Distance: 57.3 miles
Route: Appalachian Trail Southbound
Scenery: Average to exceptional at vistas
Water: Plentiful but a few spots were just a small trickle
Campsites: Numerous plus shelters every 8 to 10 miles
Navigation: Well defined tread, white blazes
At 6:50 AM as we arrived at Deep Gap NC. It was still dark and according to the car’s thermometer the temperature was 28 degrees. We donned our packs and headlamps heading south down the Appalachian trail towards Springer Mountain and Amicalola Falls State Park 90 some miles away. This was my original destination that would allow me to complete the entire Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail in 8 days, unfortunately hikes do not always go as planned.
This would be my second section hike on the AT in two years. While I do not have enough miles to be committed to section hiking the entire trail I love backpacking and this was a chance to get out on an extended trip with four others. Five of us began this journey, two beginners, Keith and Bill; Bob who has completed 2,000 miles; Kent who has 1,100+ miles and myself, now at just over 100 miles on the AT.
The cold was not an issue, in fact it was not long after the sunrise that I was removing the fleece. While not a spectacular sunrise it was nice to watch the mountain tops to the east begin to glow orange. The temperature was perfect for hiking on the sunny and non windy side of the ridges. But when in the shadow of the mountain and in the wind it was still quite cool. Cold enough on one section that it caused my forearms to begin tightening and cramping slightly. Constantly stopping to add and remove clothing is not my thing and the chill did not last long as we moved from shade to sun.
During lunch at Bly Gap on the first day we meet our first and only southbound thru hiker of the week. His trail name has since passed from my memory but his image remains clear. The stereotypical bearded look and conversation, you know what I’m talking about, the one that quickly turns to food. He could “yogi” all he wanted but I was only four hours into the hike and was not ready to part with any food. Another day or two and he would have scored big time.
Do not get me wrong, I have nothing against thru hikers. They are usually the highlights of the trip as I listen to stories and adventures of their time the wilderness. Unfortunately the bubble of thru hikers was about two weeks behind us on the trail. Trail gossip had a couple through hikers ahead of us. Hiking southbound meant we were hiking in the same direction and none overtook us in the days we were out.
Plumorchard shelter was our destination for the day and it came quite quickly. I set the hammock and tarp up behind the shelter. Dinner was eaten by all and the rest of the group dispersed to their tents by 6:30 PM. Being a bit early I sat and read the shelter register. An entry stated “do not turn left after the creek.” This made no sense as the AT was to the left and I was a bit worried he had left a “deposit” near the trail. The next morning less than 100 yards for the day and I lost the trail into a patch of poison ivy. The trail turned right after the creek and then left, now I understood the message in the log book.
The first morning was really the only cold during the trip. Most evenings dipped to the mid 40’s to 50’s with the daytime temperatures hitting the 70’s and low 80’s. I prefer not to backpack in 80 degree temperatures, especially going over all those 4,200 foot mountains. Those are some big hills by northeast Ohio standards.
The second day was another good day of hiking with nice vistas at McClure Gap and Kelly Knob. Lunch today was at Dicks Creek Gap which is a great place with a numerous picnic tables but unfortunately no trash cans. This means i get to continue carrying the trash weight. Speaking of weight, I think I ate more food from the others in the group than my own as they eagerly gave it away to lighten their load.
We were running a bit behind schedule when we reached Kelly Knob but it was not late enough for the darkness we were experiencing. I hightailed it out of there trying to reach Addiss Gap, the destination for the night, before the rain hit. No luck, within a couple minutes of walking I began to hear the thunder, then the pouring rain came along with a couple rather close thunderclaps. To be honest, the rain felt good but I was not to keen on setting up my tarp in a storm. Most tenters hate tearing down in the rain, as a hammocker with a tarp, I hate setting up in the wind and rain. More so the wind than the rain, the wind really blows a tarp around as you try to hang it. Luckily it was not a windy storm.
The next morning heavy rains and a distant storm passed through as the sun began to rise. After delaying climbing out of the hammock I was packed and ready to go before the others . There were still two or three tents up, again, tenters hate tearing down in the rain. I can not blame them, that is a lot of wet material to pack away and the water adds additional weight. Tired of standing around in the rain I hit the trail hiking about 3 hours alone until reaching our designated meet up location at Trey Mountain shelter. About 15 minutes later Keith and Kent arrived with the Bob and Bill about an hour later. Tents and gear were scattered about to dry before heading out for the afternoons hike.
Georgia and North Carolina have much bigger mountains than the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania where I’m usually backpacking. The GA hills get steep and we traversed two of them today. And I really hate climbing steps up the side of a mountain. I really really (this is elevated above a single really) hate going down the side of a mountain on stairs. For the trail maintainer that covers Rocky Mountain, I very much appreciate all the hard work you put into the trail but why stairs? That must have been laborious to build, probably took years to assemble all those stone steps, only to have hiker after hiker curse you. It was a good day hiking but I noticed my pace has slowed dramatically on descents due to increasing foot and ankle pain.
Our destination for the day was Unicoi Gap. Minutes after arriving Keith listens to a message from Bob saying he has not seen Bill in quite a while and fears he may have hitched a ride out at the dirt road crossing. Bill is 68 years old and a first time backpacker. I lifted his pack once to help him out. That pack must have weighed 50 plus pounds if not much more. I give him credit, he is doing much better than I would have. Over the years I have reduced my cool weather base weight to about 16 pounds, this makes hiking much more enjoyable. We received notification that they finally met up and will be about an hour. Go get food was the order, we obliged.
Unicoi Gap was the pull out point prior to a day of slackpacking, which is another term for day hiking with only the gear needed for the day. We hopped into the vehicle heading to Helen, GA on a mission to return with food. Subway was the choice. I did not realize how hungry I was until I quickly devoured a 12 inch sandwich, bag of Doritos and bottle of water. It did not quite fit my typical eating style but I earned it today, as I said above, two mountains summited.
Bill and Bob were waiting at the trailhead when we arrived with the food. They quickly ate, we headed off to Vogel State Park and set up camp in the dark. This was quickly followed by a much needed shower, tending to gear, prepping for the next days hike and finally falling asleep quickly. Morning came fast and brought additional rain and thunderstorms with it. We dashed to the truck and headed to Helen for breakfast at the Helen Country Cafe. This is a great place for breakfast if you are ever in Helen.
More on Vogel State Park, this is a beautiful park with lots of cabins, RV sites and tent sites. For a weekday in mid October the place was packed. Everyone we talked to had a Georgia family tradition of coming out here in the fall. We also heard stories about the camp bear that visits at night so we took extra precautions with keeping our food in the truck for the night. This is somewhere I will come back to with the wife and is a good spot to day hike around Blood Mountain.
By the time we reached the trailhead on day 4 the rain had stopped for the day. Our group of five has diminished to a group of three. Bill and Keith have dropped out for differing reasons but really the same, pain. The plan was to hike 14 miles from Hogpen northbound up and over Blue mountain to Unicoi Gap. Overall this was a mostly flat hike compared to the prior three days. After today’s hike I understand the drive for ultralight backpackers, walking with less than 10 pounds on your back is fast and easy. This section of trail is really uneventful, a long portion is along an abandoned road or railroad and another portion you are walking on large rocks. By the end of the day my pace has again drastically slowed with ankle and knee pain. This last two afternoons have been painful. By the end of the day today I hated walking.
Another night at Vogel State Park, another morning of rain and breakfast again at the Helen Country Cafe. Nice group running the cafe, they opened the restaurant about 20 minutes early for us. Today’s plan was to slackpack from Hogpen southbound to Neels Gap then grab our packs to head over Blood Mountain and begin the final 4 days of the trip. I was not 100% committed to the four days but wanted to give it a shot. I was the first down the trail knowing my tendency to slow later in the day.
Neels Gap must be a very popular trailhead as we saw more people in this 8 miles than the prior 4 days combined. Cowrock is a wonderful vista a couple miles in that makes this section a great hike. I later passed a group of the hikers inquiring how much more uphill they needed to go. “I have the same question” I replied “which is great we must be at the top.” They seemed as happy to hear that as I.
The pain in the left ankle is especially sharp this morning on the downhill and the flat sections. My heel spur has finally caught up to me. I suspect I have been favoring it all week and the section of walking on large rocks yesterday finally did it in. Every step sends a sharp pain up from the inside ankle to the lower calf. After Neels Gap we are heading into a 3.5 day/3 night backpacking section. I decided that I should pull out and join Keith and Bill on their road trip to Gatlinburg. Bob and Kent set a daily pace that I can no longer keep up with. By the end of this trip Bob is 100 miles short of completing the entire trail and I do not want to jeopardize cutting them short. Reluctantly, I’m done after 57 miles in 4.5 days. We hang around Neels Gap a bit at Mountain Crossings, an outfitter that the AT passes through. Here I grab a shower ($4), dump my gear into the pickup truck and send Bob and Kent on there way.