Week 10: Three Georgia trails

Unicoi Gap > Dennis Mill Viewpoint

Days 64-70

Week 10 miles: 160.7

Total EAT (extended Appalachian Trail) miles: 1143.2

I crossed into Georgia late last week, the waypoint I’d identified for finalizing my post-AT plans. So here’s the plan: when I reach Springer Mountain, I’ll turn right around and head north on the Benton MacKaye Trail (the AT and Benton MacKaye more or less share a southern terminus). After 70 miles northbound on the Benton MacKaye, I’ll hang a left onto the Pinhoti Trail and thru-hike southbound to Flagg Mountain in Alabama. From there I’ll fly to San Diego to start the Pacific Crest Trail northbound from the US-Mexico border.

Booking my accommodations in Birmingham and San Diego and the flight between the two was bittersweet. I was still on schedule at that point for the calendar-year triple crown, so hiking the Pinhoti in March instead of the New Mexico desert portion of the CDT would be the concrete departure from my original goal. I was confident that this decision would only enhance my overall 2024 thru-hiking experience, but I was still a little sad to say goodbye to the path not taken.

On the other hand, I was very excited to be able to make the southern terminus of my AT hike the actual southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. Ever since I first looked at a map of the Appalachian Trail many years ago, I found Springer Mountain to be an odd choice for the southern terminus. The trail follows a nice logical southwesterly trajectory, following the southwesterly orientation of the mountain range, until it takes a hard left to the south and ends abruptly in north Georgia.

The Pinhoti Trail solves this geographic discrepancy very nicely, connecting Springer Mountain (via the Benton MacKaye Trail) to Flagg Mountain in Alabama, considered the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. This solution has become popular enough that tacking the Pinhoti onto an AT thru-hike has its own name: ‘Bama to Baxter (the AT northern terminus on Mount Katahdin is in Baxter State Park). I was delighted to learn of this option a couple of years ago, and one of the downsides of the CYTC was that I knew I probably wouldn’t have time to hike this more complete version of the Appalachian Trail. Although in my case, it will technically be Harpers Ferry to ‘Bama, Baxter to Harpers Ferry (not quite as catchy).

Rocky trail in misty weather

Southbound up Springer Mountain

Day 64: Unicoi Gap > Blood Mountain Shelter

March 5

23.7 AT miles (6201 ft up, 4708 ft down)

Way back near the beginning of my hike, on Day 9 if I remember correctly, I met a dayhiker who told me he’d be starting the AT northbound from Springer in late February. Today we crossed paths again, simultaneously realizing who the other was a few sentences into our trailside chat. We were both so delighted that we upgraded the standard thru-hiker fist bump to a hug.

Today also brought a major milestone — 1000 miles hiked!

It’s amazing to see the days add up like that and doesn’t feel like I could possibly have hiked so far already. Though if I stick with the current plan, I’m only about 1/5 of the way through my hike.

Tonight was forecast to be rainy and windy, so when I reached the iconic Neel Gap, I decided to ask around to see if any hikers had a cabin reservation and wanted another person to split the cost. This seemed likely since the cabins sleep 4-6 at a flat rate. What I soon realized, however, was that 31 miles wasn’t far enough for the brand new NOBO thru-hikers to have embraced the spirit of the trail. They looked at me as if I were a man inviting them into my van for candy.

So I slept in the Blood Mountain Shelter. Although Blood Mountain is an infamous test of will for NOBOs, it’s a surprisingly ordinary climb for SOBOs. I tried not to let myself check my progress on FarOut until I was as least halfway up, but when I looked at the map, I was already within a few feet of the top.

View of mountains through leafless trees

Georgia mountains

Day 65: Blood Mountain Shelter > Long Creek

March 6

24 AT miles (4502 ft up, 6129 ft down)

Blood Mountain Shelter is a sturdy old two-room stone shelter. Unfortunately for this particular night, it just has big open holes for windows. I’d positioned myself near a wall that blocked the blowing rain, but the wind shifted overnight in the opposite direction of what was forecast. I slept soundly despite getting rained on and woke up soaked. I knew this was a risk and wasn’t too worried about it because the rain is supposed to stop this evening. I can dry things out overnight and tomorrow when it’s sunny.

Rain fell off and on all day but usually lightly enough that I left my poncho only over the pack. Almost all the NOBOs I passed were wearing full rain gear, which I don’t know how they tolerated with the mild temperatures and physical exertion. Lots of hikers made jokes or comments about the bright orange poncho — I guess most had never backpacked during hunting season or on routes that include road walks. A few more experienced folks noticed the great backpack compartment in the design and asked about the brand. Unfortunately the fly by night Amazon seller I bought it from seems to have vanished.

Most hikers didn’t seem surprised I was going the opposite direction, probably because there were a fair number of NOBOs slackpacking SOBO for the day. But I passed a few previous thru-hikers who knew what was up and stopped to congratulate me on being so close to Springer. It was sweet how genuinely excited they were for me and got me more excited to reach the terminus tomorrow, even though I’ll just be turning around and continuing my hike.

Most NOBOs have been making camp early, so I hadn’t seen anyone for a few hours when I had a surprise at dusk. Coming toward me on the trail was a long line of over 50 soldiers in camo and full gear (the instructor in front told me that number — I didn’t count them). Based on some googling later, they seem to have belonged to the 5th US Army Ranger Training Battalion based at Camp Frank D Merrill. Seeing their enormous packs definitely made mine seem small and manageable by comparison.

I think they were supposed to pretend I wasn’t there, since that’s what about two thirds of them did. But some whispered “Good evening, ma’am” or just gave me a big smile. One, who is clearly destined for intelligence work, asked when the rain was supposed to stop. The forecast said 8pm but that turned out to be a bit optimistic.

Trail on a hillside through mountain laurel

A mountain laurel slick living up to its name on a rainy day

Day 66: Long Creek > Springer Mountain > Wallalah Mountain

March 7

24.6 AT & BMT miles (5200 ft up, 5200 ft down)

I finished the southern half of the Appalachian Trail!

Well, more or less, since Harpers Ferry is the AT’s spiritual midpoint rather than its literal midpoint. When I noticed a few days ago that I could arrive March 7, I decided that would be a nice parallel to my start south from Harpers Ferry on January 7 and my PCT start date of April 7.

I slept very well in my tent beside a stream a few hundred feet after the Benton MacKaye Trail splits from the AT. Happily, everything inside was mostly dry by morning. My tent fly was soaked with rain and condensation, but I planned to leave it up anyway during my round-trip slackpack to Springer.

The morning started misty, but the sun broke through during my last mile to the terminus. On the smooth wide trail most of the way from Long Creek to the southern terminus, I was thinking that NOBOs were getting a false sense of AT trail conditions. But the last/first mile was all rocks and mud, so it turns out they’re getting an appropriate introduction.

I’d expected to see lots of hikers starting off from Springer but passed only two. Plus one who was still at the terminus with his dog and was willing to snap a photo for me.

First half of my AT flip-flop complete, I turned around and headed back to my tent on the Benton MacKaye. I really enjoyed the sign used as the title photo for this post, which reads “Benton MacKaye Trail. North to Tennessee. This is NOT the AT.” I cooked a celebratory lunch of black beans and mashed potatoes and packed up my now dry tent.

All four hikers I passed on the BMT today (one pair and two solo) were hiking the Georgia Loop. I’d never heard of it, but it uses parts of the AT, the BMT, and the Duncan Ridge Trail to form a challenging 57-mile loop, perfect for a long weekend.

Somewhere at the southern terminus

Made it to Springer Mountain!

Day 67: Wallalah Mountain > Fall Branch Falls

March 8

21.6 BMT miles (5203 ft up, 5522 ft down)

Hiking on the Benton MacKaye, you’d have no idea that a few miles away the AT is busy with the NOBO bubble. I only passed one other hiker today.

The trail so far has been beautifully routed and beautifully maintained. The Benton MacKaye must have at least a core group of very dedicated volunteers because I think I only stepped over a single blowdown during the first 30 miles. And the many cleared blowdowns ranged in age from starting to disintegrate to still smelling of fresh-cut wood.

This morning was all about hustling toward a late lunch at the Iron Bridge Cafe, located directly on trail beside a cool old bridge. Being able to purchase fresh food without needing to catch a ride is always thrilling and I reminisced about that amazing Mexican lunch in Virginia as I walked.

After lunch was several miles of road walk. This was a surprise. I was well aware of the notorious road walks awaiting me on the Pinhoti, but I’d done next to no research about my short stretch on the Benton MacKaye, other than to figure out how much food I needed to carry from Unicoi Gap, my last resupply stop on the AT. A drizzle had started to fall just as I reached Iron Bridge and the sky had darkened as I ate lunch. Walking along the shoulderless road in those gloomy conditions made me very glad to have my neon orange poncho.

View of a road with flowering trees and bushes

Spring has sprung in the valleys of north Georgia

Day 68: Fall Branch Falls > Hatley Gap

March 9

19.2 BMT miles (4029 ft up, 4108 ft down)

Unless there’s a gap in my memory, I think today was my first hero. (As opposed to a nero or zero, a hero is when you go into town for a resupply but then get back on trail that same day and continue hiking. I assume it has this name because it’s difficult not to stay in town for the night when you have the opportunity… and because it rhymes.)

I was slow getting packed up because light rain was still falling when I awoke. Fortunately I have a tent that allows me to set up the rain fly first and take it down last, so only that and my rain gear were wet despite having had rain since midday yesterday.

I hiked about 8 miles to the highway into Blue Ridge, by which time the rain had stopped and the sky was starting to clear. I got a very quick hitch from a nice young guy on his way to work who had hiked part of the Benton MacKaye. After lunch in town and resupply at Walmart, I was back on trail a little over 2 hours since I left. Sadly I realized too late that I’d forgotten to discard my empty fuel canister, so I’m carrying two for now.

I walked only a couple of miles before stopping off at the lovely Indian Rock Shelter to organize my bear canister and let my wet gear dry in the sun. I was tempted to stay the night, but the breeze brought occasional wafts of an unpleasant smell that helped move me along.

I ended up camping at a very breezy Hatley Gap, where I was surprised to find a tent already set up after not seeing another hiker all day. They turned out to be a friendly couple who were thru-hiking the Benton MacKaye, the only Benton MacKaye thru-hikers I met during my 70 miles on that trail.

View of lake with cabins and a canoe

Hiked through several vacation home developments today

Day 69: Hatley Gap > Gennett Poplar

March 10

19.3 BMT & Pinhoti miles (3613 ft up, 4354 ft down)

This morning was oddly dark as I was eating my breakfast, and I eventually realized the time on my phone had changed automatically for daylight savings. I’ll only be on this new time for about 10 days until I cross into Alabama and the central time zone.

I was moving slowly today. First because I was way too cozy and didn’t want to pack up my frozen tent. Later because as soon as I turned onto the Pinhoti Trail around midday there were tons of blowdowns and creek crossings.

I ended up stopping about 4 miles short of my tentative campsite in order to get set up in daylight. This was so nice that I’ve decided to set myself a no night-hiking goal for the Pinhoti. More specifically, my goal will be to stop early enough that I can set up camp without my headlamp.

Sign with arrows pointing to the Pinhoti Trail and Alabama

Onward to Alabama!

Day 70: Gennett Poplar > Dennis Mill Viewpoint

March 11

28.2 Pinhoti miles (4846 ft up, 5568 ft down)

Today started with a few more wet foot stream crossings. Like yesterday afternoon, there were enough crossings that it made sense to just walk through the streams with my boots on.

After a short road walk, I encountered some of the most beautifully designed trail I’ve ever hiked. The trail followed an amazing line contouring around the deeply creased mountain as it gradually climbed to the ridge. I’ve heard that most of the volunteers who maintain the Georgia portion of the Pinhoti are mountain bikers, since the hikers tend to be drawn to the AT or the Benton MacKaye. That influence was definitely evident in the trail design. Mountain bikers of course have even greater reason than hikers to prefer switchbacks over stairs.

Back down in the valley later in the day there were a few more stream crossings. This time I took my boots off because I didn’t want wet feet for the road walk tomorrow morning. My feet hate paved surfaces enough without adding another source of irritation. The package that had gone missing contained sandals for exactly this purpose, but fortunately all the crossings were slow enough to navigate safely in my flip flops.

On my way up another ridge late in the day, I saw an armadillo, maybe the first I’ve seen in the wild. I’ve mostly seen roadkill armadillos, which have always looked dry and scaly. This one was much more pink and looked somehow not fully cooked. It was kind of gross.

I nearly failed at my new goal of setting up camp before dark but found a spot atop the ridge right at sunset.

Sunset through the trees

Cutting it close on my new goal to set up camp before dark

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