Dahlonega to Neel’s Gap
February 28 to March 5:
We arrived in Dahlonega, GA the evening of February 28 and went to the start of the approach trail at Amicalola Falls on Sunday morning. Several hikers were signing in and getting started. There was a cold drizzle and lots of ice around the start of the trail and on the falls overlook trail. No one was taking hikers to the Springer Mountain parking lot because the last two miles of the road were snow and ice covered. We also learned that there was still six inches of snow on the trail and no real place to camp. Hikers were just shelter hopping. So, we hunkered down in Dahlonega until March 6. We walked from our hotel into town each day, had lunch, went to the library, etc. We kept our laptop so at night we watched House of Cards and MASH reruns on Netflix. By Thursday night we had serious cabin fever.
Today is the day. We arranged a shuttle for Thursday morning, shipped the laptop off and made it to the parking lot at Springer Mountain. There were few cars in the lot and we had the mountaintop to ourselves. Every leaf, stem and branch was covered in frost and ice. It was a beautiful but frozen landscape. We left our packs near the parking lot and hiked packless for the first official trail mile. We were feeling pretty proud of ourselves for avoiding all of the bad weather until the temperature increased. Then the frost started to fall. We might as well have been hiking during a snowfall. So in just the first few miles the trail taught us to cool our jets and not act like we know it all. Because we sure as heck don’t.
We camped at Hawk Mountain Shelter. It was a cold evening. An AT Ridgerunner that we say on Saturday said Friday’s low was probably 22. The tent was covered in frost and I woke up a couple of times shivering. My bag and fleece hat had frost on them.
Apparently on a Friday night with a nearly full moon the Rangers in training at the nearby Army base run their mountain exercises at midnight. During a fitful night of sleep I awoke again around 12 am to the sound of men yelling in the woods. Not a great way to spend the first night on the trail. It was eerie until I came far enough out of sleep to realize the yelling was from the guys at the base. At least the machine gun volleys ended around eight pm.
Our goal for the day was to hike well beyond the Gooch Gap Shelter. This didn’t happen. While the 8 or so miles from Springer to the Hawk Mountain Shelter passed easily the hike from Hawk to the Gooch Gap Shelter felt all uphill. It isn’t of course, but it was a harder day than we had prepared for mentally and by the time we hit the shelter we were done for the day.
The hikes up Sassafras and Justus Mountains knocked some of the wind out of us. But I was really thrilled to make it to the top of Sassafras especially because it was a good challenge with a full pack. And the view from the top was a nice reward.
Overall the weather was great and there was no frost left to fall from the trees. The low was predicted to be a balmy 34 and the only thing we heard at midnight were a couple of owls. (Oh, we also had enough spotty cell service to use an app to follow a basketball game while in the tent. We’ve been pleased with the amount of service we’ve had so far. It’s been a big help when we’ve needed to call hostels and shuttles.
We didn’t put a lot of miles under our belts today. We have a couple of minor blister issues. So instead of making it to Lance Creek like we had planned we called the great folks at the Wolf Pen Gap Country Store and Hostel and asked them to pick us up in Gooch Gap. The hostel is just bunks but our clothes were cleaned and the shower was hot. We were resting after lunch at Two Wheels, a place that caters to touring bikers, when the hostel door opened and two-time AT hiker Nomad poked her head in our room just to see if anyone was around. She’d been to the kickoff event at Amicalola Falls. Her advice: Listen to your body and do what it tells you and schedule a resupply box at Fontana Dam. She said the gift store there doesn’t really have what hikers need and it’s expensive.
There were three of us at the hostel overnight: Us and a thru hiker who thinks his trail name will be Rabbit. (He has a stuffed plush rabbit attached to his pack.) We enjoyed the nearly day off.
The requirement of a bear proof food canister for the miles between Jarrad Gap and Neel’s Gap put a crimp in our mileage plans. We aren’t yet ready for double digit days. You can rent a canister at the Wolf Pen Gap hostel and drop it off at Neel’s Gap but we didn’t want to take the extra weight up Blood Mountain. So we decided to push it to Neel’s Gap.
The weather was perfect. High 50s and no rain. We really surprised ourselves. It’s all about perspective, weather conditions, stamina, etc., but we felt Sassafras was a harder hike up than Blood Mountain. What really got us was the hike down the other side of Blood Mountain. It is super challenging and I did struggle navigating the first mile or so of rock steps down. I do well on uphills. It is the downs that are hard on my legs.
The views from the top were wonderful and I was thankful that we didn’t take the Freeman Trail around. Although now that I know what the other side of Blood Mountain looks like I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing so. (We met some spring breakers from Virginia Tech and made their day when we told them about the walk around.)
Tonight we are at the Blood Mountain Cabins. They are super cute and a short walk from Mountain Crossings.
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