Monday, April 28, 2014

Looking Towards the AT: Georgia

View from atop Blood Mountain, highest point on AT in Georgia
Note: Over the next year, we'll be sharing our thoughts on the sections of the Appalachian Trail that we will be walking next year. Only a few do we have any even remotely significant experience with, but we still have thoughts on them that we'd like to share. After we finish our hike, we'll be able to look back at these and see if we were pretty astute with our thoughts, or way off the trail. Although many of the sections are broken down by state, some (such as VA, NC, and TN) will be broken into smaller portions due to length of trail and special circumstances. We begin with Georgia, the first state heading north.

Section: Georgia
Region: South
Miles of trail: 76.4 (Not counting ~9 miles along the approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park)
Highlights: Springer Mountain, Blood Mountain, Neel's Gap

Georgia is where thousands of AT dreams begin every year. It's also where hundreds of AT dreams end. Some of those are successful completions of the trail by southbounders who started in Maine, or perhaps flip floppers coming from Harper's Ferry. But most of those ending their efforts are not finishing a through hike successfully. Many people will drop out before they even reach the GA/NC border, whether at Dick's Creek Gap (US 76), Unicoi Gap, Neel's Gap, or a few at the Springer Mountain parking lot...0.9 miles from the start of the trail. Georgia has a way of weeding out the people who thought hiking the AT would be a lark from those who actually intend to complete it. This is in part because, while not being the roughest terrain on the trail, Georgia is still quite tough. Especially if you've never hiked in mountains before.

Unlike most of the states on the trail, Georgia is a place I actually have some experience with. I've walked to the top of Springer Mountain (twice). In addition, both Erin and I have hiked along arguably the toughest part of the trail in Georgia, the part from Flatrock Gap to the summit of Blood Mountain. I've visited Hiawassee and Helen, the two main "trail towns"* in Georgia, and have crossed pretty much every road crossing of the trail from FS 42 near Springer to US 76 near the the NC border.

Between my personal experience, lurking on the WhiteBlaze forums, and reading various books and stories about the trail, I gather that Georgia is in the middle of the pack in terms of trail difficulty. It's no Maryland, but it's no New Hampshire either. For NOBOs, it's difficulty is more relative than absolute. Even physically fit people need some time to adjust to the through hiker grind, and the mountains in Georgia don't seem to understand that. I would imagine a SOBO hiker won't share the same respect of difficulty for Georgia as the NOBO would.

Although Bears are present along the entire track of the trail, the Georgia portion is one of the more frequent homes for them. In fact, the bears have been so much of an issue near Blood Mountain that the USFS has recently required that you use a bear canister if you camp or sleep in a shelter in that area. This is a bit of a nuisance to through hikers, as they are unlikely to need (or use) the canister anywhere else along the trail, meaning they have to carry a fair amount of weight for limited purposes if they stop for the night in that area.

As for my inclinations towards Georgia, I am certain its going to be a challenge for me. Although I will hopefully be in fine trail shape come next March, the day in day out grind of long distance hiking is going to be an adjustment. Fortunately, I've hiked one of the more difficult parts already, and know that if I can conquer it with sore feet, tired legs, and too little water, I can do it elsewhere as well. Beyond that, there is little I worry about in Georgia, and much to anticipate.

*A term used by many communities along the trail to denote their hiking friendliness. Some, like Hanover, NH, Damascus, VA, and Hot Springs, NC are right on the trail. Others, such as Hiawassee and Helen, are as much as 10-15 miles off the trail, but are still traditional zero day/supply points for hikers.

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