Georgia’s Gateway to the Appalachian Trail
By Hope S. Philbrick
“Bring lots of water!” That advice was readily doled out by anyone who knew my husband and I were planning to hike to the top of Springer Mountain. And so into each of our backpacks I packed two large water bottles plus an empty bottle to fill at the Len Foote Hike Inn before hitting the trail. Since this was to be my second visit to the Hike Inn, I already knew that the place has some very tasty lemonade. My thought was that it would be a nice little treat at the summit.
On the morning of our adventure when we were less than a quarter mile from the Hike Inn, Dean says, “Your backpack is leaking.” A quick investigation revealed that the lemonade bottle had somehow managed to twist itself open, spilling all its contents. My first thought: Thank goodness I had already removed my camera. My second thought: Not suitable for print. And then: Well, at least we could share the bottle of lemonade in Dean’s backpack once we reached our goal.
A couple of miles later, I noticed that Dean’s backpack was leaking. Of course it was his bottle of lemonade! (And these bottles were made by different manufacturers, so there’s no clear entity to blame.)
Lessons learned: (1) It is possible to hike up to Springer Mountain and back to the Hike Inn, an 8.8-mile trek round-trip, with approximately 32-ounces of water per person without feeling parched, at least if you’re hiking in 18-degree weather. And (2) Lemonade makes everything sticky, so don’t risk it in untested containers. (And, later, (3) Backpacks can be washed in the machine on gentle cycle in cold water and come out just fine.)
Springer Mountain is the southern end of the famous 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. We had chosen this point as our hiking destination in part to honor someone who was not able to make the trip and also because we live so close to the famed trail it seemed a shame not to at least take a peek at what all the fuss is about.
Spending several hours outdoors hiking offers an opportunity to relish in the simple joys of chirping birds, bubbling brooks and fresh air. While immersed in nature you’ll also likely find yourself pondering things that may not otherwise often cross your mind. For example, what are the distinguishing characteristics between granite and quartz? Why do some water bottles leak but not others? How do spindly ice crystals form beneath the top soil? (OK, so that last one may escape your notice unless you happen to hike during 18-degree temperatures in February as we did.) Why are my legs feeling heavier by the minute?
There are a number of different routes to reach the top of Springer Mountain—thus the official Appalachian Trail starts at the top of the mountain. (And, yes, you may find yourself wondering why the hike up there doesn’t “count.”) But for a weekend getaway for infrequent hikers, two options make the most sense, both of which start in Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia.
- Option 1: Hike the challenging 8.5-mile trail from the park to Springer Mountain. At the summit, you can either (a) snap a few photos by the commemorative plaques and then hike back down for an ambitious 17-mile round trip, (b) camp overnight at the summit and hike back to the park the next day (in which case, you’ll need to haul your camping gear with you), or (c) after reaching the summit hike 4.4 miles to the Len Foote Hike Inn, then hike the final five miles back to the park the next day (in this case, your total hike on the summit climb day is 12.9 miles and you need only carry overnight essentials rather than camping gear).
- Option 2*: Hike the five-mile trail to the Len Foote Hike Inn, spend the night, then hike the 4.4-mile trail to the top of Springer Mountain and either camp at the top or head back that same day. (It’s a long day and we’re not athletes yet managed to complete the 8.8-mile hike in one day.) Spend a second night at the Hike Inn, then hike the final five miles back to the park the next day. *This is the easier option and the one we chose.
Even if you don’t attempt to reach the Appalachian Trail, there are plenty of reasons to visit Amicalola Falls State Park, which is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks. Tumbling down rocks nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls, the eponymous 729-foot waterfall is the Southeast’s tallest cascading waterfall. View the spectacle from a flat, 1,250-foot path made of recycled tires—an easy stroll that’s also wheelchair accessible—or join the Canyon Climbers Club and climb steep staircases from the base to the top of the falls. Either way, bring a camera.
Twelve miles of trails weave through the park’s 829 acres, providing varied hiking routes. Other activity options include biking, geocaching (a treasure hunting game where you use a GPS to hide and seek containers with other participants in the activity), picnicking, participating in workshops, and trout fishing (in season).
With so much to see and do, staying at the park for a night or more makes perfect sense. Rustic lodging options include 20 campsites and 14 cottages. For standard hotel comforts, book a stay at The Lodge & Conference Center, which offers breathtaking mountain-top views. Operated by Coral Hospitality, the 56-room facility is also home to the Maple Restaurant, which offers the unparalleled convenience of all-American buffet meals at reasonable prices. (@21plusTravel Tip: Request a table by the windows.)
For an authentic taste of hiking the Appalachian Trail—without having to haul gear or climb too strenuously—head to the Len Foote Hike Inn. The only way to reach Georgia’s only backcountry inn is by hiking. The shortest route is a five-mile trail through Amicalola Falls State Park and the Chattahoochee National Forest. The hike, which is rated “moderate,” weaves through trees and over creeks and takes an average of three hours to complete, but can take longer if you grow enamored with the native plants, wild flowers and colorful mushrooms growing along the stony path. Be sure to arrive by five o’clock for the facilities tour. The Hike Inn has achieved gold level certification in Leadership for Energy Efficient Design (LEED). Conservation programs include solar panels, odor-free composting toilets, and a “clean plate” policy to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills. Four worm beds help recycle almost all of the Inn’s organic waste including office paper and kitchen scraps. The Inn offers a bathhouse with hot showers, dining room for breakfasts and dinners that are served family-style, a game room and guest rooms outfitted with bunk beds.
“Some people think that our inn is just for hard-core hikers, but that’s not the case,” said Hike Inn Executive Director Eric Graves. “We’ve had visitors as young as three and as old as 84. The trail isn’t particularly difficult, and visitors can take their time hiking.”
Dean and I needed every minute of the approximately seven hours it took us to complete the 8.8-mile loop from the Hike Inn to Springer Mountain. But we did it, and we felt a keen sense of accomplishment as we joined other hikers at the dinner table upon our return to the Hike Inn.
That feeling of pride in our achievement was even easier to sit with after we washed off the lemonade.
Advanced reservations are strongly recommended for overnight accommodations.
Odds of Encountering Children: Inevitable, but hundreds of acres make it easy to find your own slice of privacy.
–Photos © HSP Media LLC
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