I’ve failed miserably to write this post for several weeks now, but I did want to get it into a blog since I think it’s helpful to compare this loop to the Bartram/Appalachian Trail loop, which is almost the same distance (55-60miles).
Although I thought both loops were fun, I do prefer the Bartram/AT loop because I feel like it has more points of interest (Cheoah Bald, Wayah Bald, Wesser Bald, and the Nanthalala River), as well as the possibility to have a burger in the middle (which I can’t actually vouch for since I’ve never made it there while they’ve actually been open).
The Georgia Loop, however, connects the Appalachian Trail, the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Duncan Ridge Trail, and is also roughly 55-60 miles long, but rather than have several large climbs, it has many more smaller climbs, and fewer points of interest (I would say that Long Creek Falls, Toccoa Bridge, and some of the small views near Woody Gap are probably the only highlights). This loop may be slightly easier to follow from a navigational point of view, but that’s debatable.
In any case, we started this hike on October 30th, and here is our experience:
Day 1: 12 miles
John was scrambling to finish some last minute work before the hike, so we got a somewhat late start. The drive from Asheville was about 2.5 hours, and we parked on Highway 60 to start where the BMT crosses the road. There was room for maybe 5 cars on the side of the road. We could also have started further down the road at Woody Gap on the Appalachian Trail section of the loop.
The air was crisp, in the 50’s and very windy. But the sun was out, and because of the recent hurricane, most of the leaves were off the trees. Each time the wind stopped for a moment, I felt the sun penetrating through my clothing and I started to sweat. But a few moments later, I would find myself on the shady side of the mountain, with 30+mph winds, and all the warmth left my body. It was difficult to figure out what I should be wearing, so I settled on keeping my hat and gloves in a side pocket where I could grab them every few minutes.
Many trees had been knocked over by the recent storm, and we scrambled over and around them as we followed the Benton MacKaye Trail to where it intersected with the Dunkan Ridge Trail just 5 miles in.
We knew that the Duncan Ridge Trail would be challenging. We had a map which showed the profile of the trail, and the ups and downs looked practically vertical. I also knew that there is an infamous trail race here, which is considered one of the toughest 50K races in the Southeast. A friend of ours had done it several years in a row, and had managed to injure herself each time. So, I braced myself for some tough climbs, and treacherous descents.
Strangely, though, the trail meandered gently through the forest. I tried not to make any comments to jinx this lovely trail, but I looked up at the mountain that we were walking around and wondered why on earth this trail was called a “ridge trail” when clearly we were not on the ridge. Soon, we couldn’t ignore the fact that the trail was simply not as advertised, and we started staring at the map perplexed. We were going the right way. There wasn’t another trail anywhere near here that we could have mixed it up with. What gives?
We continued on, and enjoyed several more miles of pleasant, flat, and mostly well groomed trail. We got to a gap, which we quickly identified on the map, and were relieved to find that we were going to right way. Then, we noticed signage on either side of the gap fixed to a tree, which seemed to be in front of another, less well-worn trail. “Trail Closed” it said. We figured it out. The Duncan Ridge Trail had obviously been rerouted recently. No wonder.
Not far from the gap there was a perfect campsite, and we weighed the pros and cons of staying there, but couldn’t think of any, so we decided to keep hiking.
Suddenly, the trail acted more like the trail we had anticipated, and shot straight up a mountain. It started to get dark, and as we struggled along, I noticed that the miles were going by much more slowly now. In distance, the moon was rising. There was only really one place up ahead that apparently offered a spot to camp according to our data (we took the Duncan Ridge Trail page out of the Benton MacKaye Trail guide book). It was going to be at another gap, where there was a small road.
I heard rumbling in the distance, and saw the headlights of a car driving by down the ridge ahead of us. “Oh, God” I thought to myself, “we’re going to be camped next to a road that people actually drive on?”. I thought back to that perfect campsite we had left behind during daylight hours, several miles back.
We got to the road and found almost no good camping options. We managed to create a crappy campsite that was somewhat tucked away from the road so we couldn’t be seen, and sat in the tent eating mashed potatoes and cookies. A few more cars passed, and each time we turned off our headlamps so that they wouldn’t see our tent. We didn’t want to be bothered.
As we unpacked our backpacks, and got into our sleeping bags, John found quite a large pinetree branch that somehow had made its way into our tent with us. “Look! A Christmas Tree!” he proclaimed!
The temperature dropped, and we snuggled inside our sleeping bags listening to the rumble of a far-away highway.
Day 2: 18 miles
In the middle of the night, I rolled over in my sleep to find a better position and John suddenly jerked awake and screamed at the top of his lungs, which then caused me to scream back in response.
“AHHHHHHHH!” We both screamed.
“What the hell!?!” I yelled
“Oh…. I thought there was an animal.” He answered.
“Yeah. There was. It was me, rolling over!” I said, my heart racing. He was already asleep again.
When we woke up in the morning, I remembered the incident. “Hey, do you remember screaming at me in the middle of the night?” I asked. John thought for a moment, and giggled “Yeah, sorry, I guess that one time a bear was sniffing at the tent taught me to scream at everything that moves.” I couldn’t argue since it seemed like a genuinely good reflex, but he had totally scared the crap out of me.
We got moving, and continued on the Duncan Ridge Trail. It was hard, and tiring. The leaf litter made it even harder, because not only were all the rocks and roots invisible under the pile of leaves, the leaves themselves were slippery and the steepness of the trail meant that I was constantly slipping on them. Somehow I pulled my big toe on an invisible rock, and it ached with every step.
It was Halloween, and I was excited when we crossed a road and entered Blood Mountain Wilderness, and soon after passed by Slaughter Mountain. Ok, so although it seemed fitting that we were passing by these gruesome sounding landmarks on Halloween, I must mention that the reason these places have these names is to mark a bloody battle between the Cherokee and Creek Indians.
We heard the Appalachian Trail before we saw it. We could hear people shouting, laughing, screaming, and generally being obnoxiously loud, and before we knew it we were on the AT “superhighway,” as we call it. The leaf litter had already been crumbled and compacted, and the walking got easy, which was a relief, because at the rate that we were hiking the Duncan Ridge Trail, we probably never would have finished this loop in the time that we had.
The miles on the Appalachian Trail went by at almost double the speed. I spent most of the afternoon doing mental math, trying to figure out how many miles we had left, and whether we were likely or not to run into our friends, Heather and Adam, who were hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail southbound. We were supposed to pick them up in two days from the terminus. The mental math was not simple because we were using three different sources of data for mileage because the loop connects three different trails.
“Ok, so we plan to camp 8 miles from the end of our loop tomorrow, so that’s 20-something miles from the end of the Benton MacKaye for them, and they’re walking in the opposite direction, so when we intersect the BMT, that will be the point when they only have 11 miles left, and then we’re walking towards them, but what time will that be at?”
These discussions went on for hours. What else is there to talk about?
We finally found a place to camp right before Woody Gap in a very windy saddle with plenty of camping. The area was covered in trash, and we spent a few minutes picking all the trash up and putting it in ziplocked bags.
It was very windy, and this made us nervous because according to the forecast, the next night was supposed to be much colder – dip into the mid 20’s – and be at least three times more windy, with sustained winds around 40mph. Now that’s windy! We shivered thinking about it.
Day 3: 20 miles
In the morning, we walked down to Woody Gap, which is along highway 60, and was absolutely overrun. Huge tents with Halloween lights were set up just uphill from the parking lot, and the parking lot, which was pretty big, was packed with vehicles. I guess everyone had the idea of trying to go camping on Halloween. We continued on, happy to be up and hiking before most of these other people woke up.
A few miles later, we ran into a group of Trail Maintainers and chatted with them for a while, and found out that apparently the Duncan Ridge Trail was built as an emergency reroute for the Appalachian Trail because the Blue Ridge Parkway was supposed to extend into GA at one point. But, apparently that idea got abandoned. I was also impressed to see that one of the trail maintainers was hiking with a prosthetic leg. I told her that I was impressed, and she shrugged and said that technology was really good these days. I’m so glad that’s true.
After lunch, we were surprised to run into another set of trail maintainers, who had unfortunately gotten the blade of their chainsaw stuck in a tree. They asked us to take pictures of any other blow-downs further down the trail and report them to an email address when we got home so that they could take care of them. It’s amazing how quickly these trail crews clear these trails after a hurricane. I was impressed.
We soon got to the junction of the BMT and the AT, for the final leg of our loop. At the intersection, there is a lovely waterfall called Long Creek Falls just a tenth of a mile off the trail. As we left the Appalachian Trail, I felt a sense of relief that we wouldn’t be bumping into so many other people from now on. The BMT meandered along a stream through rhododendron thickets before climbing a ridge, where we would eventually have to find a place to park ourselves for the cold and windy night that we had been dreading.
We found a spot, well before dark, and worked to secure our tent in such a way that it wouldn’t blow away. We put rocks on top of all our stakes, and piled leaves around our tent to insulate it better. We crawled into our sleeping bags, and watched the sun set by peeking out through one of the tent doors every few minutes while devouring everything and anything that looked appealing in our food bags, knowing that the extra calories would keep us warm, and we only had 7 or 8 miles left to hike in the morning.
Day 4: 7.5 miles
We were both pleasantly surprised in the morning when the sun rose and we hadn’t frozen our butts off overnight. In fact, I hadn’t even put on my poofy jacket in the middle of the night, like I had anticipated. Even though it was clearly well below freezing, I think there are a number of reasons why we weren’t colder than we were. First, we weren’t completely exhausted, and hungry. I think this makes a huge difference. Those extra calories kept us warm. Also, although we were on a ridge (basically at the top of a mountain with trees), this was warmer than at a gap where it would have been more windy, and definitely warmer than by a water source. There was very little humidity, and so our down sleeping bags performed at their peak. Also, although it was windy, I think our little leaf barriers also kept us somewhat insulated.
At this point we decided that Heather and Adam must have passed us before we started the BMT section, and therefore they must be on the early side for finishing their hike – we wouldn’t pass them after all, despite all the mental math.
I wore all my clothes for the first few miles, and the ground was frozen in spots. The trail went down to the famous Toccoa River Swinging Bridge, and finally spit us out at Highway 60 where our car was waiting for us.
We drove to pick up Heather and Adam, and indeed, they had finished hours earlier, and were waiting for us at the Amicalola Visitor’s Center.
Thanks for following along!