Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hiking the Lists #9 - Amicalola Falls Loop

Amicalola Falls

Hike: #9
Title: Amicalola Falls Loop
Location: Amicalola Falls State Park
Hike List: North Georgia
Difficulty: Easy, then difficult, then hundreds of stairs, then a moderately easy walk back down hill
Duration of Hike: Two-three hours of hiking, depending upon how many pictures (and rest stops) you take. Be careful, a side trail can take you six months (one way) to finish.

Some of the hikes in this series, particularly the ones in a certain state that rhymes with "thrillinois", are not the most interesting to write (or read) about. They may just be nice walks in the woods, or a sweaty tromp through prairie grasses. They can be a slog to get through, and often put this feature in jeopardy of getting behind.

On the other hand, there are hikes that are scenic, challenging, and essential. They might be journeys along the dramatic cliffs of Lake Superior, through the rock formations of the Shawnee Hills, or incorporate part of the grand old Appalachian Trail. Many times, they include waterfalls.

The Amicalola Falls Loop hike is one of these. Not only does it go by the tallest falls east of the Rocky Mountains, about half of it is the beginning of the approach trail to the Appalachian Trail. The other half? Only part of the old approach trail, which was also part of the original Appalachian Trail until 1958*. And all it takes to get to the top is walking up 600 or so wooden steps.

Although most of the trail is rising 750 feet to the top of the falls, or coming back down from that high point, it starts level. It begins under a memorial archway commemorating the start of the approach trail, while a sign next to the arch says how many miles it is to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Next it goes by a shelter, the first on the trail to Maine. For many thru hikers this is their first stop for the night.

For a while longer the trail stays flat, eventually coming up next to the road to the parking lot for the base of the falls. Here is a small fishing pond created from the stream that goes over the falls. Here also is the end of the easy trail.

From here the trail goes upwards to the top of the falls. The first part is my least favorite, as you can't really see the falls, and it is a very steep (if paved) path. Then comes the second part, which is a climb up 175 wooden steps. Most of the walk up you can see the falls, especially in the winter and early spring. At the top of the falls is the highlight of the hike.

As seen in the picture, here is where a bridge crosses over the falls to the other side. Naturally this is a great place for a photo, and it's also the busiest place on the trail. Although the falls don't have the constant majesty of Niagara, or the seasonal ferocity of Yosemite, it's still one hell of a drop, and the falls themselves are picturesque.

After the brief respite of the bridge, the next uphill climb begins, this time courtesy of 425 wooden steps. Fortunately there are several landings, a few of which have benches. Eventually, assuming you didn't give up and have someone pick you up in the easy access parking lot a spongy** quarter mile walk from the bridge, you'll reach the top of the falls.

There isn't much to see at the top of the falls, outside of getting a feel for how far you did climb. The way the rocks behind the falls are placed, you can't see much of the actual falls going over the side. And although up a lot higher than you were at the start, the direction of your unimpeded view includes many non-descript foothills and lots of trees. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine yourself as a thru-hiker on the AT as you reach the top of those falls. If north bound, this would be a brief respite after your first challenge, still miles away from the actual trail. If south bound, this would be a welcome sign telling you that you are almost there.

For us on the loop hike, however, this is just about the halfway point. The trail ascends some more steps, albeit these are concrete, much larger, and much fewer in number. Eventually you reach a building with restrooms and vending machines. Be sure to take the trail to the right that looks like a road and goes downhill. This is the old approach trail, and the path that will return you to the visitor's center. If you go the other way, you'll either get off a trail and be at the lodge, or continue onto the approach trail. DO NOT DO THIS, unless you want to spend six months traveling across fourteen states.

There isn't much to say about the rest of the trail, other than it goes downhill, first down the open side of the hill, then through forests. Until the approach was rerouted along the falls trail, this was the path many aspiring thru hikers started out on in their quest to reach Springer Mountain and the Appalachian Trail. Hopefully you won't find too much discarded gear, both because this is no longer the approach trail, and even unprepared idiots should be able to make it out of the state park before they discard their cast iron stoves and cases of beer.

After some steep, yet manageable, downhills, you should be back to the visitors center and the memorial archway. Be sure to pick up a t-shirt in the gift shop if you climbed all of those stairs. Making that climb is worth a bit of a celebration.

*Before that year, the trail's southern terminus was Mount Oglethorpe to the southwest, one of the farthest south peaks along the Blue Ridge. Encroaching development of the north suburbs of Atlanta caused the terminus to be moved to Springer Mountain, a few dozen miles to the northeast.
**The easy access walkway to the falls bridge is made from recycled tires. It's a comfortable, if bouncy, walk that is great for those who can't (or won't) walk up stairs to see the falls.

No comments :

Post a Comment