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
MapAppalachian 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
KEY SKILL: Identifying bear tracks
North Georgia trails are popular routes for raccoons, wild turkeys, deer, and even black bears. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimates that 1,200 to 1,500 bears roam the Georgia mountains. Typically weighing about 200 pounds, bruins here are most active in late spring and summer, and local hikers often spot them on ridgetops and on saddles. But Ursus americanus walks softly and flatfooted, leaving hard-to-find tracks for such a big animal.
Look for side-by-side footsteps roughly 36 to 42 inches apart, often on well-worn trails (bears use the same pathways repeatedly). Claw marks are rare, and the inside (small) toe may not appear. See yellowjackets on the trail? Search hard for tracks, as the disturbed insects could signal that bears have been digging for food.
The loop connecting the Len Foote Hike Inn Trail and Appalachian Approach Trail is especially popular with solo hikers and beginners—basically, anyone who is a little more comfortable with a built-in safety net. Injured, not sure about the route, worried about bears? Just ask for help. “Virtually every day people hike to the inn, so there’s always a lot of activity along these trails,” says Wade Chandler, a staff member at the lodge. Also, people who plan to stay at the inn register at Amicalola State Park before they hit the trail. “So we essentially know who’s out there and people are accounted for,” he says.
THE EXPERTSKelly Stewart, 44, runs Nashville Hiking Meetup (nashvillehiking.com), a 3,000-member outdoor adventure and local hiking club. His advice: Bring extra socks for long hikes. “Pack one set for yourself,” he says, “and one for your hiking buddy. You’re guaranteed hero status when you hand over a clean, dry pair.” Take note, aspiring trail angels.
ON THE MENU
Breakfast 1 On the road
Lunch 1 StarKist Hickory Smoked Tuna on a bagel
Dinner 1 Springer Mountain Gumbo
Breakfast 2 Amicalola Cheesy Ranchero Grits
Lunch 2 Bagel with peanut butter, apples
Snack Trail mix
Springer Mountain Gumbo
A spicy Southern classic packed with protein
1/3 pound canned shrimp
1/3 pound summer sausage
1 individual packet minute rice
1 small onion, minced fine
1 small green pepper, minced fine
Boil water; add rice. Dice sausage, onion, and peppers; add with shrimp, garlic, and seasonings to tender rice. Cook until liquid is absorbed. Serves 2.
Amicalola Cheesy Ranchero Grits
Quick carbs with belly-filling cheese, bacon, and jalapeños
2 packages instant grits
1 package cheddar cheese cubes
1 pouch real crumbled bacon
3 jalapeño peppers, diced
Boil two cups water. Add grits, reduce heat to medium-low. Cook five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; add bacon bits, cheese, peppers. Serves 2.
The Grocery List
[ ] onion (produce)
[ ] green pepper (produce)
[ ] apples (produce)
[ ] summer sausage (meat)
[ ] bagels (bread)
[ ] trail mix (bread)
[ ] cheddar cubes (dairy)
[ ] crumbled bacon (1)
[ ] peanut butter (1)
[ ] minute rice (2)
[ ] instant grits (3)
[ ] canned shrimp (3)
[ ] StarKist Hickory Smoked Tuna (3)
[ ] Cajun/creole spices (7)
Pack Pack Garlic powder
Blue Star Foods
294 East Church St., Jasper, GA
PIT STOP Tucked in the Chattahoochee foothills, Dahlonega’s Shenanigans Irish Pub serves up traditional Gaelic fare. Pile on the bangers and mash, and then wash it down with a pint of Guinness. (706) 482-0114; theshenaniganspub.typepad.com