“What’s the Weather Like in Georgia?”… Surviving the First 75 Miles of the AT
“What’s the weather like in Georgia in the spring?” is one of what seems like millions of questions that thru-hiker hopefuls ask each year, over and over again, as their start date slowly approaches. I remember being a beginner hiker and, even though I’m from Georgia, I had no idea what to expect. I nervously read as many books as I could find, scoured Facebook groups and online forums, and talked to as many past thru-hikers as possible to try and get an idea of what I was getting myself into. The responses were as varied as the sources themselves:
It’s going to be freezing in Georgia in March! You better pack warm!
Terrain in Georgia is nothing compared to other states on the trail. If you struggle with Georgia, you may as well just give up.
When I hiked the trail in 1992, we didn’t have all these fancy gizmos you kids have these days. We had to rely on a good ol’ map and compass. You’ll never be the thru-hiker I was!
Blood Mountain is SO hard.
You’ll probably quit before you make it to Neel Gap.
It doesn’t get that cold in Georgia. Where I’m from it’s below zero in March!
I pushed out 15 miles my second day on trail. Georgia was easy-peasy. You’re a slacker if you’re only doing 8 or 10 miles.
So what is Georgia really like?
The reality of the Southern Appalachians in the spring is that weather can be extremely unpredictable. I know you’ve heard this a hundred times or more, but it actually can and often does go from below freezing to balmy over the course of a hiking day. There is also always a possibility of precipitation—rain, freezing rain, and snow can happen in the Georgia Mountains. Layers are your friend.
The First Day
You’ll arrive at the Springer Mountain parking lot after a long, bumpy ride up a Forest Service road, or via the approach trail from Amicalola if you choose that route. If you’re anything like me, your belly will be full of butterflies and you’ll think your heart is going to pound out of your chest as you take your first steps on the Appalachian Trail.
It’s approximately one mile to the summit of Springer, where your thru-hike officially begins. This is a fairly easy mile, with a gradual uphill grade. When you arrive at the top, you may feel a little underwhelmed—the view from the Springer Mountain summit isn’t all that impressive. However, the emotion may be quite overwhelming. I’ve climbed Springer multiple times over the last couple of years, and I get chills and teary eyed almost every single time. This is a spot where dreams are created and accomplished, where hope outweighs fear, where lifelong ambitions become reality. Its a special place—take a moment to enjoy it before hiking back down to the parking lot and heading north.
The First Night
The first eight miles are a pleasant stroll. Did you know there’s a waterfall? Don’t get too excited, but Springer to the Hawk Mountain campsite or shelter is one of the most pleasant, well-groomed, well-maintained sections of trail you’ll find in Georgia. Enjoy it! If you choose to end your day at Hawk Mountain, and you’re on trail during peak NOBO season, expect a LOT of company. In March 2015, before the designation of Hawk Mountain campsite, I stayed at Hawk Mountain Shelter with no less than 50 other hikers. There were tents and hammocks everywhere, and the shelter itself was packed full. If you are hoping for solitude, you may be disappointed. However, if you are open to meeting new people, you could find friends this first night that you will spend the next six months calling family.
The Next 20 Miles
With your first night on trail behind you, you’ll either be feeling pretty good about yourself or pretty terrible, depending on how the night went. The next 22 miles cross multiple roads, so if your gear is failing or you realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, don’t panic! You’ll have a bailout point every few miles if you need it. Assess the situation and look for solutions that will keep you on trail rather than worrying about how you’re going to get out of the woods.
Your first major climb as a NOBO thru-hiker hopeful is Sassafras Mountain, which involves about 500 feet of elevation gain. Soon enough, this will seem like nothing much of anything, but for a novice backpacker carrying (probably) too much weight it can feel really difficult. Take your time and don’t beat yourself up if it feels hard—it’s a thru hike, it’s supposed to be hard.
The first opportunity you have to get to a town comes at Gooch Gap, though Woody Gap a few miles further north is a better option. The town of Suches is small, but you can find lodging and a gas station here if you absolutely need it. However, if you have the supplies, I’d recommend waiting until Blairsville to hop off trail and go into town if you can.
Leaving Woody Gap you’ve got 20 trail miles behind you and some killer views up ahead. A few short climbs and probably another night in the woods stand between you and Blood Mountain. You may have heard Blood was a beast. Don’t let this scare you. In reality, Blood Mountain does involve over 1,000 feet of elevation gain—your biggest climb yet. However, this elevation gain occurs over the course of about 2.5 miles. The grade is gentle and the trail is nicely switchbacked all the way to the top. Early-season hikers will see expansive views begin to stretch out on the horizon as they climb, since the leafless trees aren’t obscuring the vista. And the view from the top? Worth every step of huffing and puffing it takes to get there.
As you descend the steep, rocky northern(ish) side of Blood Mountain, you’ll begin to hear the distinctive and intensely loud braking of tractor trailers. US Highway 19 is a fairly major mountain pass, and you’ll hear it long before you see it. The grumble of motorcycles is commonly heard echoing through the trees, and eventually the highway itself will come into view. At this point, you’ve made it further than a lot of folks already. Celebrate your accomplishment!
Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap offers NOBO hikers their first real opportunity for a night indoors, a hot shower, and some warm food that you didn’t have to carry on your back. Some will opt for a hostel stay, others won’t. Either way, this is a bustling trail stop. There will be thru-hikers everywhere, with tourists, day and section hikers, and even bikers stopping in for photo opps and souvenirs. Some may choose to go into the nearby town of Blairsville, which has several food and lodging options. Whatever your decision, I do recommend at least grabbing a shower and a soda. This will go a long way toward keeping your morale up in the coming days, especially if the weather isn’t cooperating.
The 50-Mile Mark
The section between Neel Gap and Hogpen Gap is arguably the most scenic seven miles in all of Georgia. There are a few small climbs, but overall the terrain is fairly forgiving, following ridgelines for a significant portion. The views from Levellend, Wolf Laurel, and Cowrock are incredible. If you need it, you can bail out at Tesnatee or Hogpen Gap. Both are on a paved road and a hitch can get you back to Blairsville.
Hogpen to Helen/Hiawassee
The most scenic section of the Georgia Appalachian Trail is immediately followed by what may be the least scenic. At 14 miles, this is one of the longest sections in Georgia without a road crossing. While fairly remote, this may also be the easiest 14 miles of Georgia. A significant chunk of this section is on an old logging road, which is wide and smooth. Blue Mountain is the high point, but there are no notable views along this stretch.
A 1,000-foot descent drops you down to Unicoi Gap and GA Highway 75, another major mountain road that you will hear before you see. From here, you can access the adorable, touristy town of Helen, GA. If one of your goals as a thru-hiker is to see some of the interesting towns the East Coast has to offer, you should stop off and spend a few hours or a night in Helen. If not, you can also get to Hiawassee from here. However, Dicks Creek Gap, 17 trail miles north, is a better hopping off point for Hiawassee.
If the 14 miles prior to Unicoi Gap is the easiest section of Georgia, the 17 miles following it are by far the hardest. This section begins to prepare you for some of the intense climbs you’ll see in North Carolina and Tennessee. You’ll immediately gain a quick 1000ft up to Rocky Mountain, which boasts some great views. Soak them in because you’ll then drop 900 feet before turning right around and climbing Tray Mountain. At 1,300 feet of elevation gain in 2.5 miles, this is your longest and steepest climb yet. Be ready, and remember: it is supposed to be hard. Take breaks if you need them. Eat a snack. It isn’t as bad as it looks in the guidebook.
Once you’ve conquered Tray, an 800-foot descent drops you into Addis Gap. Take a deep breath or two here, because Kelly Knob is coming up. She doesn’t look like much, at only 700 feet of elevation gain. After all, you’ve conquered Blood Mountain and Tray Mountain already! But that 700 feet happens in less than a mile and you’re going to be feeling it all the way to the top…. where you are rewarded with no views whatsoever. This was my hardest climb in Georgia, and arguably my hardest climb (physically and emotionally) in the southern 300 miles. Don’t get disheartened, though. Once you crest Kelly you’ve got a nice downhill trek into Dicks Creek Gap. Just be sure not to push too hard or too fast, because these 4.5 miles downhill can really put a strain on your knees!
Next Stop: North Carolina
Dicks Creek Gap offers the NOBO thru-hiker their last town stop in Georgia. Hiawassee has everything a hiker needs. Inexpensive lodging, a nice grocery store, and several different restaurants to choose from are a thru-hikers dream after almost 70 miles of continuous trekking. Take advantage of these amenities because once you leave Dicks Creek Gap its over 35 miles to the next easy town access. (Don’t panic though—there are still bailout options if you need them.)
Once you head out northbound from Dicks Creek Gap, you’ve got about eight miles of mostly uphill trail to get you to the state line. There’s a shelter and a couple of campsites, but no notable views. However, the excitement and anticipation of your first state line crossing will keep your spirits up as you climb into North Carolina. You’ll have almost 76 miles of the Appalachian Trail behind you upon marking off your first state. That’s a whopping 3.5% of the whole trail!
Now that you know what to expect from the terrain and the weather, what else do you need to know about Georgia?
This isn’t just a myth. People in the south are really, really nice. You won’t have any trouble hitching rides from major road crossings, like Woody Gap, Neel Gap, Hogpen, or Unicoi. You likely won’t have any trouble hitching rides from smaller road crossings, either, such as the dirt roads at Gooch Gap or Indian Grave Gap. If you’re wearing a pack, some kind-hearted southerner will stop and pick you up, pretty much guaranteed.
The people you meet in town will mostly be really nice, too. Don’t be surprised if they want to hear ALL ABOUT your hike so far. They may even offer you a night in their home or pay for your meal.
If you’ve been reading about the AT, you’ve definitely heard of trail magic. Well, it abounds in the south, often in the form of hiker feeds. During my 2015 thru-hike attempt, my first trail magic was at Cooper Gap, just north of Sassafras Mountain on my second day of hiking! To this day, that is the best hot dog and most delicious apple I’ve ever had. It isn’t uncommon for there to be a hiker feed at almost every gap or road crossing on the weekends during peak NOBO season. Hope for trail magic, but never expect it. And always adhere to leave-no-trace principles if you are giving or receiving it.
The US Army Ranger School uses this area for training. My first night on the Appalachian Trail, at Hawk Mountain Shelter, I was suddenly jolted awake by the sound of machine gun fire somewhere nearby in the woods. This was quickly followed by the sounds of shuffling feet and, not much later, the whomp-whomp-whomp of a helicopter hovering overhead. Needless to say, this wasn’t how I expected to be awoken in the middle of the night. People talk about bears prowling camp at night looking for crumbs, but they never mentioned machine guns!
In reality, you have nothing to worry about. The Ranger trainees are firing blanks and using this area for important training exercises. Now that you know about it, maybe you won’t be scared shitless like I was.
I’ve already mentioned this once, but you really cannot comprehend the sheer number of hikers that will be on the trail in Georgia in March and April. It seems like hundreds take off from Amicalola or Springer each day. In reality, over a hundred hikers a day have been known to embark on their treks on popular start days like March 15 and April 1.
Crowded trails mean high impact. Please make sure that before you set out, you include learning LNT practices in your preparations. Be mindful of campsite and shelter capacity. All of the shelters will hit capacity, often going over capacity, each and every night. If you aren’t so sure this sounds like your cup of campfire coffee, consider an alternative thru-hike. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers insight into different options.
PLEASE, please, please don’t hit the trail at Springer trying to prove something to yourself or someone else unless you’ve done a lot of physical training. Just because you feel like you CAN hike 17 miles on day 2 doesn’t mean you should. Many hikers end their hikes in Georgia due to overuse injuries such as shin splints or ankle sprains. We get it. Your body is fresh and feels like it can keep going. Fight the urge! You’ve got over 2,000 miles to work up to big mile days. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to hit 20’s or even 30’s further on. Give your body time to adjust to this insane adventure you’ve asked it to partake in. Plan for 8-12 miles a day for the first week to help prevent injury and safely strengthen and condition your muscles for months of extended use.
If you really want to get a jump-start on important hiker know-how, meet some cool trail angels, and maybe a legend or two, plus spend a weekend hanging out with your new family, consider attending the Appalachian Trail Kick-Off at Amicalola Falls. This event is packed with info and opportunity for the thru-hiker hopeful. Pack shake-downs, guest appearances by famous AT hikers, vendors for last minute gear purchases, basically everything you never thought you needed to be successful on your thru-hike. This year’s event is March 2-4, 2018. Find more info HERE.
If you aren’t from the south, you may not know about Sundays in the south. Here’s the gist: everything is closed and you can’t buy booze. Lots of hikers aren’t expecting this and head into town on a Sunday only to be disappointed that you can’t buy beer at the gas station and all the good restaurants are closed for the day. In addition, libraries and post offices are also closed on Sundays, with many other businesses having shorter or limited hours. Plan to go into town on Saturday or a weekday, and spend your Sundays hiking if at all possible. This applies to all of the south, not just Georgia.
…and about alcohol
In addition to not being able to buy beer on Sunday, many towns in Georgia don’t allow alcohol sales before noon any day of the week. Weird? Yes. Annoying? Definitely. But it is the case. If alcohol is on your agenda, I’d advise calling the place you are heading and asking if they have it. Many restaurants don’t serve beer, and most don’t serve liquor.
I hope this post gives you an idea of what you’re up against during your first 75 miles on trail. Conquering the first state is a huge milestone for the aspiring thru-hiker. The mountains are bigger than you think. Despite hearing that Georgia is nothing compared to New Hampshire or Maine, Georgia is a whole lot of something compared to not hiking at all. Many thru-hiker hopefuls are novice backpackers. Georgia will be hard. Take your time, go slowly, plan ahead, and set yourself up for success.
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