For many Georgia outdoor enthusiasts, the Appalachian Trail offers the ultimate hiking adventure. The trail, with a total length of about 2,200 miles, begins in Georgia atop Springer Mountain and stays within the state for the next 79 miles before entering North Carolina at Bly Gap.
Alas, life gets in the way and not everyone can hike the whole thing. But it’s easy to sample the AT hiking experience, and one of the best places to start is at Unicoi Gap on Georgia Highway 75 between Helen and Hiawassee.
Going north from Helen, you can’t miss Unicoi Gap. Just look for the highest point on the road to Hiawassee. A large parking area on the right side of the road marks the intersection with the trail, and from there it’s easy to experience what it’s like to hike the AT.
The sampler hike I’m thinking of is a short (by AT standards) in-and-out hike from Unicoi Gap up to the summit of Rocky Mountain. You’ll start at the parking area, hike to the summit, and then hike back to the parking area and your car. Distance-wise, it’s only about 1.4 miles each way. That doesn’t sound too bad.
From the parking area, start near a large boulder which boasts a bronze plaque celebrating the Appalachian Trail. The trail enters the woods there, and the first few steps are easy. The Appalachian Trail’s iconic white blazes (rectangular marks painted on trees) identify the route and reassure you that you’re on the right track
Pretty soon, though, you’ll get a gentle reminder from your legs that you’re still climbing – and the ascent goes on and on and on. Various hikers have described this stretch as “daunting,” “unrelenting,” and “torturous.” The trail continues upward, seemingly forever, as you make the 1,000-foot ascent (there…I said it…ahead of you is 1,000 feet of unrelenting climbing) from the gap to the top of Rocky Mountain. I could, of course, point out that 1,000 feet is close to a fifth of a mile, but that might be a little cruel. Just keep looking for that next white blaze. And don’t hesitate to stop and catch your breath whenever you need to.
Are we having fun yet?
Somewhere in there, you’ll ask yourself this question: Why put yourself through this when there are plenty of level trails out there too?
There are the views, of course. This time of year, before the trees are fully leafed out, some of those views can be spectacular – especially from the summit of Rocky Mountain. If you make it to the summit, I’ll bet you say that it was all worthwhile.
But there’s something else too. Simply tackling this section of the trail puts you in the company of those who have done the entire thing. For a moment, it’s easy to imagine that you’re setting out to walk all the way to Maine. Can you imagine what that’s like? It must surely be a heady thing. ■