The Green Tunnel
Georgia is home to 126 kilometres of the Appalachian Trail. During summer the dense canopy of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest covers most of it in shade and it certainly does live up to its name: The Green Tunnel.
Springer Mountain to Woods Hole Shelter
Getting to the trail from Atlanta is easy. Some Hiker hostels offer an all-inclusive service that picks you up from Atlanta and delivers you, with a stomach full of pancakes, to the start of the trail the next morning. (We can recommend the Hiker Hostel, Georgia).
The first two days are short to ease our legs into it: 12 kilometres to Hawk Mountain Shelter followed by 12 kilometres to Gooch Shelter.
We are immediately struck by how well the trail is maintained. Volunteers clear the trail of fallen trees and build bridges over creeks. Compared to hiking in South Africa, it almost feels like we’re cheating. They have painted white blazes every 500 metres and we soon realise that we could’ve left the topo maps at home. It’s easy to rely solely on the blazes and a data book (There are a couple of different publications to choose from and they’re updated regularly with detailed elevation charts, resupply points & contact details for hiker services).
We arrive at the first overnight spot, Hawk Mountain Shelter. Shelters are three-walled wooden huts that are distributed along the trail, usually a day’s walk apart. More importantly, they're surrounded by some sought after real estate: flat ground with no trees. Some even have tables and benches to sit and cook at – a far cry from balancing a gas stove on an uneven cave floor. These facilities are also home smaller outdoor enthusiasts: mice. They're very active at night and are a real nuisance, running over sleeping hikers’ faces and gnawing holes in back packs to get to food.
After checking every pocket of every piece of clothing for food or wrappers, we hang our food bag and climb into our sleeping bags. The night sounds in Georgia are so loud that it feels like the frogs and crickets are inside the tent with us. Fortunately, the noise is no match for a long days hiking and we go to sleep without a problem.
In September the sun rises just after 7 AM, giving us about twelve to thirteen hours of daylight – more than enough to do the second day’s hiking and still arrive early at Gooch Shelter.
Day three is a strenuous 20 kilometres day that ends on a slow 5km ascent towards Woods Hole Shelter. The climb starting at Justus Creek is really hard. We take turns to lean against trees, red faced and confused about why we’re taking so much strain. During one of these breaks we each have a Cliff Bar and set off. Suddenly the uphill isn’t that hard and we learn the biggest (and in retrospect, blatantly obvious) lesson of long distance hiking: Food equals fuel. And we need a lot of it. We’re already eating 5 meals a day but are always hungry. This constant hunger will stay with us for the duration of our hike. (We would later work out that we spent over R4000 on energy bars alone.)
Blood Mountain to Top of Georgia
A mountain isn’t named Blood Mountain for no reason. While only 1359 meters high, it’s the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and one hell of a climb. With yesterday’s lesson learnt, we gobble up two energy bars and start climbing. Even with fresh legs, we have to work hard to earn our first view of the landscape from the outside of the forest. It’s spectacular. The green tree tops turn blue in the distance. This forest is dense and unimaginably vast. The descent on the other side of Blood Mountain is significantly steeper and we’re happy that for us it’s downhill.
Neel Gap is just after Blood Mountain and is the first escape point of the trail. No wonder that this is where 30% of through-hikers quit, only 51km in. It’s also the biggest second-hand hiking gear shop in the world. Hikers can sell items that they don’t use or post them forward. Had we not completely over-packed this would’ve been a great place to pick up some cheap gear. We place our faith in the US postal service, box up some items and post them to our hotel in New York: GoPro, spare batteries, a charger, thermals, sleeping bag liners, extra items of clothing and other odds and ends.
Day 4 (21 km), day 5 (16 km) and day 6 (13 km) are all full of some serious climbs. These mountains mean business – we haven’t seen a piece of flat ground since the runway at Atlanta Airport. Elevation is lost at every stream, forestry road or valley that we cross, and gained again immediately after. Shelters that seemed very oddly spaced during planning now made complete sense: the closer they are, the worse the terrain in between. We are knackered at the end of each day.
After a 19-kilometre seventh day, we arrive at the Top of Georgia Hiker Hostel, our last stop before we cross the Georgia North Carolina State line. We take our first zero day here to give our feet a break, have a long overdue shower and gorge ourselves on junk food. Supersize us.
The hostel is run by Bob Gabrielson, a triple crown hiker (which means that he has hiked all 12700km of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide trail). He’s a wealth of knowledge and we take full advantage by bombarding him with questions. He gives us some great tips, but the most helpful of all is his advice on where to sleep in North Carolina: It turns out we have selected the worst of the shelters for the next leg and planned on skipping the best ones. We tweak our plan, resupply and buy buying trekking poles from the hostel gear shop, something we’ve been considering for a while, since every hiker with a pair swears by them (and rightly so).
Happy with our new plan and now sporting four legs each we finish the last 19 kilometres separating us from our first goal: North Carolina.
Trail Head Location (WGS84)
N34º 37’ 36.1” W84º 11’ 37.7”
Total Distance : 131,5km
Average Distance : 16,4km
Day 1 : 12,3km – Hawk Mountain Shelter
Day 2 : 12,2km – Gooch Shelter
Day 3 : 19,7km – Woods Hole Shelter
Day 4 : 21km – Stealth camp near Whitley Shelter
Day 5 : 16,1km – Blue Mountain Shelter
Day 6 : 12,6km – Tray Mountain Shelter
Day 7 : 18,5km – Top of Georgia Hostel
Day 8 : 0 – Top of Georgia Hostel
Day 9 : 19,1km – Muskrat Shelter
Average Elevation Gain / Loss: 1337m / 1306m
Total Elevation Gain / Loss : 10698m / 10455m
Highest Altitude : 1359m Blood Mountain, Day 4
Lowest Altitude : 783m Dicks Creek Gap, Day 7
Difficulty Rating : 7 / 10
Season Hiked : September – Early Fall