Face it: Some of us are not getting any younger. Maybe that’s why, when we think of hiking, we so often think of trails that aren’t too long or too steep or too taxing.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
“You bet there’s nothing wrong with that,” my knees usually tell me. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all!”
But sometimes, even my knees get tired of taking the easy way. Sometimes they stir, perhaps nudged by the notion that there’s a whole lot more world to see than just the part that’s accessed by level trails.
That’s when they whisper:
“Hey! Think you might be able to find something a little .. more … challenging for us to do?”
Well, OK. Because it’s soon to be spring, and spring means hiking time, and because the knees have asked, here are a couple of hikes to add to your get-outside bucket list. I guarantee they’ll challenge you and the knees too — but in a good way that keeps you coming back for more.
Blood Mountain Loop
Type of hike: Approach/loop/exit
Length: A bit more than 6 miles total
With an elevation of 4,459 feet, Blood Mountain boasts the highest summit on the Georgia portion of the Appalachian Trail. You can get there by foot, too, thanks to the Blood Mountain Loop.
There are many ways to hike to the Blood Mountain summit, but one of the most popular is the one described here. It’s a classic approach-then-loop-then-exit sort of hiking experience, and it offers everything from shady forest to rocky outcrops and spectacular views. It’s a hike I think you’ll enjoy. And it has more than enough steep and challenging trail to capture the attention of even the most jaded knees.
This hike starts at the trailhead at Neels Gap, northeast of Dahlonega on U.S. 19. From the trailhead, follow the Byron Herbert Reece Trail to the point where that trail dead-ends into the Appalachian Trail at Flatrock Gap (about 0.7 miles). There, turn right and continue on the Appalachian Trail, heading west, for about a mile-and-a-half (and just over 1,000 feet vertically) until you reach the Blood Mountain summit.
Even the most rudimentary geometry skills will confirm that it’s a pretty good ascent.
At the summit, you can call it a day and backtrack to return to your car. However, to continue on the loop route, remain on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll pass several intersections with other trails before coming to the Freeman Trail intersection (at about the 3.5 mile point). When you do, turn left on the Freeman Trail.
The Freeman Trail carries you east, following the southern flank of Blood Mountain. Eventually, about 5.3 miles into the hike, it intersects the Appalachian Trail and Byron Reece Trail. At that point, turn right and stay on the Byron Reece Trail to backtrack and return to where you started.
When hiking in the mountains, be aware that your pace may be a bit slower than you’d expect. That means that you may need more time to hike any given distance. Factor that into your planning to be sure that you have enough time to complete your hike safely and get back to your starting point before dark.
As you hike, be aware that there are several intersecting trails along this route. Make sure that you stay on the correct trail.
Conasauga River Trail
Type of hike: In-and-out, starting at the trailhead at Betty Gap
Length: Up to you
The Blood Mountain Loop, as you might expect, is mostly up in the mountains. For a totally different experience, how about a trail that goes down along a river instead?
If that sounds appealing, consider the Conasauga River Trail, a footpath that takes you along one of the most spectacularly scenic mountain rivers you’ll ever see.
And it’s true. From one perspective, this is just a nice trail along a scenic river. But then you realize something significant: as it continues along, this trail likes to cross the river.
That’s where it really starts to get interesting.
Sure enough, on the Conasauga River Trail, fords are frequent and unavoidable. For example, there are 18 of ‘em between the trailhead at Betty Gap and the popular camping area at an old homesite known as Bray Field. Beyond that point, there are 20 more fords to deal with before you get to the far end of the trail.
Will you get wet? You bet you will — every time you make one of those fords.
About the fords: They’re typically marked by blazes on both sides of the river, but the blazes can be tricky to spot and may be downstream of where you’d think. Look carefully before plunging in.
In any case, just remember that you’re crossing a river and at the bottom are wet, slippery rocks. You may fall. You may get soaked.
During the summer, flows probably won’t be too high and, barring recent rain, most of the fords will be fairly straightforward. But in the winter and spring — or at any time of year if the rains come — the river crossings on this trail can present you with fast, cold, thigh-deep or more waters. Trying to cross under such conditions can be dangerous. Don’t take chances!
That also applies if the river is low, but rain is in the forecast, because the river can rise quickly with even a modest amount of precipitation. Sudden water, created by a rain event somewhere upstream, can make the Conasauga uncrossable and might leave you stranded in the wilderness on the wrong side of a raging maelstrom. That’s nothing to fool with. If conditions aren’t good, or if you think there’s even a chance that they might become bad, save this hike for another day and find a different trail instead.
But let’s assume that conditions are good. What’s the best way to explore this trail? Experienced hikers sometimes hike its entire length, perhaps camping overnight at Bray Field. There are trailheads at the trail’s northwest end (off FS-17B) and at its southeast end (at Betty Gap on FS-64).
However, many first-timers prefer to start at the Betty Gap trailhead. From there, you can hike downstream (it’s steep-going for the first quarter-mile or so, but then becomes surprisingly level) and continue as far as you want to go.
In that case, how long will your hike be? Think of it in terms of river fords. Two fords? Six fords? Ten fords or more? That’s up to you. It’s an in-and-out hike, after all, and you can turn around and call it a day anytime you wish.
When hiking such a trail, it’s important to gear-up accordingly. You’ll want footwear that works for you when wet, and as it’s not uncommon to stumble while fording and end up in the water, you’ll also want to have a change of clothes waiting for you in the car.
When crossing the river, note that the trail may not necessarily go straight across the river. Blazes, if you can spot them, will help you locate the far side of the trail. Bear in mind that it may be downstream a bit.
Avoid the temptation to cross in deep or fast water. Experienced river-forders prefer gravelly shallows. Deeper and/or faster water exerts a surprising amount of force, and a crystal-clear flow like the Conasauga can be much harder to handle than you’d think from simply looking at it.
And that brings us to the matter of a hiking staff, which can really be your best friend on a trail like this one. The extra stability that your staff provides is a great confidence booster when you’re crossing any stream. I highly recommend that you acquire and use a good one.
Finally, remember that the return portion of your hike will take at least as long as the in-bound leg did. In fact, it’ll probably take longer, because by that point you may be a little tired. Leave yourself plenty of time, so you don’t get caught on the trail after dark. Crossing rivers gets a little creepy once the sun goes down. Don’t ask me how I know.
Later on, once you become familiar with this trail, you may want to carry your gear and try that overnighter. That can be a lot of fun if you know what you’re doing. At first, though, an in-and-out hike is a great way to get your feet wet on the Conasauga Trail — in more ways than one!
Before setting out on hikes like these, it’s always a good idea to pick up a good map and study it to understand where you’re going and how you’re getting there. A satellite-based GPS unit can help you, too, by tracking your progress as you go. In any case, always let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. And hike with a buddy too. It’s safer and more fun.
Learn about the hiking trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Steve Hudson’s book Hiking the Hooch. It’s available from local outfitters, from the park headquarters at Island Ford, and on Amazon. Signed copies are available direct from the author at www.chattahoocheemedia.com.