Friday, December 8, 2017

Springer Mountain Loop, Georgia, December 4, 2017

Springer Mountain (3,782') via Appalachian (AT) and Benton MacKaye Trails

Mileage:  5.7 miles (loop)

Elevation gain: 1,100'ish

Trailhead: This hike begins at the Springer Mountain trailhead located on Forest Road 42, Ellijay, Georgia.  From Ellijay, take GA-5 N/GA-515 E, turning right toward Greenfield Rd, then left onto GA-42 for 4.8 miles.  Turn left on to Big Creek Rd and right onto Holt Bridge Road for 8 miles.  Turn right onto Doublehead Gap Road for 2 miles and then right again toward Blue Ridge Wildlife Management for 6.6 miles (a windy dirt forest road in good condition). Trailhead is on the left - trail on the right (across the street).  

First blaze on the AT.

Springer Mountain is a somewhat isolated peak within the Chattahoochee National Forest. The summit marks the beginning (or end) of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,190 mile continuous foot trail from Georgia to the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Northbound thru-hikers typically reach the summit of Springer - and the famed "first" AT blaze - via the AT Approach Trail, an 8 mile trek from Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, GA. This report reviews an alternative; a shorter hike to the summit via the AT, then backtracking to a portion of the Benton MacKaye trail.

Hiked with Rich today.  We miss hiking in the mountains and decided to explore what Northern Georgia offers in the way of ups and downs. 

Besides, I'd always wanted to summit Springer Mountain, having summitted Mt. Katahdin twice (see reports from 2006 and 2013), and numerous other sections of the AT in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey.  (If you hike in New England you're bound to be on the AT pretty often.) 

After a winding, steep seven mile dirt-road drive to the trailhead, it's a mere .9 miles on the AT to the summit of Springer.  We decided to do part of the Benton MacKaye (pronounced Mac-EYE) trail as well to make a 5+ mile loop.  Benton MacKaye was an American forester who had the idea of a continuous foot trail and was instrumental in the creation of the AT.  The Benton MacKaye trail is about 300 miles long stretching through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

North Georgia is beautiful and its apple orchards and small towns remind me so much of New England!  Climate too, as we hiked in cold, cloudy, windy and wet conditions.

This is the turnoff onto Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Road.

The dirt road is well maintain with a few avoidable divots. For miles our car climbed; we glanced at fabulous views to our right, through the trees, but most of the time our attention was on this narrow road (fortunately we didn't meet anyone coming the other way).  The trailhead parking area is well marked.

Parking area.

There were a few cars in the lot in spite of it being a cold off-season weekday (this area's high season runs March, when many northbound thru-hikers start their journeys - through October, when foliage and apple season winds down).


Parking limit - in case you were thinking you'd spot a car for 4 months!


Living in Florida has taken its toll on our tolerance for cold!  Getting out of the car into the wind and 48° temps was a shocker and we quickly grabbed our gear to head out.


Beginning of the trail (across the road)


Within a few minutes we were hopping up rock steps, which provide a moderate elevation gain.



The trail is never steep and very quickly we arrived at the junction of the Benton MacKaye trail. This is the start of a 300 mile footpath that journeys through three states.  We continued on the AT.


We'll jump on this on the way back.


It levels out after the junction and soon we reached the shelter/camping area just below the summit. There's a notice on the tree discouraging camping due to heavy bear activity.  



A few minutes later we reached the top, an unremarkable summit with partial views. It was misty out and we didn't see much in the way of scenery.


Several people were at the top waiting for family members  - thru-hikers finishing their trek.

Five minutes later, Sweet Monkey took his final steps to the end of his southbound journey. His parents came from Indiana to meet him.

Congratulations Sweet Monkey!

Sweet Monkey and his parents.

Signing the summit register.

On the side of the rock with the Springer Mountain plaque is a metal door with a handle that holds the hiker register.



Barbecue arrived soon after, finishing his journey; his father there to greet him.

Congratulations, Barbecue!

Sweet Monkey and Barbecue met on the trail. Both started in July on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine.  It took them about five months to finish, just in time as the forecast for the end of the week was for snow and temps in the 20s. 

We left the summit and headed toward the start of our loop (backtracking to the Benton MacKaye trail).  On the way we decided to check out the shelter and camp area.  There's lots of room for tents and beyond the tent area we found the shelter.




In the shelter Lizard King was putting on his crocs, getting ready for the hike down to Amicalola Falls State Park.  He'd finished his thru-hike the day before, spent a cold night in the shelter and would walk the final 8 miles to meet a friend at the park - then ride to the airport.


I wonder - do I have what it takes to spend a cold night here?

Continuing down the AT, we quickly arrived at the Benton MacKaye trail junction.


We took a right.
MacKaye trail is blazed with a white diamond.

The Benton MacKaye Memorial is close to this junction.



With the exception of one short "up" (the summit of Ball Mountain - blink and you'll miss it!), we descended moderately the rest of the hike.

It's a woodsy hike, open woods with some views way to the right.  At first the path is well blazed with the white diamonds.  Then blazing is less frequent. In fact there is quite a long stretch where we didn't see blazes, which is a bit disconcerting.  We had our GPS and saw we were headed toward a road, which would be FR 42 so we weren't too worried.

Inconsistency with blazing can be dangerous.  Hikers unfamiliar to the area (especially novice hikers) may second guess where they are - did they make a wrong turn?  Are they off trail?  We've all been there, and the leaf cover of late fall can make surroundings confusing.  Trail maintainers should beef up the blazes here.

Eventually we saw another blaze and soon after, a double blaze that marks a short trail to an overlook. We checked it out.

Trail to overlook is here.
Still misty but a nice view nonetheless.

Back on the trail we descended to an area that had endured serious maintenance, some of which looked recent. I wondered if there was damage here from Tropical Storm Irma.


A lot of work clearing the way here!

Forest Road 42 was ahead. We crossed it, continuing on the trail (well marked here).




Still descending, we found ourselves walking through lush lowlands with several small water crossings. Rhododendrons framed the path, an overhang, quite pretty.

Water crossing.

Another water crossing.

A third.....

Holly!

We were getting hungry and ready to get back to the car.  The AT met the Benton MacKaye trail at the next junction.  Going straight would send us north toward Tennessee.  We took a left and reached trailhead parking and the car a few minutes later.




We enjoyed this hike and vowed to return to hike in warmer weather.  The next time we will plan on doing it via the eight mile approach from Amicalola Falls State Park.