Guest post: Section hiking the AT – Georgia to North Carolina

[Editor’s note: Hey y’all!  For this week’s post we have a special guest contributor – Matt, who has often appeared here on the blog (e.g. all of the recent Utah posts, Mt. Washington winter climb posts, Smoky Mountains posts, etc etc).  A while back Matt did a solo section hike of the AT and has finally written up his adventure to share with us.  Enjoy!]

A little while ago, I amazingly found the time to endeavor a section hike of the Appalachian Trail.  Section-hiking the “AT” is a life’s goal of mine, and so I could not pass up this opportunity.  Since I was living in northern Georgia at the time, I figured what better section of the AT to hike than its very beginning?  And even though backpacking is not exactly Laura’s cup of tea, she still graciously asked me to contribute a guest post to From Canyons to Clouds [editor’s note: I have at least, like, 1.5 backpacking posts on this blog!!! 😛 ].

Ask any AT thru-hiker which section of the trail is the hardest, and you’ll no doubt get a variety of responses, such as the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the hot, dry landscape of western Virginia.  Ask the thru-hiker which section is their second-most difficult, however, and the answer is most likely their first 100 miles of the hike.  With this in mind, I headed down to the southern nexus / terminus of the Appalachian Trail: Springer Mountain.

1-springer-mt-nexus.jpg

The official plaque marking the Southern Nexus / Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Springer is a 3,780-foot mountain located in the Chattahoochee National Forest of north-central Georgia, about 2 hours due north of Atlanta.  It is a fitting start to the AT because, just as in Maine with Mount Katahdin, a significant hike is required just to reach the AT itself: a 7.5-mile approach trail that begins at Amicalola Falls will take you up, up, up to the peak of Springer Mountain, where you will find the beginning / end of the AT.  It is a beautiful hike, but it will leave you wondering why one must hike 7.5 miles just to get to the trail!

I began my section hike in mid-May, and my wife Lindsay agreed to drive me to the approach trail on Springer.  My original plan was to complete the Georgia section of the AT and hike from Springer Mountain to the North Carolina border, or 78 miles.  However, the GA / NC border occurs at such a remote point on the AT that I decided to hike past the state border to the next point that the AT intersects with a significant road, at US64-Winding Stair Gap.  This would provide easy access for me to be picked up when I finished hiking.  The total distance would now be 110 miles of hiking.

Thru-hikers enjoy incredible independence while hiking along the AT.  You set your own hiking pace, you plan your own meal schedule, and you decide where and when to make camp and sleep.  Most AT backpackers tend to hike from shelter to shelter; these shelters vary in quality, but are located densely enough along the trail that one can make it a day’s-worth of hiking to hike from one shelter to another.

2 - Springer Mt sunset

Sunset from the summit of Springer Mountain.

Conveniently, the first AT shelter (or the last shelter, depending on your hiking direction) is located just 0.2 miles from the summit of Springer Mountain.  I was feeling emotional about starting my hike, and so I forewent the shelter in order to instead camp at the summit and find solitude my first night on the trail.  Lucky enough, I had the summit all to myself, and enjoyed an amazing sunset!

There are no 5,000-foot peaks along the Georgia section of the AT.  There are no vertical rock scrambles or ledges that need to be navigated.  In May, at least, water is plentiful, the nights are pleasant, and the daytime temperatures rarely exceed 80-85F.  The trail is soft, dry, and well-blazed.  So, why is this section considered the second-most challenging by so many thru-hikers?  This section is challenging because it is the first section.  Most hikers have overpacked by at least 5-10 pounds, many hikers haven’t used their gear enough to be familiar with it, and most hikers haven’t acquired their “goat legs” yet.  This part of the AT is not flat, by any means.  It consists of one rolling mountain followed by another.  And another.  And another.  Up 700 feet, down 700 feet, a trend that continues well into North Carolina.

The silver lining to all this is the frequency of views that accompany all of the elevation peaking.

3 - View - Blood Mountain GA

View from Blood Mountain, GA.

Fortunately, there is a source of relief for the nascent thru-hiker, a small oasis of a resupply store located at Neels Gap (mile-marker 30 from Springer): Mountain Crossings, which I would describe as a local mom-and-pop version of REI, only better.  Much better.  This little gem sells every possible piece of backpacking gear you can think of, plus food, and its staff will even go through your pack with you to suggest unnecessary items that can be discarded.  I resupplied with cliff bars, oatmeal, ramen noodles, and an ice-cream sandwich.  I saw one other hiker ditch his hiking shoes and buy a completely new pair.

Once I developed a routine, the miles flew by.  Even at a moderate pace, I would have enough time to hike 15 miles per day on average.  For dinner, I would usually cook ramen noodles or a Spanish rice packet.  For breakfast, I would either cook up oatmeal, or feast upon leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.  I would try to eat, de-camp, and be back on the trail by early morning.  Doing so would allow me to hike at my own pace throughout the day and thus make it to the day’s final destination well before dark, so as to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms.  This would also give me enough time to take an hour-long recovery nap in my tent before dinner.  I highly recommend this!

After a few days, I had eventually hiked my way to the North Carolina.  There is a small, wooden signpost on the AT indicating the GA / NC state border.  I nearly hiked past it!

4 - GA-NC border Matt

The author at the Georgia / North Carolina state border.

I highly recommend section-hiking the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain and up into North Carolina.  Even though the hike was incredibly difficult at times, it was also an incredible experience.  Including Springer Mountain, another highlight in Georgia is Blood Mountain—a rocky outcrop forms the peak, so the views are amazing!

The elevation gradually increases as you cross into North Carolina—here 5,000-foot peaks are standard—and there are numerous fire towers and viewpoints along this portion of the trail.  My favorite moment was an early-morning view from atop the Albert Mountain (5,250 feet) fire tower.

5 - View - Albert Mountain NC

360-degrees of views from the fire tower atop Albert Mountain, NC.

I will readily admit that I was happy to be home after the backpacking.  I badly needed a shower, a burger, and a beer [editor’s note: can confirm Matt smells bad after hiking 😀 😀 😀 ].  Within a few days, however, I was pining again to be back on the trail.  Until then, Happy Trails!

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