Pt 1 Smokies
Pt 2 The Wilds
Pt 3 The Boarlands
Pt 4 The Frogs
Pt 5 Sprint to Springer
Black Gap Shelter: AT Approach Trail ( Mile 7.3 on Approach)
Our Appalachian Trail leg actually began a bit further back from Springer. We hiked down the approach trail to Black Gap Shelter after visiting the Benton MacKaye monument and the Springer Mountain Southern Terminus plaque.
We got in early and were a bit awe-struck at the vast campgrounds in front of the shelter. So many beautifully spread, flat surfaces spaced to accommodate the vast throngs of thru-hikers that begin their treks on the AT's approach trail in early Spring. Since we were on the AT in the off-season (so to speak) we had this whole vast area to ourselves until a pair of weekend campers showed up later at night. The water source here was flowing well but is a steep, steep down on a blue blaze.
Justus Creek Campsites: Mile 14.3
Black Gap Shelter was also where J-Dub stayed on the first night of his thru-hike and part of our back tracking was us wanting to get a bit touristy with this part of our trip. Rather than just do miles, we wanted to put our trail legs to good use and see some of the historic AT sites in Georgia. For my part, I wanted to stop in at Springer Shelter, another starting point for many thru-hikers, and J-Dub wanted to see the Len Foote Hike Inn a small lodge only accessible by hiking the approach trail (which it's worth noting is no simple feat) and following a side trail to the grounds.
We carried all our food and smellables, but otherwise left our camp to slack-pack the roughly two miles back to the Inn. They were doing a cleaning and repair day so we weren't able to stay there, an initial thought of ours, but they still let us photograph and explore the grounds while volunteers readied the lodge for the next season of visitors. "Day hikers are always welcome," we were told by the director as we asked if it was okay to be around with so much work happening. An incredibly hiker friendly establishment which seems like it'd be a lovely stay!
With that checked off the list we broke camp and began our northward journey on the AT, making a quick pit-stop at the Springer shelter.
Here in the early parts of the AT it was especially apparent what a massive public works project the trail is, a key thought of MacKaye's. The amount of maintenance required, trail work completed, and infrastructure in place to support thousands of hikers every Spring is staggering. The remoteness of the BMT made these features all the more apparent and the AT truly felt like the "hiking highway" some people jokingly call it. That said, much like an actual highway, you still have to drive, or, in our case hike and stay safe.
We had taken a nice long break at Long Creek Falls when we passed it on the BMT, but we still popped in again. We were hitting it closer to lunch this time around so it was more packed with tourists, day hikers, and swimmers. We didn't dally quite as long, but ate some lunch and made our way up Hawk Mountain.
Hawk Mountain Shelter had a few other hikers in it and this was the beginning of our realization that unlike the BMT, we wouldn't be alone and we would have to get use to socializing once again! Many of these hikers were just starting out on LASHes (Long Ass Section Hikes) or late thru-hike attempts so we had a bit more stamina than them at this point in our hike, making it easy enough to politely press on and find somewhere less crowded. We also had a thru-hiker stench going, so I imagine our leaving was greeted with some relief.
Pressing on from Hawk Mountain Shelter we ended our day with a steep climb up Sassafras Mountain and thought we'd be in for it with Justus Mountain but that proved to be pretty tame. We made camp down in the sites by Justus Creek, a long leveled space with some campsites scattered a bit further north too and the Creek as a water source.
Neel Gap: Mile 31.1
We got our typical early start and took breakfast at Gooch Mountain Shelter where we first met Two Liter, then known only as Bob.
We rolled in looking, well, like we had been through it and found a mild mannered older man in a softball shirt eating his breakfast, "You guys are up early," he said cordially. And between privy trips, water runs, and finally settling down to eat we learned that he had come down from the Adirondacks to hike from Amicalola Falls to Fontana.
We were eating oatmeal which was getting difficult to stomach after weeks and weeks of it, so I'm sure we caused quite the goofy little scene griping while simultaneously devouring mushy bags of super greens, oats, and chocolate protein powder. He seemed unbothered by it, so we instantly took a liking to him. He left a little before us and we stayed a bit longer to deal with the rest of our oat concoctions.
We pressed along and thought we might pass Bob, but by the time we stopped to snack at the picnic tables at Woody Gap we still hadn't caught him. He was moving at a good clip!
As we began our climb out of Woody Gap we bumped into an older hiker named Billy who was finishing up a Southbound hike from Erwin, Tennessee. He told us all about the upcoming hostels and stops and was a wealth of information. He especially raved about Neels Gap which was where we were thinking of stopping. As he spoke, Billy made small motions and indicated directions with a tall, gnarled walking stick he used. The white hair, white beard, and old school, long sleeved wool hiking clothes he wore definitely gave him a wizard vibe. He was one of those characters you only meet on the Appalachian Trail who might in fact have a kind of magic about them.
Billy told us about a campsite shortly up trail from Neel Gap that would let us wake right up and head to the outfitters there. He also mentioned a water spigot and outlet to charge our phones on the exterior of the outfitters before we headed to said site.
Leaving Billy, we pressed on, stopping along at all the little view points and outlooks on the trail. Along with the obvious infrastructure of the trail, the AT also stood out to us as more of a sightseeing trail. The trail purposefully stays on the ridges of mountain ranges and along those ridge walks hikers have ample lookouts and vistas like pull-offs on a scenic byway. We bumped into some hikers who complained about the lack of views in Georgia which we found funny, but it's all about perspective I suppose.
A little ways after filling up our water at Lance Creek to begin the walk up the ridge to Blood Mountain we caught up with Bob.
When we last left him at Gooch Mountain Shelter he had been planning to stop at one of the shelters in between there and Blood Mountain, but now, "I'm thinking about pushing to Neel Gap and just having my wife meet me." This was a huge addition of mileage!
"Neel Gap! We'll push to Neel Gap with you!" J-Dub excitedly announced. It was set like a spell. We were all pushing up and over Blood Mountain to Neel Gap.
Blood Mountain, as the name may suggest, is no joke. At 4,458 feet it's the tallest mountain in the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. According to the Georgia Historical Commission it's name comes from a battle fought between the Cherokee and Creek in the gap (pleasantly called "Slaughter Gap") at the mountain's base. The height and history compounded with the fact that this was a Summer afternoon in the south with a storm brewing meant that of course this would be an epic hike.
We stopped for water at Slaughter Creek, which runs down into Slaughter Gap, and waited a bit for Bob to catch up with us so we could make the summit as a bit more of a crew. While we waited we met Tom, another older man who was out hiking some of the side trails breaking off from the AT through the Chattahoochee National Forest. We talked with him a bit and he pointed out Whitley Gap Shelter to us on J-Dubs map in the upcoming Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area. It's 1.2 off trail, but (according to Tom) is well worth it.
As Bob caught up Tom teased us about the summit a bit, "Well, are you guys gonna do it?"
Indeed we were.
As we summited, clouds which had been forming all day began clustering around the peak of Blood Mountain, packing together with the low roars of a storm. At over four-thousand feet we were summiting into a thunderhead. Now, reader, while we were technically in tree line, I certainly wouldn't recommend trying this at home... though I will also say it an awesome experience in the true sense of the word: awe-inspiring.
J-Dub likened it to being caught in an old cannon battle. The cloud thickened up the trail so that it was difficult to see very far ahead in the mist and gray. There was a kind of personal quiet filled with our own heavy breathing and beyond that a constant, rumbling din with loud, close blasts breaking the air every now again. The adrenaline of the moment led us quickly up the slick rock to Blood Mountain Shelter, a fully enclosed stone structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937.
Bob arrived shortly after us and the three of us waited out the brunt of the storm and rain inside the shelter. As we chatted, we learned that Bob was a farmer and had been all his life which explained quite a bit about his prowess on the trail. So much of this distance hiking is mental and the work ethic and focus of a farmer definitely gave him an edge. We had no doubt he'd make it to Fontana and neither did he.
Once the storm passed we began the slow, slick descent off Blood Mountain and were rewarded with spectacular views on the exposed rock faces. While the storm had cleared off the peak, it had splintered into smaller storms, getting trapped as gray-white clumps in the dark, summer green valleys below us.
We hiked down into one of those trapped storms, but by the time we reached Neel Gap all that remained was the mist.
The building at Neel Gap itself, the Walasi-yi Interpretive Center, is another old, stone structure built in 1937 by the CCC. It's been the home of Mountain Crossings since the 1980s, an outfitters that has been a pivotal part of the AT community and a famous shakedown site for northbound thru-hikers. A shakedown being an assessment of all the gears and niceties one brings to determine what's really needs and what's simply extra weight.
In the misty evening we were greeted by the sound of wind chimes gently ringing, a magical, ethereal end to a dramatic summit. We caught a glimpse down the valley from the view at the picnic area before the clouds really closed in.
Bob came in shortly after us and since the spigot out front didn't have any running water he and his wife ran to their AirBnB and filled up our bottles for us. It was an incredibly kind gesture! On any big trail, hikers form "bubbles" of all different sizes. It refers to the hikers that are in your immediate area, a shelter away, a day away, etc. J-Dub and I were glad to have Bob in our little bubble.
As we ate dinner at the picnic area with the space to ourselves and the chimes still gently ringing, we realized the spigot and outlet Billy had mentioned were, in fact, in that picnic area. A good sign since we had kind of been banking on his intel for our campsite as well. By the time we finished eating we were all clouded in. Slowly, we found the trail and picked our way ahead to find the campsite Billy had mentioned, making quick work of our set-up for some much deserved sleep.