Fueled by biscuits and decafe (Dan) and biscuits and gravy (Hannah) at our Best Western Mountain View Inn in East Ellijay in northern Georgia, we head out this first Monday of October on rural route 52 for Springer Mountain – the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and what will be our 14th of 14 AT states.
Most thru-hikers reach the southern start of the AT thru Amicalola State Park. By doing that though, thru-hikers must take an Approach Trail for 8.5 miles to just get to the start of their hike of five million steps to Mount Katahdin in Maine. But we have heard of a back door to get to Springer.
Turning off route 52 at the Chevron Station onto Roy Road, we wind for 9.7 miles through forests and farm land in rural northern Georgia. From there it is 2.2 miles on Doublehead Gap Road to the National Forest fire road across from the Baptist Church. This seems like the textbook definition of “the sticks” to this Yankee. (not that there is anything wrong with that to quote Jerry Seinfeld.)
Fire roads are a roll of the dice. They are usually gravelly, often unimproved with potholes aplenty. This road has all that with the added feature of being just one lane wide for much of the way. As we start out up the mountain, a pickup truck passes by; such a vehicle is just the kind of transportation AT thru-hikers would use to be shuttled to this backdoor to Springer Mountain.
As I drive on, I am well aware that there could be another vehicle at every turn which would require that I back up for a quite a while; no easy task for someone who lacks even basic spatial awareness to back up into a simple parking space.
Driving 10 mph on this winding mountain road, I slow to a crawl to bump through potholes fortunately more apparent now that they are filled from last night’s rain. For 35 “steering-wheel-death-gripping” minutes I never relax. Each turn of the odometer lifts my spirits. Feeling quite the hero, I find it stunningly that once I pull into the trailhead parking lot, we see five other compact cars already here.
Thankfully this trailhead parking is on the AT itself; but first we have an easy, flat mile hike south on a very rocky trail to the summit of Springer Mountain.
On the way we meet a young couple in their late twenties with big time backpacks. They are out to hike to Unicol Gap, 52 miles away over the next five days. When we ask if they have trail names, they say their shuttle driver gave them each one. Because of her fear of lizards, he dubbed her Liz. With his big pack he named him Pack Mule or Mule.
Within two tenths of a mile of the summit there is a blue blaze (side) trail to the Springer Mountain shelter: wooden framed open front structure with nearby privy and water supply. Then we meet an equally sunny twenty-something couple heading to the summit. Again as newbies to the trail, they have no official trail names, but they are considering Tortoise (he) and Hare (she).
The summit is marked with a plaque noting the challenge that lies ahead for thru-hikers. Beneath the marker is a trail log which we open to read the entries from the last few days. Here’s one from a thru-hiker.
October 1 – Can I still use my trail name when I get home?!? I can’t believe it. I’m here. Thank you for the lessons and discipline of the trail. You’re what I needed!! Apollo
Hannah adds to the register. October 5 – Dan and Hannah – about to walk our last of the 14 states of the AT. Came from Maine to do it!! Yahoo!! Hannah and Dan
As we retrace our steps back to the parking lot trailhead, we pass three young women who, like the others, plan to hike the 8+ miles to the Hawksbill Shelter for their first night on the trail.
Once on the trail heading north we find the hiking more “walking in the woods” than stepping over and around the rocks as we had done to and from the summit. Whereas our pace was not quite 2 mph to Springer Mountain we are now rolling through the Georgia woods at 2.5 mph heading to the Stover Creek Shelter, 1.8 mile from the parking trailhead.
After stone hopping across small streams, we meet up with Liz and Mule eating lunch out of a pouch. Passing no judgement, I think that doing that holds no charm for me. Eating freeze dried everything for the five to six months while hiking the entire Appalachian Trail leaves me, well, cold.
Having turned around at the Stover Creek Shelter, we arrive back at the trailhead after six miles of hiking over three hours. We have bagged Georgia, our final AT state. Celebrating that accomplishment will have to wait as we have the most harrowing part of our trip ahead – driving down the mountain on the narrow forest fire road.
Hannah takes her turn behind the wheel and masterfully works her way down the 6.5 mile hill in 30 minutes. By the way, we do finally pass a truck coming up the mountain. Fortunately, we pass at a wide point in the one lane road.
Springer Mountain is all it’s cracked up to be and now it’s on to Great Smoky Mountain National Park to get another crack at the AT, this time on the North Carolina/Tennessee border.