Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Hiking Trip to Springer Mountain, the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail

      A little over 3,000 people worldwide attempt to thru hike the entire 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), Georgia to Maine, every year, and only about 300 succeed in their quest.  They begin the hike for many reasons--a loss of a loved one, divorce, time between schools, a time to find oneself, loss of a job, recent release from the military, graduation, and maybe just because the trail is there.  The cost ranges from a frugal $1,500 to around $3,000 for restocking of food and supplies along the trail. Most hikers prepare ahead with planned stops where supplies are mailed to local post offices along the trail.
     Many hikers hike with friends or pair up with solo hikers along the trail.  The trail goes a lot faster if the hiker can share experiences as he/she log the miles.  The average hiker who finishes the trail does it in about four to seven months.  Most of hikers begin in late February or  early March in Georgia so they can beat the winter snow closing of the trail in Maine.  It takes a very dedicated and physically fit person to hike the entire trail at one time.
     I chose to hike the 8.6 mile section of the trail from Springer Mountain to Hightower Gap (USFS 42).  I hired a local man to shuttle me and my day pack within a mile of the top of Springer by way of a United States Forestry Service (USFS) fire road.  The total hike was 9.6 miles with the addition of the extra mile to get to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. 
     After hiking a mile I reached the rock overlook on the summit of Springer Mountain at elevation of 3,782 feet--the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  I am told that at the top there is a  rock outcrop with excellent northwest views of the Cohutta Mountains, but the day I hiked it was cloudy with light rain and no views at all.  There were two bronze plaques that marked this point as the terminus of the AT.  The first plaque was made by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) in 1933 and was set in stone.  The second plaque placed by the USFS was next to the last white trail blaze and showed the route of the AT.  At the summit along with white blaze markers there are blue blazes marking the 8.1 mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls Park.

The First Plaque Indicating the Southern Terminus

The Second Plaque and White Blaze Marker

     Descending Springer Mountain I passed along a rocky trail sparkling with bits of mica, blueberries and azaleas.  At the 0.2 mile point I crossed a blue blazed trail leading to the Springer Mountain shelter and another white diamond-marked trail called the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT).   The shelter was built in 1993 and has a sleeping loft, a picnic table, and a privy.  The BMT is named in honor of Benton MacKaye who first proposed the trail in 1921.  The BMT will, when finished, run from the Cohutta Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest to the western end of the smokies.

The Benton MacKaye Trail Marker

     The AT continues down hill passing on and over large boulders covered with rock tripe, a leathery lichen.  Because many springs seep along the trail, there are large blankets of ferns accompanied by spring flowering bloodroot wildflower. 

     At mile post 0.9 I passed by the point where my shuttle had dropped me off earlier.  A bird house welcomed the parking area.

     Again the white diamond-blazed BMT crosses the AT at mile marker 1.2.  The AT and BMT follow the same route until they split at the 1.8 mile marker.   The hiker has to be very careful to follow the right marker.  A white rectangle marker can at times look very much like a white diamond marker.  Georgia was heavily logged earlier and trails follow or cross many old logging roads. 

     The AT continues over Rich Mountain, crosses a stream at 2.1 miles, and turns left onto an old road with pretty blue wildflowers growing along the roadside.

Crested Dwarf Iris (Iris cristata) Greek Name for "Rainbow"

     At 2.5, miles a side trail leads to the Stover Creek Shelter, an older three-sided building cuddled among the hemlock trees.

     At 3.6 the trail crosses Stover Creek into a mixed hardwood and hemlock forest.  On a hot humid day the hemlocks give you a sense of winter time and Christmas trees.  At the 4.1 mile marker the AT and BMT cross an area called Three Forks, named for the joining of  Stover, Chester, and Long Creeks which flow into Noontootla, meaning "shinning water," Creek in Cherokee,  renamed Ocoee River in Tennessee.  

Stover Creek bridge crossing

Three Forks Crossing Trail Marker

     At the 5.1 mile marker the trail goes toward the Tennessee border and crosses a gravel road at 5.8 miles, which leads to the Hickory Flats Cemetery with a picnic table and a covered pavilion.  Hickory Flats was formed in the early 1900's as a dispersed community that farmed in "the flats".   Parts of an old church can be seen beside the cemetery.  A blue blaze on the left leads to Hawk Mountain Shelter--a fairly new shelter built in 1994 at elevation 3,619 feet.   The trail descends to Hightower Gap.  At this point two well-traveled forest service roads USFS 42 and 69 converge at the 8.1 mile marker, and my shuttle ride was able to pick me up.  All of the forest roads are unpaved and often can become rough and muddy.

Habakkuk 3:19 The Lord is my strength, and he will make my feet like hind's feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.