dinner I met a number of the folks staying at the hostel who were thru-hikers. This included Turtle, Boots, Yukon, Funny Bones and many more. These were a great group of folks and I was glad to have met them. Eventually everyone settled in and headed off to bed.

The next morning Pirate the hostel keeper had coffee and powdered sugar donuts for breakfast. I grabbed a few and got my gear together and got ready for the shuttle. I stopped into the outfitter and checked out some of the latest gear, but didn’t buy anything. I got a Diet Coke and a Mountain Crossings patch and let Lumpy know I was ready to go.

The shuttle ride took about a 1/2 hour and Lumpy dropped me off at Unicoi Gap. The elevation of the gap is just under 3000 feet and the trail north and southbound climbs over 1000 feet. No good options either way, but my plan was to go southbound. I started the climb up Blue Mountain. The next 1.5 miles led up and up. Seemed like it would go on forever, but eventually made it to where the trail hit the ridgeline for the final climb to the summit. I made the final push to the top – over 4000 feet. The trail descended a bit after the summit but stayed pretty high. Shortly down the trail, I made it to the Blue Mountain shelter and stopped in for lunch and set up my new solar panel on my pack. A couple of northbound section hikers from the Raleigh area stopped in for lunch while I was there.

I continued on and passed quite a few more hikers heading toward the shelter. There was a nice spring right on the trail just past the shelter and the trail continued on toward Rocky Knob. They weren’t messing around naming this mountain Rocky Knob. The trail did not pass over it, but going around the mountain it was continuous boulder fields. These make the hiking tough, but they weren’t as bad as some I have had to navigate through before. The trail continued to follow around the valley that holds the headwaters of the Chattahoochee until the trail reached Chattahoochee Gap and the source. I wanted to fill up on water so I headed down to the spring. I left my pack on the trail, but did not put the cover on. I knew this was a mistake and wouldn’t you know it, it started to rain. I hurried back to take care of my pack and decided I didn’t need water after all.

I put on my rain jacked and put my pack cover on and continued on. The trail seemed to get a bit easier after this gap and the trail actually started following an old woods road off and on. The road led around some of the higher mountains and was a welcome change from the rockier sections further north. The final 4 miles of the trail followed the road all the way to Low Gap. The road, being lower on the mountains, passed over several creeks, allowing me to fill up on water right on the trail. The miles passed quickly and I made it to Low Gap Shelter around 5 in the afternoon. A good day on the trail, covering over 9.5 miles.

I met up with the thru-hikers that had headed north out of Neels that morning. It was nice being at the shelter with them and we had a good time trading stories and trail tips and information. The rain we had earlier in the day increased as the evening passed, turning to a full blown storm by sunset. No one seemed to want to hang out in the cold and wet and everyone headed to their tents or the shelter for the evening. I managed to make it thru the night dry  except for one gust of wind that pulled my cord for the rain fly causing it fly up, getting me wet. I got out of the hammock quickly and fixed it getting soaked in the process. I got the stake back in the ground and headed back to bed. No other issues, but everything got a bit damp.

The next morning was foggy on the mountain and everyone seemed to be moving a bit slow. I cooked my breakfast and worked on getting my gear packed up. The hike for the day was going to be pretty short, but I had a long drive home. The trail climbed 600 feet out of the gap and passed over the 1st mountain. The trail again dropped into a wide gap and headed up Poor Mountain. Another 500 foot climb awaited, but this one was not too bad. Passed still more northbound hikers – but the miles were going quickly. I went up and over the final mountain and made it to the car. I was glad to be finished my first trip of the year and especially glad to finish over 20 miles of trail without any backtracking!

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