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By Chris McBeath
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

Anyone who has read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods will have a certain appreciation for the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia. Yet for all his humour, descriptions of his torturous hike never talked about the almost mystical beauty of the region where in spring, wild rhododendrons wash the forest floor with a soft pink and honeysuckles scent the fresh, mountain air.

(Photo 1)

It's one of the finest times of year to explore the Appalachian Trail. The early-season hiking crowds have long gone, and the heat and humidity of high summer have yet to come. The Challenge
To the Native Americans, the word Appalachian means ‘endless', so the trail is aptly named. This is the longest footpath in the world, winding through 14 states and, at times, over some of the most challenging terrain on the continent. Although more than 2,500 people attempt the entire trail each year, fewer than 25 percent actually complete it, and more than 500 hikers quit after the first eight miles!

(Photo 2)

If you're a thru-hiker – die-hards and Bryson-style wannabes who have set aside six months of their lives to complete the 2,170-mile trek up to Maine, be sure to do your homework. Plan your logistics around one of the many hiker-friendly towns along the way so pick-ups can be easily co-ordinated and supplies aren't such an issue. There are also rustic lean-tos spaced at approximately 10 mile intervals along the Trail that are popular rest-havens although they can get cosy with like-minded souls seeking refuge. If you're enthusiastic trail-blazer, section hikes can take as many days or weeks as you can spare, and if you're simply a casual hiker who needs a few hours to reconnect with nature, you won't be disappointed.

(Photo 3)

The Journey
Springer Mountain, an easy two-hour drive from Atlanta, marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian. Most thru-hikers stop at Gainesville for supplies and catch a shuttle or taxi to the trailhead. As might be expected, the first section, Benton MacKaye Trail near Ellijay, Blue Ridge, is named for the man who, in 1921, dreamed up the idea of this mountain walkway; it runs for 290 miles to eastern Tennessee.

(Photo 4)

The 80-mile stretch through Georgia traverses the primitive areas of the Chattahoochee National Forest and consequently, features some pretty rugged wilderness hiking.

(Photo 5)

32 miles into the trail and you'll come to Mountain Crossings, a tiny stone-walled store that offers all the supplies hikers realize they really need, plus cabin rentals, showers, real toilets and laundry services. Here's where to find the legendary shoe tree adorned with boots galore as well as the boot museum – its sole determination is to collect 2,170 pairs of worn and tattered hiking boots, one pair for each mile on the Appalachian Trail! Boots must have at least 1,000 miles or more on the Appalachian Trail and boots with 2,000 miles plus are greatly appreciated!

(Photo 6)

Although the Georgia part of the trail is lower than in nearby North Carolina and Tennessee (where peaks rise to some 6,000 feet), you can still expect many steep ascents (and descents) so packing a hoard of energy-boosting vitamins is a must. The forested paths are beautiful with blossoming dogwoods and mountain laurel and, as the spring rains give way to wildflowers such as trillium and wild azalea the air becomes as fragrant as the scenery is stunning. If you're lucky, you'll find tracks of black bears, bobcats, and white tailed deer, or hear the high shrill of red tailed hawks, the melodic song of the whip-poor-will, or see an eagle gliding across an air current. Little wonder that the Cherokee once called this region their Enchanted Land. And in case you were wondering? The humour-filled, all-too-real mountain experiences of Bill Bryson have been immortalized about 11 miles into the trail at an appropriately named juncture – Bryson Gap!


IF YOU GO Information:
Appalachian Trail Conservancy;;
The Georgia Appalachian Trail Club;;

Section trails
Springer Mountain to Woody Gap 20.0 miles Dawsonville, Ellijay
Woody Gap to Neels Gap 11.5 miles Dahlonega
Neels Gap to Hogpen Gap 6.8 miles Dahlonega, Cleaveland
Hogpen Gap to Unicoi Gap 13.43 miles Hiawasee, Helen, Blairsville

Major Access Trails
Andrews Cove Trail 2.0 miles Helen
Byron Herbert Reece Access Trail 0.7 miles Blairsville
Dockery Lake Trail 6.8 miles Dahlonega
Duncan Ridge Trail 30.1 miles Dahlonega
Jacks Knob Trail 4.5 miles Cleaveland, Blairsville
Jarrard Gap Trail 1.0 miles Suches
Logan Turnpike 4.0 miles Dahlonega
Benton MacKaye Trail 50.0 miles Ellijay, Blue Ridge
Slaughter Creek Trail 2.7 miles Dahlonega, Blairsville
Southern Terminus Approach Trail 8.4 miles Dahlonega, Ellijay, Dawsonville


PHOTOS: Credits as noted below.
1.Plaque at Georgia's Blood Mountain; Photo: Robert J. Sutherland
2.Neel Gap Breezeway; Photo Tourism Georgia
3.Resting Hiker on Trail section; Photo: Tourism Georgia
4.Mountain views (Blue Mountains in Fall); Photo: Tourism Georgia
5.Hikers High; Photo: Tourism Georgia

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