We’ve slept under a tarp during pouring rain with bears strutting around our camp like they own the place. We’ve also woken up on a crisp, clear November morning with clear views of a million shades of autumn leaves while cooking bacon on a smooth granite rock.
So – 3rd time overnight – and the plan is that we’re going to have a gloriously typical hike. Or at least the typical hike that happens when you’re old hat at the mountain hiking deal. The problem (or, the wonder) of the Appalachian Trail is that that never seems to actually happen.
What did end up happening was that we got to start at the actual Start of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia – and hike to Coopers Gap Rd…in a veritable downpour that only let up for a couple hours during the entire hike – which is a bit telling since this portion of trail sees the most people attempt to thru-hike each year…only to quit after just a few miles.
Here’s the run down of hiking on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain to Coopers Gap Rd (near the Gooch Mountain Shelter).
The map of this leg from Springer Mountain to the first intersection with Coopers Gap Rd.
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The Start – Springer Mountain
For those who don’t know, the Appalachian Trail actually begins/ends out in the middle of nowhere. No, seriously, Springer Mountain – the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail – is 8+ miles from any sort of civilization.
The traditional way to access the Appalachian Trail is via an 8 mile hike from Amicalola State Park. This is the path that most purists take. Even though the Appalachian Trail doesn’t start until Springer, there are plenty of people who say that you haven’t hiked the whole trail until you’ve hiked the Access Trail.
Whatever. We didn’t do that. Instead, thanks to the US Forest Service’s impulse to build random roads, there is now a road which will get you 1 mile short of Springer Mountain. We did do that.
This road is findable via Google Maps, but otherwise not well-marked or well-paved.
Be warned that the road to Springer Mountain is gravel/mud. It has trees falling on it frequently. It has no road signs. It has no landmarks other than trees. The mileage markers aren’t correct. There is no 4G – and barely any 3G access. Oh – and there are no gas stations of course…and not that many people to ask directions from either.
So if you decide to drive to Springer – be sure to overestimate your time to get there – and pay attention to how you got in, so you can get out without ending up in Ellijay, Georgia.
We get dropped off in the drizzling rain, and proceeded to hike the 1 mile up to the summit of Springer Mountain (which is part of the AT, so if you drive there, you do cover the same mile twice).
The hike up Springer Mountain is not super strenuous – especially compared to other mountains further up the trail. And if you are thru-hiking southbound – summiting Springer Mountain would be nowhere near as climactic as summiting Mt. Katahdin (which is the Northern Terminus…and also out in the middle of nowhere).
Even though the views don’t match other mountains – Springer Mountain is still the start/end of the Trail, and is worth the hike just to see the plaques & trail book (and to just say that you’ve been to Springer Mountain).
And when you visit – don’t forget to check the log book which is hidden in a steel box under the rock with the official terminus plaque. There is no real rule about who can sign it and who can’t.
We debated over signing it since we were just section hikers – but decided to sign it nonetheless (which was a good decision b/c it turned out a thru-hiking friend of mine spotted us in the book – you never know who’s going to be reading it).
Descending Springer Mountain and the first 4 miles or so to Stover Creek Shelter are really delightful. Deceptively delightful actually. It’s flat, along a series of creeks on an open footpath. If the AT continued on for 2000 miles like the first 4 miles – a lot more people would complete it.
After crossing Stover Creek – the Appalachian Trail doubles up with the Benton MacKaye trail for a few miles. Along this stretch there are a series of waterfalls. With the best waterfall appearing at the 5.2 mile mark from Springer Mountain. It’s down a side trail that you simply *must* hike down.
The waterfall is Long Creek Falls and the pictures and video below don’t quite do it justice. It’s no Niagara – but the setting is perfect. It has a small pool below it so you can carefully wade in. Definitely worth the hike.
After Long Creek Falls, you start ascending Hawk Mountain. It’s a bit of a hike, but nothing like the mountains further up the trail.
And! Spoiler alert – it doesn’t offer any real outcrops for views either. It does go through a ghost town, which is quite creepy. You even go past an old farm field with soybeans (I have no idea why they are there no though).
You then walk around the top of Hawk Mountain before descending to the other side where there is a shelter to stop at before conquering the next few ups and downs to Hightower and Coopers Gaps.
An Aside on Rain
Let’s talk about rain on the Appalachian Trail for a moment. If you’ve hiked in the rain before – you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never done it before – you really have no idea.
Hiking in the rain is miserable. Really, really miserable.
I mean you’ll hear people who say they enjoy it. And I do too…in a certain way. I (and they) enjoy hiking in the rain in that it’s peaceful, contemplative, cooling – and nice in the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it, so you make the best of it sort of way.
But really it’s just not fun. Let’s talk about the reasons.
It’s muddy. And not only is it muddy, but you have to walk in the mud, lest there be snakes cooling off on the edge of the trail.
Everything gets wet. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Yes, even if you have a rain cover. Even if you have Ziploc bags. Even if you pack your stuff just right. Because here’s the thing – as soon as you take something out of your pack…it gets wet. There is no way to completely keep your pack dry. And even if you do – the whole humidity deal works it’s magic on everything else.
Plus – nothing really dries out because you are under the canopy and thus, not exposed to direct sunlight for miles at a time.
When it rains, you can’t start a fire. And not just because it’s raining, but because all your potential firewood is wet for days on end.
I could go on…but then I’d be a wet blanket (you have those too).
I bring this aside up because the key to enjoying the Appalachian Trail and backpacking in general is managing expectations and making preparations.
If you are wanting an idyllic overnight hike – let the rain scare you off.
If you are planning a hike that’s going to happen no matter what – be sure to prepare and expect the above. You’ll then have a wonderful time. As Wally in Scott Adams’ Dilbert strip says – the key to success is low expectations. Rain on the AT is not fun, but that’s cool.
Hawk Mountain to Coopers Gap
We ended up camping near the Hawk Mountain Shelter. We couldn’t use the actual shelter since it was filled by a troupe of Boy Scouts.
So we found a flat-ish spot on the side of the Trail and set up camp. It was raining so we stuck with heating a few key things on the burner and put down for the night.
It poured all night long. Thankfully our cheap-feeling Kelty 4 person tent held up just fine except for that it got quite stuffy when we didn’t align the air vents quite right.
Side note – when it rains in the forest, it is loud. It’s peaceful…but loud. Also, the canopy causes rain to come in waves. I’m not sure how to describe it, but anyone who has overnighted in the rain knows what I’m talking about.
When we got up, there was no fire for bacon – but it turns out that even bacon and coffee on the burner outdoors can be quite amazing as well.
From Hawk Mountain onwards there are a series of nice flat walks (seen in video) followed by absurdly steep ups and downs. It’s really quite Sisyphisian.
There are a few outcrops with views to make up for it here and there.
The Trail heads downhill to Coopers Gap, which is a convergence of 3 unpaved roads – Gladdistown Road, Coopers Gap Road, and the Appalachian Blue Ridge Parkway.
If you are accessing this section of Trail via car note that the roads are *very* confusing here. It turns out that the Appalachian Trail crosses Coopers Gap Road twice, so be careful with your planning.
The road paths are pretty accurate on Google Maps – but the road names aren’t always exactly right, and are different from what the locals call them. Either way, the AT continues on very well-marked to Gooch Gap, and the main intersection at Woody Gap with State Route 60 in Suches, GA a few more miles up.
- Over-prepare for rain (extra socks, rain covers, etc are worth the weight)
- Plan drives into the Chattahoochee National Forest better
- Burners are worth their weight and bother at the end of the day (especially on rainy days)
- Granite is super-slick in the rain
- When planning a trip – a mile on the Appalachian Trail is very different section to section (ie, underestimate your mileage)
- Coffee in baggies is easier than ground coffee…and tastes only marginally worse – which is worth the convenience on the Trail
- Never bank on a Shelter being available…especially on a holiday weekend