Over my week-long vacation for Independence Day, I had originally planned to hike the Cohos Trail in New Hampshire. My flight was cancelled and I decided to hike somewhere closer to home instead of re-booking my ticket and worrying if I had enough time to hike all I wanted before having to make my return flight.
Since I had a backpack full of gear ready to go for a week-long adventure, my options were as far and wide as I could drive. I decided to head back to where it all started for me over four years ago, in Georgia, on the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to incorporate Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the Peach State, into my hike because even though it is only a few miles from where my grandparents used to live, I never had been to the summit during all my visits there.
I began from a trailhead just up the road from my grandparents’ old house, hiking up the Arkaquah Trail up to Brasstown Bald. Just over an hour into my hike in the Brasstown Wilderness I had my first bear encounter of the trip. A mother bear and her cub had been using the trail when I happened upon them. The mother took off before I even saw them, startled by my presence. Her crashing through the woods, down the hill to my right, stopped me in my tracks. I looked up the trail to see the bear cub staring back at me. I spun around to make sure I wasn’t standing between the mother and cub, but mama bear was nowhere to be seen. I whistled and clapped my hiking poles together, and I heard the mother bear rumble further down the hill. The cub ran ahead on the trail as I hiked forward, whistling all the while. It stopped to look back at me again before it took off after its mother, down the hill.
I had two more bear encounters during my 100+ mile loop hike. The other bears were solitary males, both at least 200 pounds, and they both were wary of me. They ran off the trail as soon as they caught sight of me. I never got closer than about 50 yards from them before they took off.
From Brasstown Bald I hiked the Jacks Knob Trail south to meet up with the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap, 11 miles into my trip. I followed the AT for 46 miles through Neels Gap, over Blood Mountain and all the way to the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, where I cooked my dinner while watching the sunset on my third night out.
It rained quite a bit over the course of my hike. The first two days were clear and sunny. It rained hard the second night, followed by a foggy morning on the third day. It cleared up long enough for me to dry out my wet gear at lunch, but then I got soaked again in an afternoon downpour. I ran up the hill to Hawk Mountain Shelter, but I was already as wet as it is possible to get. I stripped off my water-logged shirt and shoes, put on dry clothes, and took refuge with some other hikers in the shelter for a couple hours, napping and waiting for the storm to pass by. It finally did clear and I had enough daylight left to make it to Springer that evening. I camped near the shelter there, and it rained again that third night.
I hung a bear bag with my food and toiletries every night on this trip, but the shelters have bear cables, so when I camped at Springer Mountain Shelter, I hung my bags from the steel cables. In the morning I found that bear cables are not mouse-proof, as one of my food bags had a hole the size of a nickel chewed out of it, and so did my bag that was previously full of dark chocolate-covered almonds. Every last almond was gone, but the mouse didn’t touch any of my other food, and it left me a little present, too. I hope the rodent bastard died from chocolate poisoning! Fortunately I had plenty of food, so this wasn’t a huge loss, just a very tasty loss.
It was foggy again on the morning of the fourth day, when I began hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, which also starts at Springer Mountain, northbound. I didn’t see another hiker on the BMT apart from some day tourists at the Toccoa River suspension bridge. The sky cleared up in the afternoon again, with no thunderstorm this time, and it stayed calm and cool all night.
On the morning of the fifth day, I caught just a glimmer of pink sunlight before the gray clouds enveloped the sky. I split from the BMT and took the Duncan Ridge Trail, said to be one of the hardest hikes in Georgia, back to the east. It was a very difficult trail, with steep inclines, making progress very slow. The rain that began about 9:00 am didn’t help matters. The rain didn’t let up for more than five minutes all day long. So I just kept hiking in my rain coat and rain pants, taking cover under a hemlock tree, when the rain became too heavy to hike through. I tried hiding under every kind of tree in the forest, but the hemlocks seemed to do the best job at keeping the rain off me. I nearly fell asleep under one on the climb up to Coosa Bald. When the rainfall lightened up I moved back into the river of a trail. My feet were already drenched so I didn’t bother too much with avoiding water on the trail. Thankfully it’s July and not January, or I could’ve been in very bad shape.
I summited Coosa Bald, although “bald” seems to be a misnomer, as the top is 90% wooded. There was a small rock outcropping where I assume there would’ve been a view on a clear day. I descended the Coosa Trail; down, down, down in the rain, rain, rain. I came out to a junction with a gravel road, where I began the 10 mile road walk back to my car.
On this secluded road I encountered a canine that just about made up for all the rain. I saw a tan creature bounding up to the road from the woods on the right, about 50 feet in front of me. At first I assumed it was a deer, but when it stopped in the middle of the road, I pegged it as a coyote. It was tan with reddish-brown streaks all along its sides, legs and tail. It looked to be about the size of a golden retriever or German shepherd, pretty large for a coyote. It looked down the road in the opposite direction from me when it first leapt onto the gravel surface, but when it turned its head in my direction I was struck by its snout, which was square, like a wolf, not pointed like a coyote. It looked at me for a second as I was standing completely still, and then it took off across the road and ran up the hill. All this took place in a matter of seconds, so I didn’t have time to reach for my camera without scaring the creature off anyway. Immediately my mind began to think this might have been a red wolf, which would be extremely rare, as most of the reintroduced red wolves are in northeastern North Carolina. Then I wondered if it was a hybrid of a red wolf and a coyote or a dog, which has been known to occur. (Since red wolves are so rare they have to resort to mating with other similar species to pass on their genes) I only had a brief encounter with this animal, but I got a good look at its face, and that broad, square nose and snout stick out in my mind, and I’m almost certain that it had some wolf DNA in it. That encounter kept me in good spirits as I walked the back roads in the rain to get to my car. I ended up hiking a marathon my last day to reach my vehicle, and my knees told me it was too much, but I wasn’t going to stop and set up camp in the rain, when the dry shelter of my CR-V awaits.
This trip was just what I was looking for in terms of solitude and difficulty, although I may have underestimated how tough the trails in Georgia are. I was reminded of why I averaged just over 10 miles per day in Georgia on my AT thru-hike four years ago. Yet I pushed myself and doubled that daily average. My leg muscles were certainly up to the task, but my lungs had a hard time adjusting to the steepness of the trails and keeping up with the pace my legs and mind wanted to go. My knees received a lot of abuse on the steep downhills, as they carried my weight and the weight of my pack with each step. My trekking poles helped, but they couldn’t completely prevent the soreness.
I would recommend this hike for the intermediate to advanced backpacker, but I do not recommend averaging 20 miles per day through the Georgia mountains. The trails are too rocky and steep to comfortably hike 20 miles per day. There are lots of options to make shorter or longer loops with the AT, BMT and Duncan Ridge Trail, too.
I’m looking forward to going back to the area to knock out more sections of the Benton Mackaye Trail, and eventually cross that one off the list!