Whether you want to hike all of the AT or just sample the best, this 16.2-miler–alternating between flame azaleas set among deep-green mountain laurel and airy ridgelines—is the place to start. Begin just above 729-foot Amicalola Falls (1) and bear right at the Y junction (2) onto the Hike Inn Trail. Climb through dogwoods, sourwood, and oaks while looking for wildflowers, including dwarf iris and trillium, as you approach the Len Foote Hike Inn (3)at mile 4.7. If you stay overnight, allow plenty of time to lounge on the terrace overlooking Blue Ridge vistas. Continue on the Hike Inn Trail and follow the Ridge Trail left (4). Bear right onto the Appalachian Approach Trail (5) and head toward Springer Mountain. Here, the going gets so rough, so fast, that many would-be thru-hikers question if they can make the trip to Katahdin. Leaving Frosty Mountain (3,382 feet), start the steep, rocky descent to Nimblewill Gap (6). Cross Forest Service roads 46 and 28, and immediately climb to a small clearing with a fire ring. The trail eases up, dropping to Black Gap Shelter at mile 7.5; find water here. Next, summit Springer Mountain (3,782 feet) and enjoy the views from an outcrop surrounded by a stand of short, twisted white oaks (7). For AT trekkers, this is the first official stop. “I like to pause and talk with excited thru-hikers to hear their stories of starting the trail for the first time or 10th,” says Kelly Stewart (next page). Overnight at Springer Mountain Shelter (with reliable water). To continue, backtrack across Nimblewill Gap and rejoin the Approach Trail. Go right and crest Frosty Mountain for a series of heart-pounding climbs over knobs with westerly views matched by steep descents into poplar-shaded hollows. Pass the first of three possible campsite areas with fire rings (8) and then descend from the ridge to cross Little Amicalola Creek. At the trail junction (9), continue straight and close the loop at the Amicalola State Park visitor center (10).
From the Amicalola State Park visitor center (a mile north off of GA 52 E), drive 1.1 miles to trailhead.
North Georgia Mountain Outfitters, 583 Highland Crossing, East Ellijay, GA. (706) 698-4453; hikenorthgeorgia.com
Permit $3 parking fee
Map Appalachian Trail Conservancy North Carolina/Georgia Guide ($28; atctrailstore.org)
Contact Chattahoochee National Forest, (404) 536-0541; fs.fed.us/conf
Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/384038