My wife and I left our home in upstate South Carolina early on Sunday morning and drove towards Springer Mountain in Georgia. My intentions were to backpack 60 miles along the Appalachian Trail from it’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain to Tray Gap and then back down to Unicoi Gap, where my wife would return to pick me up. I’ve been section hiking the A.T. in Georgia and in North Carolina, and with this hike I would complete the Georgia segment of the trail.
We arrived at the parking area near the top of Springer Mountain at 11:45 am, which was a couple of hours later than I had hoped. The parking area is actually 9 tenths of a mile north of the start of the trail, so my wife accompanied me as I slack-packed south to the top of Springer and then back down.
Afterwards, I put my pack on, hugged my wife and began my hike in earnest. The sun was shining and the temperature was in the upper 60’s to the low 70’s. I encountered a number of families out enjoying the weather and doing dayhikes.
Though most north-bound thru-hikers tend to start between March 1st and April 1st, I would still meet a number of them on this trip.
The first thru-hiker that I met was a college aged fellow named Dean. He had hiked the Smoky Mountain portion of the trail in March and that had given him confidence that he could do the entire trail. We hiked together and chatted for a while before I hiked on ahead.
When I arrived at the location of the Hawk Mountain Shelter at mile 7.6, I stopped for lunch and filled my water bottles. A number of hikers had already set up their tents and were planning on staying there for the night. After my break, I got back on the trail and resumed hiking. I had been hoping to make it to the Gooch Mountain Shelter at mile 14.9, but when I began to lose daylight, I decided to stop and set up camp at Cooper Gap which is located at mile 11.6. There, I met Susana and Celeste who were attempting a similar section hike as me and coincidentally, are from the same part of South Carolina.
The wind that first night coming up through the gap sounded like a freight train. It was so loud that it kept me up past 1 am. The air was quite cool in the morning as I took my tent down and gathered my gear. I ate a quick breakfast and was on the trail and hiking again by about 8:30 am.
Rain had been forecast to start about midday on Monday. At 11:45 am, right on schedule, the rain began to fall. I stopped long enough to put on my rain jacket and to cover my pack. After hiking 8 miles, I arrived at Woody Gap. The rain was still falling, the temperature was dropping fast, and the wind was blowing much harder. I tried to seek shelter at the kiosk with some other hikers. Even though I had been wearing my rain jacket, my shirt was wet from sweat, and the cold wind was causing me to begin to shiver. I put on my synthetic parka, which helped a bit, but I had a decision to make. If I continued to hike today, I would most likely be setting my tent up in the rain. I was wet and the temperature was forecast to drop into the 20’s. I decided to hitch a ride two miles down from the gap and to spend the night at a hostel. It was a good decision. In addition to being out of the cold and rain, I was able to get something to eat. I ate a slice of pizza, a hot dog, a bag of chips, a slice of cake, and drank two bottles of diet soda. It’s funny, on the trail I had almost no appetite and practically had to force myself to eat, but at the hostel, I suddenly grew very hungry and ate more than I normally would in one sitting.
At the hostel, I met Logan, Dandelion, their dog Zodiac (that is also part wolf), and their other dog Red. Logan and Dandelion are in their early twenties and are attempting to hike the entire trail. Later in the evening, Susana and Celeste showed up at the hostel. Everybody was good company and I was glad to be in a dry and warm place for the night.
Early Tuesday, the rain was still falling. It began to let up by mid-morning, but it was still quite cold and the forecast called for sustained winds of between 15 and 25 miles per hour with gusts to 40. I waited a while and didn’t get back on the trail until about 11:40 am. Because of the late start, I only managed to hike the 10.6 miles from Woody Gap to Neels Gap. The hike included the climb to the top of Blood Mountain. The strong cold winds stung my nose and face so I put on my neck and face warmer, which helped some. The shelter at the top of Blood Mountain is at an elevation of 4461 feet. It’s made of stone and sits in the midst of some very large boulders. The sky was filled with fog so there were no long distant views. Because of bear activity, you can’t stay at this shelter unless you have a bear-resistant food canister. I think that most hikers just hike on through, which is too bad, because the views of the sunset and sunrise must normally be very nice from here.
I arrived at Neels Gap shortly after 5 pm and decided to stay at the Walasi-yi hostel there in order to get out of the cold and to avoid trying to set up in the strong winds. It was another good decision. The winds howled till late at night and it sounded like they might tear away the awning in front of the hostel. I met more interesting people, including a retired commercial photographer and his wife, who is originally from China. She and I are kindred spirits to the extent that we both like to make some of our own gear. I also met a woman named Gutsy, who is section hiking the A.T. and has hiked many of the places that I’d like to hike, including segments of the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. As it turns out, she also lives in the same part of South Carolina as I do.
By Wednesday morning, the weather was much better. It was still cold but the winds had finally subsided. After hiking 5.5 miles, I decided to take a short break at Tesnatee Gap. While I was there, a young thru-hiker named Rambling Rose stopped to say hello and to chat for a minute. The trial climbs 529 feet in just 4 tenths of a mile from Tesnatee Gap to the top of Wildcat Mountain and then drops 217 feet to Hogpen Gap. This was just one of many seemingly pointless ups and downs along the trail.
The trail from Hogpen Gap to Low Gap Shelter though was actually pretty good trail and easier than what had come before. It was about 2:30 pm and I had hiked 11 miles when I reached Low Gap. There, I was glad to find Logan, Dandelion, and their two dogs, taking a break. I hadn’t seen them since Monday at the hostel near Woody Gap. They had spent Tuesday night camped about two or three miles north of Neels Gap. We were all planning on hiking another 7.2 miles to the next shelter at Blue Mountain. After they left, I finished my lunch and filled my water bottles before heading off again.
I arrived at the Blue Mountain Shelter between 6:30 and 7:00 pm. There were already a number of hikers there with their tents set up and a few who were going to brave the winds blowing directly into the shelter.
Logan, Dandelion, their dogs Zodiac and Red, Rambling Rose, Gutsy, and a young man named Joe that I had encountered on the trail several times, were all camping here on this night. It was like a family reunion. I ate my dinner with Joe and Rambling Rose. They have similar hiking styles and will be hiking together for a while. He is a first time thru-hiker, but Rambling Rose has already thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I asked her if she was planning on attempting the triple crown. She said that it had been her goal to do all three by the time that she turns 30, but she wasn’t so sure anymore. After dinner, a few of us gathered some wood and made a warm fire. At around 9 pm, I said good night, went to my tent and climbed into my sleeping bag. My guess is that the overnight low had gotten down to between 28 and 32 degrees.
Thursday morning, I was back on the trail by about 8:30 am. On this last day of my backpack, I was supposed to hike the 2.2 miles to Unicoi Gap and then continue hiking the 4.4 miles to Tray Gap and then back down to Unicoi, where I would wait for my wife. After reaching Unicoi Gap, I only hiked another 6 tenths of a mile further before turning around and heading back down. The top of my right foot had started to hurt early on the first day and the pain never let up. Now my left ankle was also hurting from part of my shoe pressing against it with every step. At this point, it had become too painful to keep going. I guess I’ll just have to go back and day-hike the last few miles to Tray Gap.
After my wife arrived, we gave another thru-hiker named Janice a ride into Helen Georgia, and then my wife and I stopped in town for lunch before making the drive home.
It was a strenuous hike, and adventurous because of the weather, but probably most memorable because of the people that I had met along the way.