Three standout mountains to hike on the AT in Georgia and tips for essential items to bring on your journey.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses 14 states on its journey up the East Coast, but it begins (or ends, depending on your direction) in North Georgia. Springer Mountain, near Ellijay, has served as the starting point for countless adventures and as a celebratory finale for those completing the 2,200-mile hike from Mount Katahdin in Maine.
In Georgia alone, the 2,180-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail covers 76 miles and crosses seven counties. That's enough to fill several weekend trips or a solid week of hiking. I've hiked significant sections of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, Virginia and Maine, and the 30-mile section I've walked in Georgia is among the most beautiful. It certainly helps that many of the people you meet are either cheerfully completing their trek or optimistically setting out on an adventure.
Every good hike should include a summit. Managed by the National Park Service, the trail in Georgia crests 26 named mountains and knobs, but three stand out as the most significant: Springer Mountain, Blood Mountain and Tray Mountain. Each can serve as a long day hike or a perfect weekend overnight.
Apart from nearby Brasstown Bald (the highest point in Georgia) in Hiawassee, Springer may be Georgia's most famous mountain, due to its position as the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail since 1958.
Day hikers have two options to summit Springer. Just under a mile into the Appalachian Trail, the trail crosses Forest Service Road 42, making for an easy 2-mile up-and-back to the summit. Most hikers, however, begin at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, where an 8.5-mile approach trail to Springer provides a first test to long-distance hikers setting out on their journey. Many pounds of gear are shed along this trail — before hikers even reach the actual Appalachian Trail.
For a relatively easy overnight trip, hike out and back from Amicalola and camp at the Black Gap shelter, located 6.2 miles into the approach trail. Or, arrange a pickup or drop a car, and hike out to Road 42 for a comfortable one-way 9.4-mile day hike.
An alternative hike from Springer Mountain on the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) takes hikers deep into remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains. The two trails (AT and BMT) are the same for the first few miles and then split to go their separate ways.
At 4,458 feet, Blood Mountain is the highest point along the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Don’t let the name scare you — it’s likely derived from a Native American battle or a red lichen that grows at the top.
A perfect 4.3-mile round trip day hike (short, but steep) is to head up the Byron Reece Trail (directions here) near Vogel State Park in Blairsville to the Appalachian Trail and then continue to the summit. You’re guaranteed to break a sweat, and for nature photographers, the views are among the best in Georgia.
Overnight and shuttle options include hiking the 10.5 miles between Woody Gap (at State Route 60) and the Byron Reece Trail parking area, or a 17-mile trip from Woody Gap to Hog Pen Gap (trail crossing along State Route 348 — also known as the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway).
From Tray Mountain's 4,430-foot summit near Helen, hikers willing to put in the effort enjoy arguably the best views on the trail of the Georgia and southern North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. From the Indian Grave Gap parking area on Tray Mountain Road (off of the Unicoi Turnpike — directions here), it's a 5-mile up-and-back trek to the summit. With a 1,250-foot elevation gain, it’s a doable hike and offers a great photo op for families.
Weekend overnighters can expand the trip by tackling the entire 16 miles between the Unicoi Gap (at Unicoi Turnpike) and Dicks Creek Gap on State Road 76. There are two shelters along the route, so it's possible to hike without even bringing a tent.
Speaking of which, when heading out on the Appalachian Trail, what should you bring?
If you’re headed out on a day hike, bring this:
A paper map, ideally waterproof, of your section of the trail.
A manual compass. Even on the well-marked, white-blazed Appalachian Trail, it’s possible to get lost if you wander off trail.
A GPS unit or cell phone with an external backup battery and charging cable. If you sprain an ankle or get turned around or caught in the dark without overnight gear, finding the closest road and the ability to call for help are critical.
A warm layer (it can be chilly at the summit of Georgia’s mountains, even on summer days).
A lightweight rain jacket.
Sunscreen and insect repellent.
A first-aid kit that includes an ACE bandage.
A pocket knife.
Two liters of water, per person.
A lightweight digital camera with an extra battery and memory card. Shockproof, waterproof point-and-shoot cameras are ideal for hiking trips.
If you're headed out on an overnight hike, bring this:
Everything in the day hike list.
A sleeping bag with a temperature rating at least to the forecasted low (remember that at higher elevations, it can be much, much colder than the forecast for nearby towns).
A foam or inflatable sleeping pad (provides warmth as well as cushion).
A tent or hammock with a rainfly and waterproof ground cloth.
Two sets of extra clothing appropriate for the weather and season, including socks and underwear. Don’t pack cotton for backpacking - It will hold water and add weight to your pack if it rains.
A water filter or purification tablets.
A lightweight stove, fuel and cook set.
Parachute cord for stringing up a bear bag, drying clothes, etc.
For backpacking, look for dehydrated food like “just add hot water” soups, ramen and dried bean, hummus and falafel mixes. Instant oatmeal is perfect for breakfasts. Don’t carry heavy cans and packaged food that already contains water on the trail.
A lightweight backpack to carry everything in.
Although not critical, you may also want to carry:
A paperback book
A journal and pen
A packable towel
And don’t forget your toothbrush!
All together, try to keep your pack at or near 30 pounds. That may seem difficult, but audit yourself and remove non-essential items. You’ll be grateful for a lighter load as you head up your first steep ascent.
Finally, remember that even in Georgia (and even in the spring and fall), temperatures can be below freezing at night near the tops of mountains like Blood, Springer and Tray. Don’t be caught unprepared! Bring warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag.
Hiking and backpacking are among the most rewarding outdoor pursuits, and Georgia offers incredible opportunities to set foot into the wilderness and discover its stunning natural beauty. Next weekend, head to the Appalachian Trail and discover the natural wonders of this incredible state.