AT HIKE | AMICALOLA TO NEEL GAP | JANUARY 27-31, 2016

An Appalachian Trail Hike | January 27-31, 2016

Georgia’s Appalachian Blue Ridge segment; Amicalola Falls State Park to Neel Gap

A 3-day, 42 mile hike for the first time on this southernmost portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT) …. for everyone in this hike’s crew.

In January 2016, I accepted an invitation to hike the first 42 total miles of the Appalachian, approach & spur trails with friends Chris Russell, Blake “B-La-Ke” Echols, and Ben “Lithium” Curry.

This hike encompassed the 8.5 mile Approach Trail of Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park ,  Springer Mountain  (where the first AT “white blaze” awaited our arrival like the many hikers before us since it was first painted on the rocky cropping), and the remaining mileage to Neel Gap.

After the typical workday Wednesday was over, I droved to Piedmont, Alabama to meet up with fellow hikers Chris and Blake.  I picked up the guys to easily carpool over to our north Georgia destination of Blood Mountain Cabins so that we were assured to get a good night’s rest before our 6am meeting with Ron, our Shuttler with Ron’s AT Shuttle, at Byron Herbert Reece public parking area the next morning.  This public parking area is approximately 1/4 mile north of Neel Gap and Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi.

We stayed at Blood Mountain Cabins about 1/4 mile south of Neel Gap and Mountain Crossings at Walasi-yi.  These cabins are consistently shown on thru-hikers’ videos. Each cabin is named after an animal.

Our cabin was the “Beaver” which had the taxidermic creature keeping his perched position in the living space with an watchful eye on its occupants’ actions.

As the day began to draw down, we decided to drive into Blairsville, GA for a pre-hike dinner.  Per normal tradition (if possible), I had a bacon cheeseburger.

After the pre-hike dinner, we traveled back to “The Beave” to check our packs to see if we could decrease weight in hope to ease our trek across the north Georgia mountains.  During this time of comparing packs, gear and ideas, we awaited the last hiker, Ben Curry to join us.  He had to work later into the day causing him to be slowed by Atlanta, Georgia traffic.  We continued the gear scrutiny up until the point of finally someone saying, “I’m out…going to bed.”  So I took the loft, Chris took the bedroom, and Blake opened the folding couch into its bed where Ben could easily bunk up with him. Around 10pm or so, Ben arrived to immediately go straight to sleep.

The next morning, we all wake up in time to drive the 1/2 mile to the Byron Herbert Reece parking area for the initial meeting with our shuttler, Ron.  When he gets there, he shows his knowledge of the AT’s Georgia section by providing us with a large amount of entertainment and trail information that would be beneficial on our hike. I would recommend Ron’s AT Shuttle for those that need this type of service.  His valuable service will shuttle in his famed Rav4 and/or 4Runner from Atlanta to Fontana for a reasonable per hiker fee.

Our winding mountain roads shuttle trip from Neel Gap to Amicalola took around a hour or so, arriving at first light of the early morning.

After a few pictures at the Approach Trail Arch, the first test awaiting us was a 600+ step climb up the 729 ft Amicalola Falls with its mist constantly drifting onto you.  If you were heavily layered in the winter like we were, you are assuredly stripping them off very quickly as your metabolic heat builds from the exertion it takes  to climb…once again 600+ steps!

We trek up the 600+ steps, making it to the top of the falls for our first high atop view that  offered an amazing panorama of the Georgia Piedmont, an area that lies between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Upper Coastal Plain. 

From there we continue to ascend on the approach trail passing up the 5.5 mile spur trail to The Len Foote Hike Inn that makes the distance to the Springer Mountain start longer, but quicker due to its child-friendly grading versus the steeper ascent up the main approach trail.

We happened upon a Native American “Marker” tree with multiple piles of stones all around it directly beside the path and trailing off the hillside. I’m not sure if this was an area of Native American importance or not.  What I did know, there was a young 150-175 year old tree with the characteristics of a “Marker” tree.  The age lends itself to being in the correct concluding time frame for the north Georgia Cherokee whom resisted and fled the efforts of the U.S. government mistreatment via forced migration per the Trail of Tears.

Our trip was after the eastern US snow storm, Jonas. His remnants were still visible.

We make it to Springer Mountain by lunch. After inspecting the First AT white blaze, placard, and trail registry, we enjoy the sunny rock cropping by eating with Benton MacKaye.

Oh…Blake captures a great Springer Mountain moment…me sleeping!

After leaving Springer Mountain, we encounter more left-over snow.

Making good time, arriving at Stover Creek Shelter around 2 o’clock.  With this time we relaxed, set up our sleeping arrangements, filtering some water for the night’s camp, and  gathered a large amount of mostly snow moistened wood.

We then make dinner and I had a new trail dish for me of broccoli cheese potato soup.  I will add it to the trail dinner rotation as it was a great warm dish to have on a cold hiker’s night.

After dinner, Chris takes the reigns on getting the fire started.

The wood was so damp, that catching fire was labored. Eventually Chris, with his scout expertise, got the flames hot enough to catch the damp wood afire. We then stack the wood around the perimeter in a log cabin arrangement to dry it to the point we decided to just let it catch into a bonfire.  We had more than enough wood gathered to be liberal on feeding the flames.  We even left some wood for the next Stover Creek Shelter hiker-occupants to use.

The next morning, we all wake up well rested from our very warm sleep systems despite  the temperature being in the mid 20’s. The down sleeping bags in our group ranged from ZPACKS to Western Mountaineering to Enlighten Equipment.  Definitely not your mass produced selections you typically run across on the trail!

On this hike, Chris got a chance to test out his new  Goosefeet Gear Down Booties/Socks with 1 oz. of extra overfill. Due to his “thumbs-up” experience and other hiker friends’ (Chad “Stick” Poindexter) experiences, I will be adding a pair to increase feet warmth to my sleep experience. I always find myself, in the early hours of morning on the trail, around 3:30 AM having cool feet. I’ve contemplated for years on purchasing some type of down booties/socks to remedy this mild issue and if I can do it at 2.2oz…why not?

Getting on the very cold trail by first light, we come to the blood pressure lowering, picturesque Three Forks Creek pretty quickly.

We then hike a short distance down a spur just off of the AT to Long Creek Falls.  This short jaunt did not disappoint.

As we make our way up to the ridge, the cutting winds had some great speed that forced us to cover exposed skin and donn our jackets if we stopped for any length of time.

Just before Hawk Mountain Shelter, we run across a hollowed-out tree that was still alive.  I challenged Blake to get in so I could take the pic.  Of course he takes the challenge giving us a good laugh.

Shortly after leaving Hawk Mountain, we get a chance to meet AT “FLIP-FLOPPER/YO-YO” Thru-hiker, Luc “Disciple of Christ” White . He started at Springer Mountain last February/March hiking all the way to Mount Katahdin some 2,180+ miles to turn around and head southbound another 2,180+ miles…hence the moniker, “FLIP-FLOPPER or YO-YOer!”  That’s a grand total of 4,360 trail miles in 13 months!  We were blown away in the fact we were getting to spend just a small moment on the AT with someone disciplined enough to traverse that many miles.  While speaking with him, he told us he had to hike back north to Woody Gap 20.8 miles after getting to Springer in order to met an individual to full-fill a local speaking engagement.  From that speaking engagement, Luc blew our mind even more when he told us he had a bus ticket waiting on him to travel Campo, California.

What is in Campo, California you ask…Well it’s the southern start of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  The PCT spans 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington.  His plan was to “FLIP-FLOP” the PCT as well making that FLIP-FLOP…5,300 miles!  We wished him well with blessings as we parted ways.  He continued trekking to Southbound to Springer and we continued our Northbound trek toward Neel Gap.

We make it to Gooch Mountain Shelter around 2:30PM and immediately start camp chores in order to relax by nightfall.  We take the top platform because we knew a group of three 60+ year old hikers had made the same shelter as their destination too.  We had came upon them during the day and they told us of their intentions.  After setting up our sleep arrangements, we go down and find the piped spring to filter the night’s water for cooking and hydrating our person.  Eventually, the 60+ year old hikers make it and we welcome them while eating our dinner.

Post dinner, we enjoy a campfire with our elder shelter-mates.

The next morning, just before day-break, we start breaking down our sleeping arrangements in order to get on down the trail some 12 miles as Woods Hole Shelter at the base of Blood Mountain was our destination.

While on the trail, hiking to the 3rd night’s destination, we decide to go an extra 2 miles up Blood Mountain to shelter there for the night.  With no water being available upon Blood Mountain, we decide to load up our water containers to ensure we had enough water to get through the night’s cooking and re-hydrating prior to the ascent at the Wood’s Hole Shelter water source.  This water source seemed to be at least a .25 to .50 mile off the AT on the way to the shelter.  This prove to be an arduous task hauling multiple liters of water up 741 feet to the  sixth-tallest mountain in Georgia, with an elevation of 4,458 feet.

Once we get to the top of Blood Mountain and inspect the frigid Blood Mountain Shelter, we all decide to forgo the foretelling very cold Blood Mountain night.  This all rock shelter was the absolute coldest shelter I had ever been in…so the consensus decision to come off the cold mountain to camp at Neel Gap was welcomed.

So we hang around a little longer on top of the mountain taking pictures and watching all of the different people that had made the 2mile trek up.  On this day, there were no less than 20 people sitting around…coming and going…some even walking their dogs through (BTW…I saw a 3 legged dog!).  The place was very busy despite the ruggedness of the locale.

Prior to leaving the apex of Blood Mountain, we decided we would double time the pace to get to Mountain Crossings outfitters before they closed.  We knew we could ask where the nearest burger joint would be there in the store.  So, we set out with a seasoned Thru-hikers’ pace descending over large rocks, boulders, roots and felled branches to successfully make it to our destination. We only had one misstep with our hurried pace.  Blake was leading and he hit a slick spot, falling directly on his backpack.  The pack took the brunt of the impact, so no ill-effects were experienced.

After getting to Mountain Crossings with what felt like was a record pace, we look through the store speaking with the workers to secure our destination for a burger restaurant 30 minutes away in Dahlonega, Georgia.

After eating the traditional hikers’ delicacy of burgers, fries, and beer…& post a 16+mile day, talk began between Blake and Chris about just getting a hotel there in Dahlonega instead of going back to Neel Gap to set up camp in the dark.  With this talk, action pursued and 20minutes later…we are at the local Quality Inn.

The next morning, we wake up one by one and decide to get some breakfast at the local Blairsville, Georgia breakfast eatery …”Hole In The Wall.”

Pancakes, hand-patted sausage patties, eggs, and a cup of MUDD  (according to the Elder Gooch Mountain

Shelter-mates).  We finished our breakfast and parted ways…Ben took Chris & Blake back to Piedmont, Alabama and I worked the north Georgia roads by myself to get home.

On the way home, my thoughts were again the same as it is every time I get to go on a great hike…”I’m glad to be going home to see my wife and children…but WHEN & WHERE is the next epic adventure?”  Especially, with this group of guys I just shared the trail with over the past few days…GREAT GUYS !!!  My thoughts naturally turn to the AT and completing the rest of Georgia which is just 46.8 miles to the famed GA/NC tree sign.  The talk on the trail by this hike’s crew was maybe sometime in a month or so… around March.  I sure hope so!

Once again…as for me…, well…THE MOUNTAINS ARE ALWAYS CALLING BECAUSE IN EVERY WALK WITH NATURE, I KNOW I RECEIVE FAR MORE THAN I SEEK.

Until next time on the trail,

jBen

 

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