BMT-AT Loop: Welcome Home, Springer to Davenport Gap
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.
Low Gap Shelter: Mile 42.6
Waking up early we headed back to the picnic area to make breakfast, waiting for Mountain Crossings to open at 9:00.
J-Dub had left briefly take a visit to the porta-potties they had set up while the bathrooms weren't open, leaving me admiring the morning view. As I had my coffee water boiling Bill, "just Bill," an older man with a peaceful, soft-spoken manner who managed the store came up and introduced himself after taking his morning walk into the Raven Cliff Wilderness which bordered the shop and hostel.
"Welcome home," he told after a long pause in our conversation when we were both entranced by the view. Then, "I'm going to be starting coffee soon, you can come on in and get some when you're ready."
This set the tone for what would be an incredible experience. This wasn't just a hiker friendly place, it was a place steeped in hiking culture and, specifically, Appalachian Trail culture. There were historical markers documenting and time-lining out the conception and construction of the trail, packs, boots, and photos were hanging in celebration from hikers both legendary and infamous to folks who simply came through, and Bill and Jake, a younger employee we met soon after in the morning, opened up the shop to us as a kind of home, making sure we had everything we needed.
The hostel section of outfitters was still closed because of COVID-19, but the shower rooms and laundry rooms were open so we got two showers (with towels) and a load of laundry done all for $24. Bob came in the late morning and pushed along after taking a look at the view point and getting a photo there of him and his wife courtesy of J-Dub.
Along with a quick clean-up, we resupplied some snacks, posted Sprint to Springer our final BMT section blog and ate pizzas. For $7 we bought and baked frozen pizzas, Bill brought them out to us on their card boxes and we devoured them. There are few culinary experiences fun or satisfying as having your hiker hunger going and facing an entire Tony's pizza as you look out over a vista.
Finally, it was time for us to make some miles. "You guys are still here?" Bill poked as we were packing up in the picnic area. There was a lot of jovial, competitive, old-AT energy around us in Georgia and honestly, it was really refreshing after having to muscle through much of the BMT without other hikers around.
As we headed into the Raven Cliff Wilderness and chatted a bit J-Dub told me that Bill had told him, "Welcome home," when they had a moment to talk one-on-one.
"Yeah! He told me that too!" I excitedly added, as if we had both received some secret communique.
I was so excited because there was a hominess to the AT. The BMT took us through a lot of other outdoors and adventure sports and folks were really respectful and interested in our hike, especially when we were hiking trails they knew from hunting or fording streams where they'd fish. But there wasn't as robust a hiking community or culture (yet) like there is on the Appalachian Trail, and being a part of that again was refreshing and a definite morale boost to complete the loop.
I had high hopes for the Raven Cliff Wilderness, mainly because I thought the name was cool. The portion the AT goes through was a pleasant ridge walk. Nothing too dramatic though. The Raven Cliff Wilderness was also, admittedly, a bit overgrown in parts and would mark the start of some brushy, wilderness areas on the AT. The difference being that the trail itself was so trodden down that it remained easy to find and follow and the brush itself might creep and lean over, but the soil was so compacted by foot traffic that the plants couldn't get a hold into the trail itself and so the stretches of brush were never too, too long.
We passed Bob who was planning to just go until he found a spot to camp. We weren't really sure where we were going either, but eventually decided to settle into Low Gap shelter and tent at one of the plentiful campsites in the area. The shelter itself was a short walk down from our front site, but the water was a nice piped source steps from the shelter itself. There was also an old set of bear cables... but more on that tomorrow
Tray Mountain Shelter: Mile 58.0
A critter got my food bag! I suspect a squirrel. Rough way to start the day. I heard an owl give a combative screech in the night, mainly because a drunk camper in another site made it difficult to sleep, and wonder if I had some avian assistance since the damage wasn't actually too bad, just a few tears and some lost trail mix.
We also didn't get great sleep because of the aforementioned drunk guy so we had a slow, groggy start out of camp. The popularity of the AT compared to other trails, especially wilderness trails like the BMT, means that all kinds of people come out for all different reasons. In the case of our camp buddy, I had bumped into him down by the water where he just started spilling his guts to me about his recent divorce. The trail is here for all kinds of journeys and short of someone being purposefully destructive or harmful, I try to remain empathic... but I also like sleep.
Pretty early day in the day we crossed paths with Bob. He camped a little ways ahead at a nice tent spot with a small stream just down trail. J-Dub and I had been mulling over a trail name for him, but hadn't landed on one yet. He had suggested Tortoise, which was fitting since we had a pretty Tortoise and Hare experience with us kind of goofing around or taking long breaks and him getting just a bit ahead. But Tortoise sounded a bit to serious to us. Back at Neel Gap his wife suggested "poles" since he was hiking with an old pair of ski poles rather than a more traditional wooden staff or contemporary trekking poles. But honestly, ski poles aren't too different from trekking poles, so we liked the name, but wanted to find something a bit more specific to his hike.
He had been hiking with a squeeze filter attached two-liter soda bottle, rather than a manufacturer bag or a trendy smart water bottle. And the two liter was always a noticeable attachment to his pack since it had to be tied on. In this conversation we played around with the idea of "Two-Liter" as a name, but didn't commit, just yet.
On we went toward Unicoi Gap, but first we had to go up and over Blue Mountain. Blue Mountain Shelter itself was a pretty nice spot with a short spur trail to a view and plenty of nice tenting spots. We only stopped for a snack, but would recommend it as a stay. We had gotten water just before it, so can't speak to the source, but I'm sure it's good like most AT shelters.
Down at Unicoi Gap we decided to hitch into Helen, Georgia. I was curious to see it since J-Dub had described it as a German town. I was intrigued and also excited to eat pretzels, brauts, and the full range of German desserts.
It took us a bit to catch a ride, but eventually a driver in an old Prius pointed to double-check we were going his way. After we gave him a big thumbs up he pulled into the parking lot. "Y'all don't mind riding in a Prius do you?" he asked rolling down the window and it was difficult to tell if he was being serious or sarcastic, but with a laugh I said no as J-Dub was gathering up his pack.
We filled up his car and he backed out of the busy mountain pull-off as if it was his own suburban driveway. As we cruised down the curved mountain road, we came to learn that he worked security at a bar in Helen, "It used to be a drinking town, but shifted direction and brought in a lot more attractions, so it's more of a family town now."
He was also a volunteer first-responder for the area's search and rescue, regaling us with some stories and warnings, especially about boar. We were heading back into Boarland, just a few miles East, though it seemed they were just as big a problem here. "Boar'll rake you," he warned, "they're more dangerous than bear, they'll get you down and just rake their tusks back and forth over you." A pretty cheery warning, learning once again that the only thing to do is climb as high as you can if one sees you and charges.
As we drove, he had to pull over to respond to an emergency alert. For a moment, J-Dub and I weren't sure if we were about to get recruited for a carry out since it was for a hiker who had taken a fall and received some head trauma. Apparently the alerts the responders get also include the health of the individual or if companions report a cough or temperature.
"I can't respond to any of the Covid stuff," he told me, turning to meet my gaze in the passenger seat with a new kind of gravitas. While it was clear he had something serious to get off his chest a part of me wished he was looking at the road as it bent and curved around drops, "I have two young grandchildren my wife and I are raising and I can't risk bringing anything back. They're my whole world." I noticed that whenever I told folks that J-Dub and I are brothers, a kind of openness grows in them and soon the conversation shifts from food recommendations to vulnerable reflections on family.
"I just think it's cool as hell you two do this every year." He said as a final comment on family as the little, teal Prius made it's way down the main strip of Helen. He dropped us off at the bar where his shift was starting, a massive space right in the center of town.
I hadn't totally understood what I was getting into. When J-Dub described Helen as a German town, I thought he meant German inspired. In the way that neighborhoods in New York have their own distinct character and immigrant backgrounds, but are still distinctly a normal city. This was like walking into a Disney village. Carriages hitched with Clydesdales pranced down the main street as tourists gazed off the porches and balconies of restaurants with either Alpine or Tudor inspired exteriors.
The restaurant we were recommended and had initially wanted to go eat at was closed, so we settled for another recommendation given us by our Prius driving friend. Our appetite satiated by pretzels and brauts (beyond braut for J-Dub) we took a quick tour, then resupplied. The real show stopper of this pitstop though were the baked goods we got at Hofer's Bakery and Cafe.
Now we were tasked with the challenge of getting out of the town. Like most of our trip, Helen had it's own vibrant tubing scene with the Chattahoochee River running right through it. All along the BMT I had thought that our best chance catching a ride would be from a tubing bus making it's return trip. I'm happy to say that on our way out of Helen, I was able to manifest exactly that. While we could only catch it back to one of the put-in's up river, it still took out a few miles and was definitely one of the coolest hitches I've managed. The driver knew about the BMT too. He'd hiked 100 miles of it before having to get off because one of his hiking party got injured. A bit of BMT magic along the AT.
We still had about 9 miles of road left between us and the road head. It was hot and looking pretty bleak as we trudged along the shoulder, but after awhile a big white truck pulled over with a Georgia Appalachian Trail Club sticker on it, a sight for sore eyes, for sure. We hopped in the bed of the truck and off we went. The road narrowed quite a bit and the curves we went down in the Prius looked much tighter from the bed of the truck, so I was thankful we didn't have to be out walking on them.
"What the hell were you guys thinking? You going to walk the road?" The driver said in greeting as he got out and walked to open the bed.
"Uhh, yeah, I guess," J-Dub said, as the driver, an older man, laughed and shook his head. He introduced himself with his trail name Coop, a two-time AT thru-hiker who prided himself on being a, "Professional Hitchhiker" and told us a few stories about his hitches back in the day as we organized our packs.
We began our ascent up to Tray Mountain shelter which, after our break in town, wasn't so bad. It also rained in the mountains while we were down eating German food, so we had fortunately missed getting wet, but benefited from the cool down. We rolled into the shelter a bit later than usual, but still before sunset. Bob was nowhere to be found, meaning he had pressed on just a little bit further in true tortoise, or should I say Two-Liter, fashion. We had brought up some town food including an apple strudel from the bakery so we set up camp at an inspired speed in one of the plentiful tent sites in the area. Then I made the trek down to the spring box for water and finally we settled in and enjoyed our feast.
Bly Gap: Mile 78
Twenty mile push to Bly Gap and into North Carolina today. The border felt too close not to get too, plus sometimes it's fun doing hard things! There were some steep ups right in the morning, including Kelly Knob, which we were later told is the 7th highest mountain in Georgia.
We passed by Bob and conferred on him the name Two-Liter, he took the name with a laugh, "I thought you guys might have been thinking that," he said in reference to our last conversation. We told him we were pushing to Bly Gap today and he had plans to meet up with his wife at a road crossing a bit before that, so we said our goodbyes thinking this would be our last time crossing paths.
The rest of the day passed by pretty smoothly. We made our way down Dicks Creek Gap and took a little lunch break at the picnic area there. Then began the ridged ups and downs that led to the border. J-Dub got a rough bee sting on the Achilles along the way, the same spot he got back in the Smokies, but the trek was otherwise difficult and uneventful. We pulled into Bly Gap's camping area as a storm did too and we rushed to set up before the rain.
It was a beautiful spot with a great water source we shared with only one other camper. The storm was having a hard time breaking over the ridge so looking back south, one half of the ridge was covered in thick gray, while the other was just pock-marked with a few clouds but remained mainly blue. There was also a gnarled tree covered in mist from the storm. A welcome entry into North Carolina.
Betty Creek Gap: Mile 97
Wet start out of Bly Gap. The storm that had been dramatically cut along the ridge finally composed itself and came on over, bringing a good amount of wind and rain with it throughout the night.
We had Standing Indian as our first big climb of the day and stopped to breakfast, water-up, and prep for it at Muskrat Creek Shelter. The storm last night also got us brainstorming about Tropical Storm Fred which had been brewing for a few days now. We first heard about it from a mason doing some repairs to the stone steps at Neel Gap, he warned us that the projection had the storm coming right up the mountains. Since getting that news we had been keeping an eye and checking updates whenever we had service. As of the most recent projection we had about a day or two before it'd hit, so we decided to get as close to Franklin, NC as we could and get off there.
But first, Standing Indian. The climb turned out to be, not too bad for us honestly. Roughly 400 miles in now, our trail legs were going strong and made quick work of the switchbacked ascent. The ridge was way overgrown, probably our thickest brush stretch on the AT. Covered in Sassafras it was also covered in bees and pollinators collecting some late summer fuel. The bugs were mainly bumble bees who, true to name, just sort of bumbled around frustrated and flustered after we brushed by. Though with J-Dub's sting still fresh, we were a bit wary.
We planned to stop at Carter Gap Shelter to assess the weather if there was service and make a more concrete plan. We didn't know if we wanted to get up Albert Mountain this afternoon, especially with the constant threat of afternoon thunderstorms.
At the shelter we met a hiker from Florida out for a section hike, but a bit discouraged after having his friends bail and getting stuck out in the rain and storms. He was planning to zero at the shelter, then cut down some forest service roads to connect to country roads and get out at a gas station. It was admittedly a pretty savvy plan, and J-Dub and I tried to motivate him to push with us after we chatted and snacked because if he had the navigational skills to organize that out, there was no reason he couldn't push on besides the mental block of feeling down. Ultimately, we couldn't get him up and moving, so we pressed on and wished him luck with his exit.
As we made our way towards Albert we continued weighing our options about Tropical Storm Fred. When friends ask me about the hardest parts of hikes like these, I tell them it's mental and I really mean it. Whether it's the mental break of pushing through the first 2 weeks of being just generally wet and dirty, working to stay positive and moving when things aren't going your way (as they're bound not to at some point in the hike), or dealing with the weight of big decisions like how, where, and if you should get off for a storm or not.
Ultimately, we had to go into Franklin in order to pick-up the maildrop we bounced from Blue Ridge, so that was already set. We decided tomorrow we'd go in for the night and keep abreast of the news to make our decision about taking a zero for Fred.
That night we stopped at the campsites at Betty Creek Gap and stayed in a lovely, rhododendron shrouded campsite. We were beginning to tire and with some rumbles in the air we thought it safer to tackle Albert in the morning. We had already hiked through one thunderhead, didn't feel the need to push our luck at the 5,520ft peak of Albert Mountain.